Dave Kelly of Jarrettsville spots him first: a whitetail deer threading its way through the woods, oblivious to the three bowhunters standing 20 yards away.
Bambi at 3 o'clock. But wait -- the deer is not alone.
"Oh, man! Look what's following him," Kelly murmurs as a 20-point buck wanders into the scene.
Forget Bambi. This stag could be mascot for The Hartford.
The hunters lock onto the big buck and draw their bows. Thwack-thwack-thwack. Bull's eyes, all. The deer is a goner, but for one thing.
What the men "shot" was a nature film.
The hunters cheer, the deer disappear and a reminder flashes across the silver screen:
Please retrieve your arrows now.
Video archery, a new, lifelike bow-and-laser game, has caught the fancy of hundreds of Maryland outdoorsmen who would jilt Mother Nature for Windows 95.
For about $20 an hour, men and women can stalk celluloid deer, bear and other wild game in climate-controlled comfort at electronic shooting ranges that are popping up like gophers across the country. More than 340 of the sophisticated archery systems have gone on line since 1993, including three in the Baltimore metro area -- in Essex, Parkton and Street.
Western Maryland has two indoor ranges, one in Hagerstown and the other in McHenry, beside Deep Creek Lake.
"It's like a big video game" for adults, says Belinda Stahl, co-owner of a Hagerstown sporting goods store that touts one of the newfangled archery systems. "There's an arcade across the street for kids, while the dads come here to 'shoot.' "
Each range bears the same M.O.: a movie screen spans one end of a long, narrow corridor. The archer stands poised at the other end, 20 yards away. Lights dim. A nature film rolls, the computerized graphics akin to anything done by PBS.
Instantly, the hunter is plunged into the wild -- Alaska, perhaps, home to moose and bear. Or a Pennsylvania woodland, where wild turkeys abound. Or the dusty Serengeti, where lions and giraffes fill the 12-foot screen. But not for long. Each creature feature lasts 15 seconds, enough time to target one's quarry and fire.
The arrow's impact freezes all movement on screen. There is no blood, no video gore. "This is catch-and-return hunting," one game owner says. "You don't kill a darn thing."
Sportsmen use their own bows and arrows, which are fitted with reflectors and blunt tips. Infrared sensors "read" the archers' hits; computers grade them for accuracy, tabulate scores and admonish hunters who take unsafe shots. One video system even clocks the arrows' speed, much like radar guns in baseball.
Hunters play the game as a tuneup for deer season; it's batting practice for bowmen, they say. They like the realism of the videos, with actual nature footage and sound bites -- from babbling brooks to buzzing insects to bugling elk. In stereo yet.
Some archers seem to forget it's a game. His bow drawn, Richard Richmond whistles softly at the deer moving across his screen. "You do that in the woods to make them stop," says Richmond, of Bowley's Quarters.
Video archery is "the closest thing to hunting without being there," says Kelly, 41, the Jarrettsville man who bagged scores of simulated whitetail deer recently during an expedition to a heated archery barn on Route 1 in Harford County.
His sharpshooting earned Kelly kudos from his pals and a transcript of his scorecard. Period. No venison for the freezer, no rack for the mantle, no trophy for the den.
The upside? No deer ticks, chiggers or lost arrows.
"There's no taxidermy bill, either," Kelly says.
Other attractions for hunters: competitive video leagues and hefty cash prizes. One Maryland range doled out $4,000 in winnings last winter; another bestows $100 gift certificates on its Robin Hood-of-the-month.
Sportsmen say the game turns a singular sport into a social one. "What's next?" one hunting purist asks. "Bowling shirts for bowmen?"
Not everyone is sold on the video system, which costs as much as $40,000 to install. To some, it's a high-tech fad that may wear thin, especially in rural areas where outdoor shooting ranges are cheap and plentiful.
"The novelty wore off," says Shane Fitzgerald of Taneytown, who had the game in his archery shop in western Carroll County for almost two years. "It did real well, then died. Guys out here would just as soon shoot in their own back yards."
Marty Poole, of Armistead Gardens, cannot shoot in his back yard. Spare time finds the 28-year-old city resident chasing fantasy prey in a carpeted range on Eastern Boulevard in Essex. Here, beside a busy highway, Poole can shoot everything from rabbit to caribou.
Mostly, he hunts deer. Shooting video deer gives him greater poise in the woods, Poole says.
"Sometimes when you see a real deer, you get 'buck fever' and you start to shake," he says. Playing the game has helped steady his bow.
Novice archers are likely to test their mettle indoors before tackling the wild kingdom. Good thing. One would-be hunter left the Essex range in despair after taking six shots, all of which missed the giant screen. The last arrow ricocheted off a stepladder and shattered several fluorescent light tubes.
One longtime sportsman, Brad Monroe, goes inside to bag the deer he couldn't get outside.
"I've had some terrible luck bowhunting, and this [game] can only help it," says Monroe. A discouraging hunt in northern Harford County lands Monroe and his friends at a nearby hunting supply shop with a tantalizing sign that reads: Video Archery -- Deer Season Never Ends.
Thirty minutes of whacking these whitetails restores Monroe's confidence.
"I love this game," says Monroe, of Centreville, Va. "There are no bugs flying in your face, and you can't get Lyme Disease."
There's only one hitch, he says.
"I just wish you could pick up these deer and take them home."
Finding the range
Video archery ranges in Maryland:
Outdoor Sportsman: 807 Eastern Blvd., Essex, (410) 391-0222
J.D. Hunting Supplies: 18827 Frederick Road, Parkton, (410) 343-2328
Deer Creek Archery: 3404 Conowingo Road, Street, (410) 836-3435
Keystone Sporting Goods: 13611 Pennsylvania Ave., Hagerstown, (301) 733-0373
AMC Sporting Goods: 24453 Garrett Highway, McHenry, (301) 387-7064