The new year heralds in the start of our state's winter bow season. Here are six public-land areas where good hunting is possible right now. (January 2006)
Fewer hunters in the deer woods and cold, crisp days can add up to some of the new year's best hunting.
Photo by Michael H. Francis
Maryland's white-tailed deer population growth seems to have stabilized in many of the state's urban and rural areas, but problems seem to persist in much of suburbia. Some of this can be directly attributed to the fragmentation of woodlands created by urban sprawl, thus creating deer sanctuaries.
These are locations where traditional hunting methods cannot be employed, especially the use of firearms. The end result is that, in these particular locations, whitetail herd densities are often extremely high.
"During the second half of January, Maryland hunters will be permitted to hunt with a crossbow," said Doug Hotton, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) leading white-tailed deer biologist.
"Late January is the time for those who haven't tried crossbow hunting to give it a try. They'll be able to hunt from Jan. 16-31 statewide, and there will be no restrictions; all hunters will be able to hunt with a crossbow. This is somewhat of a departure from our regular crossbow regulations; we hope this will expand hunting opportunities to locations where firearms hunting is not feasible. Keep in mind, however, that anyone can use a crossbow during firearms and muzzleloader seasons; however, they must conform to regulations and bag limits pertaining to those particular seasons.
"Most folks wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but in those suburban areas where we have problems, there are several jurisdictions where local law prohibits the discharge of a firearm. There are places in Montgomery County where you cannot discharge a firearm for any reason. This may cover as much as two-thirds of that county; therefore, a crossbow can be a very effective method of bagging a whitetail, and in this particular environment, could be the only deer management tool available."
Hotton said DNR has conducted a survey during the past two years to determine the percentage of hunters who may wish to hunt with a crossbow. The survey's results may be the key to white-tailed deer management policies in suburban areas in the near future.
"When a person purchases a hunting license and accompanying bow stamp, we asked if they intended to hunt with a crossbow, and essentially about 20 percent of Maryland's resident bowhunters said they intended to hunt white-tailed deer with a crossbow. When it came to non-resident hunters, the figure was approximately 11 percent, which we still consider fairly high," Hotton said.
During the four-week crossbow season of 2004-05, which ran the first two weeks of October and last two weeks of January, crossbow hunters bagged 106 antlered deer and 245 antlerless deer. During the same period, bowhunters using conventional bows, longbows and compound bows, bagged a total of 1,249 antlered deer and 3,008 antlerless. While crossbow kills only amounted to a small percentage of the harvest, liberalization of the regulations and season will likely cause this percentage to rise in the next few years.
Keep in mind that Maryland's bow season is among the longest in the entire region, running from Sept. 15 until Jan. 31. Essentially, you have nearly five months to bag a whitetail. And if you hunt in Region B, the standard bag limit is two antlered deer and 10 antlerless. However, if you hunt in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery or Prince Georges counties, you can take an unlimited number of antlerless deer. Added to regular hunting days are several open Sunday dates during the bow season, which provides hunters with even more opportunities to bag a trophy buck or fat doe.
In order to hunt with a crossbow, hunters must meet the following criteria: "Crossbows may be used to hunt deer only, with the exception of special crossbow permits for disabled hunters who may pursue all game legal for a vertical bow. The crossbow shall have a draw of not less than 75 pounds and the use of telescopic sights is permitted. Deer hunting with a crossbow during the deer bow season is limited to the following dates in accordance with season regulations: Oct. 1-15, 2005, and Jan. 16-31, 2006."
There are special regulations that apply to hunters who have certain physical disabilities, and those categorized as senior citizens. "Any hunter who is 65 years of age or older, or possesses a Resident Senior Hunting License, can hunt deer with a crossbow in all Maryland deer hunting seasons. Hunters with physical disabilities that prevent them from using a traditional bow may apply for a special crossbow permit to hunt deer during the bow season."
Urban sprawl has not only displaced Maryland's wildlife, but additionally, displaced its hunters as well. Finding a place to hunt is no longer a matter of talking to the nearest farmer or landowner and asking permission. Developers have gobbled up most of the small to midsized farms. Fortunately, there have been a few suburban locations where bowhunters can now pretty much be assured of bagging a whitetail, and still be within reasonable driving distance from homes situated near metropolitan Baltimore and the surrounding counties.
LIBERTY AND PRETTYBOY RESERVOIRS
While Loch Raven Reservoir's watershed is still closed to all forms of hunting, both Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs now permit bowhunting. Both watersheds are immense and hold huge populations of deer and other species of upland game. A special permit is required to hunt both watersheds, and there are two options for obtaining one: online or by mail. You can download the permit at www.dnr.state.md.us, and fill out the form online. Click on "Hunting" and then the bowhunting link at "Bowhunting and Trapping on Public Lands."
At both Liberty and Prettyboy watersheds, the terrain consists of dense stands of loblolly pines, oak, hickory, beech, poplar and a few lesser species of trees. Hunters will find lots of access points; however, you cannot park or drive any motor vehicles on the various trails and fire-roads within these watershed properties. You can park in designated parking areas and on any hard-surface roadway where parking is legal. Additional restrictions include the prohibition of hunting with 50 feet of any high-water line along the impoundments' shores, and any form of game may be hunted during the regular seasons, by bow only.
The bottom line at both watershed properties is if you can't bag a whitetail there, you should probably consider taking up golf or basket weaving. Driving the roads surrounding each impoundment is like driving through an obstacle course, especially early and late in the day. Roaming herds of whitetails have
consumed much of each watershed's understory vegetation.
"Both watersheds are excellent areas to hunt whitetails, as there is no competition from firearms hunters and there are lots of deer at both locations. There is no deadline for permit application, and you'll find the permit on page 39 of our most recent hunting and trapping guide. You just need the permit in your possession in order to hunt either property. There's no limit to the number of hunters at either location, and the only real restriction is that you cannot possess a firearm while hunting the watershed properties," biologist Hotton said.
IDYLWILD WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
Maryland hunters often overlook the Idylwild Wildlife Management Area (WMA), particularly during the dead of winter. The WMA is situated in the southeastern corner of Caroline County and extends from the town limits of Federalsburg toward the Delaware state line. It is bordered by state Route 306 to the east, and Marshyhope Creek to the west. This sprawling expanse has more than 25 miles of hiking trails, all of which wind their way through some of the Eastern Shore's most productive deer-hunting opportunities.
The terrain is mainly flat, and nearly 25 percent of the WMA is below sea level, thus deer have many isolated hummocks to take refuge in during the regular firearms season. By the time the late bow season rolls around, deer are scattered throughout the WMA's 3,000 acres, often foraging on the 300-plus acres of leased farmlands for the remaining kernels of corn dropped by pickers during the harvesting process.
A half-dozen designated parking areas can be found along Houston Branch Road; however, the only access to the WMA is via foot or by horseback. There is a considerable amount of horseback riding activity at Idylwild throughout much of the year; however, by January the equestrians become somewhat scarce, particularly during the middle of the week.
"This is an area that does not get nearly as much deer hunting pressure as we would like," Hotton said. "There's a good-sized whitetail population at the WMA, and we have some hunting taking place during the regular firearms season, but there's not much activity during the latter part of bow season at all."
While Loch Raven Reservoir's watershed is still closed to all forms of hunting, both Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs now permit bowhunting.
SENECA CREEK STATE PARK
"Seneca Creek State Park has expanded its deer-hunting opportunities this year, and we're hopeful that this will increase the harvest level to some degree," Hotton said. This particular location is not at all large, and the amount of available land open to hunting is just over 1,200 acres. The park is fragmented into four parcels, and the only parcel open to hunters is the segment bordering the C&O Canal along the Potomac River's shores.
At press time, public hearings were taking place to open an additional 75 acres of parkland to bowhunters at the park's northern end. Ironically, after several years of managed hunts at Seneca, the park still experiences severe problems from roaming herds of whitetails that have virtually destroyed much of the park's understory plants.
Park officials are quick to point out that during the past two years the number of whitetails harvested during managed hunts has dropped to an average of 80 deer during the two-day period, but considering that only 65 hunters are permitted to participate each day, the success ratio is still amazingly high. Is this an indication that the park's herd is nearing levels where the environment can support them? While the managed hunts have resulted in a significant decline in deer/motor vehicle accidents, nearby residents claim there is not a day that goes by when at least one commuter passing through the park's boundaries strikes a deer.
There are no restrictions or special permits required to hunt the area bordering the C&O Canal, as hunting pressure is fairly light, particularly during the latter portion of January. The odds are definitely in the hunter's favor.
SAVAGE RIVER STATE FOREST
"This is one of the areas that really does not get as much hunting pressure as we would like, especially after the season's first snowfall," Hotton said. "While we have made a lot of progress here, there are still some areas where hunters rarely venture during regular firearms season, and especially when the weather gets bitterly cold in late January. This is one location where you don't have to worry about seeing many other hunters. After all, there's a lot of open space on the tops of these mountains."
Savage River State Forest encompasses dozens of parcels totaling some 53,000 acres, nearly all of which are heavily wooded. Many of these sites are along the high ridges of Garrett County. The forest is situated approximately 150 miles west of Baltimore and Washington, and is easily accessible via U.S. Route 40 and I-68, both of which run across the forest's northern border. This is Maryland's largest state forest and contains acres with elevations ranging from 1,488 feet in Savage River gorge to 3,075 feet at the peak of Negro Mountain.
Approximately 500 to 800 acres of mountain are logged annually, then planted with various forms of trees and other plants to create improved wildlife habitat. In order for this to take place, logging roads are created throughout the region, thereby providing hunters with good to excellent access to new vistas where that once-in-a-lifetime trophy buck could be lurking over the next ridge. Meadow Mountain and Big Savage Mountain both have good to excellent access. By carefully examining a topographical map, you'll discover dozens of little-known, unnamed roadways leading to some of the more isolated locations.
This is an easy place for the unprepared or novice hunter to become hopelessly lost. It is advisable for all hunters, regardless of hunting experience, to carry a relatively inexpensive Global Positioning System (GPS) unit and a cellular telephone with them at all times while exploring the hunting opportunities here. Every ridge leads to another ridge, and after a while they all begin looking alike. The GPS will guide you safely through the maze of ridgetops and steep valleys. If something does go awry, you can usually find an area where cellular telephone communication is possible, even from a remote mountaintop.
Savage River State Forest encompasses dozens of parcels totaling some 53,000 acres, nearly all of which are heavily wooded.
DANS MOUNTAIN WMA
Located in the southwestern corner of Allegany County, Dans Mountain WMA is capped by Wolf Rock, a peak that resides at 2,722 feet above sea level. This immense area holds huge numbers of whitetails, turkeys, ruffed grouse, fox, and more recently, a fair population of black bears. The parcel is heavily wooded, covering just over 8,300 acres that measure nine miles long and two miles wide.
The WMA has seven designated parking areas, all of which provide hunters with easy access to some of the region's most incredible wilderness areas. In many ways, Dans Mountain is similar to Savage River State Forest, particularly when it comes to the rugged, remote terrain. There is one clear-cut section that transects the mountaintop, which is always a good place to set up a tree stand to intercept deer traveling down the slopes to the adjacent farms.
Finally, private lands, especially large tracts where deer damage is an issue, are beginning to open up for bowhunters. This is now the case with many golf courses, municipal parks and some industrialized areas situated in and near small municipalities. The DNR has been working with these communities, mainly trying to address deer damage complaints by individuals experiencing property destruction of expensive, ornamental shrubbery and young trees. These are locations where today's hunters may have the best chance of obtaining permission to hunt, especially if those hunters enjoy bowhunting.