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Day worked out nicely for both hunters and the deer

November 30, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Four years ago, after a groundhog chewed through the fuel line of my F-150 pickup truck, I decided that I finally had to do something about those furry pests. Digging holes in the yard was one thing, but mess with my truck and you've taken irritation to a whole 'nother level.

I didn't want to put out poison, for fear that someone's pet or the neighbor's grandchildren would wander by and get into it. And my one experience with a live trap was unpleasant. The groundhog - I was told they fed only at night - took the bait in full sun, sprung the trap and died from the heat before I got home.

"Let's get a gun and shoot 'em, dad," my youngest son said.

I was apprehensive. I'd had a .22 in the house when the boys were little, but it was always locked in a closet, with the ammo stored separately, in a locked file cabinet. No sad shooting-accident stories for the Maginnis family, thank you.

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Of course, after a while, I began to wonder whether it made sense to have a gun at all. Whenever I did see a varmint in the garden, I'd have to secure the boys inside, then unlock everything and load up. By that time, the animals were done with lunch and long gone.

But now my son was a young man, but not so old that I trusted him completely. Before we have a gun in the house, I said, we'll need to go through the hunter safety course.

Just saying that seemed strange, because the idea of me being a hunter made about as much sense as Butterbean deciding to be a pole vaulter. I grew up in West Hyattsville, Md., just minutes from Washington, D.C., where the only game we saw was the occasional rabbit. Like rubes gawking at their first carnival, when a bunny wandered into the yard, we'd gather at the window, watching quietly as it munched clover.

But we're not going to hunt, I thought, just learn to use a gun safely. We did that during the course, taught over three days at the Washington County Ag Center. Safety and sportsmanship were the overriding themes and I came away feeling that my son had learned how to handle a firearm safely.

But there'd also been a lot of talk about hunting during the course, about where to target an animal for a clean kill and how to squeeze the trigger, as opposed to jerking it. My son decided he wanted to go into the woods and try it for himself.

That meant I had to go, because if anything bad happened to him and I wasn't there, I would never have forgiven myself and my wife would never have forgiven me.

And so we went and bought a gun, a shotgun that he could use with deer slugs, so an errant shot wouldn't travel for miles, but only for a hundred yards or so. I borrowed a .30-06 from my father-in-law, and we got permission from one of his neighbors to hunt on 10 acres of wooded ground.

I had a hard time sleeping the night before the hunt. During that first-day excitement, people do get shot by mistake, I thought. When I did sleep, I dreamt that tiny little deer, the size of miniature poodles, kept wandering up to us in the woods.

Dawn came and we put on our big boots, hunting camouflage and orange vests and set out. The sky was beautiful, like something out of an Old Master painting. It was something to see, but also a sign that we were starting out late, since hunting begins at daybreak.

We got to the site and found an outcropping of rock where we could see the open part of a field below. We sat on the ledge, trying to be quiet, as the sound of gunshots and startled dogs echoed in the distance.

Occasionally we'd hear something crashing through the brush, but on the other side of the fence line, where we didn't have permission to go. At mid-morning we stretched and quietly circled the little woods, hoping to startle a deer in its hiding place.

No such luck. We went back to the rock ledge and settled in to watch and wait. My son had never been so quiet.

And then it happened. A big whitetail doe burst into the open and my son looked at me and whispered, "Do you see horns?"

I shook my head, but almost immediately a big buck came after her. His six-point rack was tiny, like a man wearing a hat too small for his head. My son shouldered the gun and fired, but the big deer kept on running.

"Should we see if I hit him?" he said.

I doubted he had, but we followed his trail. There was no blood and no deer. Disappointed, we went back to the ledge and waited.

By now it was 11 a.m. and it seemed that all the dogs in the county, spooked by all the shots and the unfamiliar activity, were barking in unison. Even the dumbest deer was well-hidden by now, I thought, and so when my son asked me if I'd had enough, I nodded and we left.

We had a late breakfast at the Dixie Eatery in Smithsburg, not saying much, but smiling at the memory of being in the woods, waiting silently for something amazing to happen.

If you're offended by this, I'm sorry, but I firmly believe that if hunting were outlawed, the government would sell every piece of the land now reserved for that purpose to get itself through one budget crisis or another.

The woods survive because, for a few weeks each year, the hunt goes on. The deer survive, I suspect, because of hunters like me who probably have more chance of killing one with a pickup's front fender than a firearm.

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