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COMMENTARY : Opposites Don't Always Detract as Favorable Partners for a Hunt


Hunting makes strange bedfellows.

It's 5:30 a.m. on a cool October day, opening morning of Maryland's first early muzzleloader season for deer. Woods frame the gravel lane to the little field patch we'll hunt. Waiting by the gate, right on schedule, is Bob Simmons. We've not hunted together but I know a bit about Bob--for example, that a bumper sticker on his pickup says: "Guns cause crime like flies cause garbage."

Bob wears his hair slicked to a ponytail and favors camouflage clothes. He works for the county maintenance department and displays his choice for governor on a bumper sticker. One year he took an 11-point buck on the morning of his office Christmas party and drove back to work with the deer in his van, later giving a woman co-worker a ride to the party with the buck still in back. She was quite surprised.

I'd have found an excuse not to do that. That's because I'm an urbanite without bumper stickers, just my U.S. Sailing membership and the kids' school emblem discreetly tucked away on the Wagoneer.

We're an odd couple, for sure. But throw us together in the deer woods and we manage to spend a long and thoroughly happy day, counting on one another not to do anything stupid up in the tree stands, wishing for mutual success, sharing lunch in the shack, snoring together through the mid-day break and having about as good a time as two middle-aged men can have without actually accomplishing anything.

Quite a few deer wander by, but neither of us takes a shot. We are hunting a sunflower field on the Eastern Shore from which Bob has taken some big bucks over the years.

Mindful of his responsibility as the elder statesman on the excursion, he puts me in the prime place--a field corner where shoots of fresh winter wheat pop up among the deer tracks. I wander back there in the dark before dawn, the full moon hidden behind clouds. The flashlight's feeble beam sweeps the trees for a sign of the tree stand I'm to climb, but it's nowhere to be found. It's a weird feeling, probing deeper into unfamiliar woods at night. Tree stands are hard enough to find when you know where they are. Eventually it appears. I climb up and settle in.

Even after 20 years of deer hunting you still get wired for opening day. Neither of us has had much sleep. I feel myself nodding and worry about the muzzleloader, a primitive, single-shot gun I've not hunted with before. What if you snooze and drop it; will it go off? Solution: stay awake!

Which is no problem when three fawns and a doe appear, picking through the woods with nervous tail-flicks and no sound at all. It is 7:10, five minutes till sunrise. The woods are gray. The deer are 50 yards off, too far to shoot through all the brush; not that I'd have much stomach for taking a doe from her fawns. Still, they're deer, and close.

Heart pounding, I watch them pass noiselessly into the field, quartering away from both me and the place where Bob sits. After 10 minutes I ease down from the tree and tiptoe the 20 yards to the field edge to see if they've bedded down. Halfway there, a sharp exhalation from behind stops me.

A buck has been following the doe, nose to ground; now it has whiffed my scent and blown an alarm. I turn slowly; the buck is 50 yards away on the same woods trail the doe and fawns took. We have a standoff.

The buck can't see me; it wants to continue in hot pursuit of the doe, this being mating season, but its nose says no. The deer prances and snorts, stamps the ground trying to smoke me out, advances, retreats, its soft silhouette blurry in the half light and confusion of trees and brush.

At one point it draws so near--40 yards--that I begin to raise the gun, but the chance is quickly gone. A snort, a flash of white tail and he's off through the woods.

Four hours later I tell the tale over lunch, savoring the details. Bob was close enough to hear the buck snort. He shrugs, having seen it all a hundred times, a hundred different ways. That's deer hunting, he says. Sometimes they march right up, mostly they don't. If it wasn't difficult and unpredictable, it wouldn't be much fun.

Bob curls up in the bed of his truck with his camouflage sweatshirt rolled up for a pillow. I take a bunk nearby in the shack and we perform the snore chorus.

In the evening he sees four deer, including a doe that sneaks up under his tree stand from behind, taking him by surprise. I see only one, close but not close enough.

The beauty of muzzleloaders is that even if you don't get a shot, you get to shoot. It's the only way to unload the thing. So as dusk embraces night, I pick out a good stump, draw down, cock the hammer and let fly--BOOOM!

Bob comes by a few minutes later, picking his way by flashlight, hoping to find me tracking a deer. No such luck. We stroll back to the shack together, reliving events of an uneventful day, pondering tomorrow's strategy. Perfect partners.

Just What Traits Should Hunting Partners Possess?

A hunting partner is a precious commodity. Here's what I look for, in order of importance:

1. Punctuality. Getting up at 4 a.m. was hard enough; you don't want to wait at the rendezvous.

2. Trustworthiness. If you're 100 yards apart and a deer strolls between you, will your partner shoot? Would he bring beer to the duck blind?

3. Adventurousness. Sometimes what you always did doesn't work and you have to try something new.

4. Skill. Can he run a boat, work a dog, start a fire, cook?

5. Charm. You didn't come to argue, you came to hunt. If you don't agree on something that doesn't pertain, why bring it up?

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