Another Grand Adventure on Maryland’s Eastern Shore – The Rabbit Hunter Magazine
The Traditional Bowhunters of Maryland are an elite group of gentlemen and ladies. The bowhunters take on a distinct challenge of impressive proportions. Talk about challenging, again this year the hunt was all about challenging. Possibly even more of a challenge than past years, this hunt would not be about how many rabbits would be killed but the challenge of trying. Traditional Bowhunting is sport hunting at its finest.These hunters are not conventional hunters and neither is their tackle. The hunters use only traditional longbows and recurves. There arc no sights, wheels, automatic releases, synthetic materials or other modern paraphernalia. These hunters rely on instinct and that is exactly what they call it, instinctive shooting. “Here we go, off on another adventure,” the words of master hare and rabbit hunter Wayne Wilson as we made our way out of his driveway and into a snow covered winter wonderland with a heading set for Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Overnight Mother Nature had dumped four or more inches of snow on the high country of the Allegheny Plateau in Western Pennsylvania. “Good thing you’re late. You gave me a chance to plow. I don’t think you could have made it in with all the snow,” Wayne points out. With these words Wayne, myself and eight beagles set sail for Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This trip to the Eastern Shore of Maryland would be my fourth in as many years thanks to the generosity and graciousness of the Chaplain of the Big Woods Hare Hunters of the Allegheny, also a member of the Traditional Bowhunters of Maryland. It’s an honor to be invited and allowed to participate in the hunt with these fine gentlemen. We made our way across the snow laden high plateau of the Alleghenies, climbed the cold and windy Allegheny Mountains and down the Allegheny Front. As we descended onto the Piedmont we enjoyed a sight we hadn’t seen for quite some time, golden brown bare ground. The whole world really isn’t all white. Winter on the plateau has been the coldest in most inhabitants’ memory. A trip off the plateau to a warmer climate would be a welcomed change if only for only a few days in duration and only by a few degrees in temperature. At least there was no white stuff. Arriving at the Hide-A-Way Lodge, a renowned hunting club on the banks of Quantico Creek, we unloaded the hounds and normally would tether them to a line. Feeling daring we let the beagles out to run and stretch from the eight hour journey. The sight and scent of bare ground must have been just what the beagles were yearning for. Before we could greet Bob and Merle properly, the hounds had a rabbit going, as almost certainly could have been predicted. Our hosts, Bob and Merle Brillhart, members of the bowhunting club as well as the Hide-A-Way Hunting Club grabbed their shotguns and were quickly on the hunt. Merle saw the rabbit except it was out of range. As darkness was quickly closing in, a couple of the beagles, Tia and her progeny, Aero, didn’t want to give up. At long last we had the hounds fed and back in their boxes for the night. We were looking forward to the annual bow hunt on Saturday. We hoped the scenting conditions would be good and everything would be perfect for the bowhunters. Saturday morning came quickly and the bowhunters started arriving in the early hours. The Hide-A-Way Lodge began buzzing with activity before 7 AM. As more and more bowhunters presented themselves one could feel the excitement. The members of the Traditional Bowhunters of Maryland arrived full of anticipation and enthusiasm. The air was thick with camaraderie. Soon there were 15 or more members present ready for a day of hunting and fellowship. Other members were present for the friendship and to provide support. The archers gathered inside and out visiting and swapping stories of previous rabbit hunts and comparing notes on new bows they’d built and the different woods they’d used. Traditional archers use many different kinds of woods. Among them are red oak, bamboo, osage, hickory, IPE or Brazilian walnut, cedar, black locust, yew and black walnut. Some woods are reported to be better than others. Osage orange is arguably one of the most famous woods used for bowwoods. Osage apple (the fruit being inedible) was the very first species of plant life named by Meriwether Lewis during his famous expedition into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. The tree, later renamed Osage orange, was used by the Osage Indians for its outstanding qualities for making longbows and fittingly named after the tribe. It has taken me years of hunting with these gentlemen to understand what all the excitement is about. Not only is it about the hunting challenge but of using an instrument of historical significance which has been handcrafted from a formless piece of wood. Most have built these bows and arrows with their own hands. All are beautiful handcrafted pieces of art. Carbon arrows tend to dominate traditional bowhunting today. The hunters were divided between Wayne and me and were off to one of the bowhunter’s favorite rabbit covers not far from the lodge. Wayne is the Master of Hounds and we both served as dog handlers. After releasing my hounds it took them a bit to find a rabbit. The cottontails were sitting tight this frosty morn. It didn’t take too long though and the hounds had a hot one going. It was up the creek and back three times. The hounds had several good chases during the morning. Fighting the thorny gum trees and nasty greenbriers the hunters saw cottontails. Most of the cottontails must have been either out of range or probably didn’t present a clean shot. I don’t know how many arrows were launched. By lunch time we had made it to a wetland filled with phragmites. Rabbits love the phragmites and will lead the hounds through time after time. Phragmites is a common reed like perennial grass found in wetlands in every U.S. state. It grows as high as 20 feet or more in dense stands. Phragmites are native to the U.S. but invasive strains came from Europe in the 1800s through ship’s ballast. The morning ended with no rabbits in anybody’s game bag. Numerous missed shots were reported. Wayne’s group suffered the same fate. Every hunter in Wayne’s bunch attempted at least two shots and some bowhunters attempted three. After a delicious lunch of soup and chili dogs served by the bowhunters at the Hide-A-Way Lodge it was quickly off to another assigned spot. The next hot spot was an unfarmed and fallow area. It looked like beautiful rabbitat to me. The unmolested rabbit cover next to a harvested grain field proved to be just that. It didn’t take much to get a rabbit up and going. I never ventured more than 100 yards from the parked trucks. The hounds ran for three hours nonstop. The hunters reported numerous sightings without a kill. The notable excuse, “the cover was too thick.” I saw one rabbit and Mr. Cottontail didn’t leave any moss growing under his feet. After time in this particularly beautiful rabbit habitat it started to dawn on me what was different about the morning hunt. Last year the fields adjacent to the stream bank had not been mowed. An area approximately 50 yards on either side of the creek is never touched by brush hog or human hand. The creek bank must be what they refer to as the “riparian buffer.” This year everything was mowed, except for the riparian buffer which does offer some good cover, but like I said, narrow. Last year we had some long winded chases as the cottontail ran through the unmowed fields. Other years we’ve hunted the fields kicking out and running countless rabbits in the thick, waist high grass. I was informed the fields and edges were enrolled and controlled by the CRP program. The CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) had its beginning back in the 1950s and was known as the “Soil Bank Program.” The soil bank was designed to help people reduce soil erosion, enhance ground water supplies, improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat and reduce damage caused by floods. The CRP, paid for by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), was designed to encourage farmers to convert highly erodible cropland to vegetative cover such as native grasses, wildlife food and shelter plantings, etc. The CRP has been beneficial to some birds, like ducks, sage grouse and ring-necked pheasant. This year, in this area, the cottontail rabbit populations were down. The rabbits had nowhere to run except the thin strip along the creek. In this writer’s humble opinion mowing the fields in this manner did nothing but spoil the cottontail rabbit population. As the day was coming to an end with three out of my four hounds in the box, Kipper was late as usual. The three females, Tia, Sammie and Aero, had spent the afternoon chasing cottontail together as old Kipper was off chasing somewhere else. Kipper had worked and worked until he worked something hot and chased it about four-tenths of a mile to the wetlands, circling at the edge of the marsh. Aero ran with him a-ways but never opened and Sammie came back and looked at me with that look in her eye. I should have known. Kipper never ran very far into the wetlands, just circling while I kept watch on the Astro and listening to his big bawl voice. Kipper never pushed whatever too hard. It seemed as if whatever he was chasing didn’t want to go into the marsh and it didn’t want to return to where the other noisy hounds were running. If it was a whitetail I hoped he could do better. It was getting late. I decided to call Kipper in, but four-tenths of a mile tends to test the range of my whistle. So I got my cow horn out of my coat, puckered up and blew. In between blows I checked my Astro.
“We could drive over,” Bob suggested.
“We can? To the wetlands?” I ask.
“I have, just look at my running boards,” he said as my eyes were directed to his broken and cracked running boards.
“No, I just as soon not chase after him, he’ll come in,” trying to sound confident. “I wonder what he was chasing though. He went over to the marshland and ran circles all afternoon,” as I reverted back to sounding unsure.
“There are sika deer in here,” Bob informed.
Sika deer are called “Maryland’s exotic little elk.” Sika are more closely related to elk than to whitetail deer. Sika deer are not native to North America but were imported from Japan, Taiwan and eastern Asia. There is reportedly 10,000 sika in Maryland. Sika deer are found in 34 other states as well as here on the Eastern Shore. The sika is smaller than whitetail deer. Adult males are called Stags and average about 90 pounds. Females or Hinds weigh about 70 pounds. Stags even bugle during the mating season. Hinds make their own unique sounds. I wonder if the meat is called “venison?” Kipper was heading for the truck as I checked the Astro again. The horn was working. I could see him coming. One of the great benefits of the Garmin Astro is I can watch what is happening in real time. Years ago I could whistle and blow my horn until I was truly blue in the face and I wouldn’t know if my efforts were working until the hound showed up. I had a motto, “I can call and whistle for 30 minutes and the hound will be back or I can wait a half an hour,” with the same results. Blowing the horn is one of the few things of importance I learned in grade school. My music teacher only was able to teach me one note but that one lonesome note has proven useful over the years. “He’s coming now. He’ll be here in a minute,” I reported. Sure enough, being ahead of the Astro’s 30 second delay, Kipper emerged from the brush soon after I made that statement and we headed for the Hide-A-Way Lodge. All’s well that ends well. Am I going to give Kipper the benefit of the doubt? Probably. Coincidentally and as luck would have it, just when I was longing for more knowledge on traditional bowhunting it arrived in my mailbox. “Bowhunting is even more of a challenge with a traditional setup,” so says P.J. Reilly in an article entitled “Taking the Wheels Off in the Straight” from the Bowstring column of the March 2015 issue of the Pennsylvania Game News, the official publication of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). The more I read the article the more in awe of these bowhunters I became. If you can find it, read it. The article should be online at the Commission’s website. The bowhunters didn’t kill any cottontail this year. I guess you can say we got skunked; however, we had a huge amount of fun trying. The rabbits won this time. The fun is not in the killing but taking on the challenge. The eight beagles did their thing and ran rabbits on something different to them, bare ground. I think they were grateful and they gave it their best. Bob and Merle are great hosts and I enjoyed hunting with them on the warm-up hunt the day before the bow hunt which is another story for another day. I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The fellowship and camaraderie are beyond description.