By P.J. Reilly
When Maryland native Kevin Miller shot a huge typical whitetail on opening day of the 2002 firearms season, he helped carry on a tradition. Miller shot the buck on a farm in Kent County, which is part of a long, north-south strip of land along the east side of Chesapeake Bay known as the Eastern Shore. Miller’s buck was officially scored at 194 inches – nearly nine more than Maryland’s previous Boone-and-Crockett state record typical taken by firearm.
The tradition Miller kept alive with his monster buck is the dominance by Eastern Shore bucks of Maryland’s record book. The buck that Miller’s is expected to best was shot in 1998 in Queen Anne’s County, also on the Eastern Shore. Of Maryland’s six record book categories for whitetails, three are topped by Eastern Shore bucks — Typical Gun, Typical Bow and Nontypical Muzzleloader. In the other three categories, Eastern Shore bucks occupy the No. 2 positions.
“We’ve always known the Eastern Shore is our best deer area in Maryland,” said Doug Hotton (now retired), deer project leader for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “You’ve got quality natural vegetation there and great farmland. That’s a winning combination anywhere.”
The Eastern Shore encompasses nine counties wedged between Chesapeake Bay and Delaware in Maryland’s Coastal Plain province. The counties are Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester. This region differs from the rest of the state in that it’s primarily flat, heavily farmed or covered with marsh woodlands and sparsely populated. The western shore of Chesapeake Bay has similar topography, but that’s where you’ll find both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. There are few open tracts of land around these major cities. West of the cities, the largely forested Appalachian Mountains dominate the landscape.
If you draw a line roughly through the middle of the Eastern Shore, dividing it into northern and southern halves, you’ll find flat, fertile farmland that’s mostly privately owned in the north. In the south, you’ll find sparse human populations and vast expanses of thick marshland that are difficult to access. Both are ideal for allowing individual deer and overall deer numbers to grow large. Add to those conditions mild winters and the absence of predators and it’s easy to understand why the Eastern Shore is fast becoming a deer hunter’s Mecca.
“These deer live the good life,” said Ken Schrader, owner of Schrader’s Outdoors (http://schradersoutdoors.com), one of the oldest guiding operations on the Eastern Shore. “That’s why they grow so big.”
Schrader, who was born and raised in a farming family on the Eastern Shore, said he’s been aware his whole life of the area’s potential to grow trophy deer.
“I’ve seen racks hanging on walls around here that would beat any of the state records,” he said. “Twenty years ago, though, nobody thought about scoring antlers.”
While Maryland DNR officials and local hunters have long known about the fantastic deer hunting on the Eastern Shore, only recently has word begun to spread to the outside world. Historically, the Eastern Shore has been known across the nation for its waterfowl hunting.
James Michener immortalized it in his epic novel, “Chesapeake,” which chronicled over a span of 300 years the lives of four families who lived on the Shore. And through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the Eastern Shore was heralded as “the goose hunting capital of the world” because it’s the final destination for huge flocks of Canada geese migrating south for the winter.
Farmers raked in decent money during those decades leasing their land to waterfowlers for goose hunting. Schrader said goose hunting was the mainstay of his business during the first half of his 24-year guiding career. But even in those years, he said, the deer attracted attention.
“I’d have hunters sitting in field pits goose hunting, and they’d see these huge bucks come out of the woods,” Schrader said. “Some of them would ask me if they could come down for a goose hunt and do some deer hunting on the side.”
Deer moved out of the back seat on the Eastern Shore and into the driver’s chair in 1995. That’s when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shut down for five years all hunting seasons for migratory Canada geese in Maryland and other states along the East Coast, citing a steep decline in the goose populations.
“That’s when deer hunting started to become more prominent,” Hotton said. “Farmers had been leasing their farms for goose hunting, and then they started leasing them for deer hunting.”
The spark in interest in deer hunting on the Eastern Shore was a blessing for the local economy, which depended heavily upon visiting goose hunters. Sporting goods stores, motels and restaurants, not to mention farmers, counted on goose hunters’ dollars to help them makes ends meet. Many didn’t survive the transition from goose to deer hunting.
“A lot of people went out of business back then,” Schrader said. “I’m one of the few guide-business owners who didn’t shut down at all after the goose hunting was shut down. We just focused on deer hunting, snow geese and other things to keep going.”
According to a 2001 survey by the USFWS, deer hunting had a $156 million impact on Maryland’s economy statewide that year. That’s a 100 percent increase over the impact measured in the agency’s 1996 survey.
Since 1995, most farms on the Eastern Shore that were leased for goose hunting have been leased for deer hunting, and abandoned leases don’t sit idle for long before some eager hunters snatch them up. And as the deer hunting craze has spread like wildfire across the Shore over the past decade, hunter attitudes have changed from an interest in just bagging any buck to bagging only big bucks.
“We are seeing a lot of hunters practicing quality deer management,” Hotton said. “They’re passing up the smaller bucks to let them grow another year or two.”
Of the six bucks that top Maryland’s six record book categories, five were taken within the past decade, including the three record bucks shot on the Eastern Shore. The Maryland DNR fueled the quality deer management movement on the Shore in 1998 when it instituted new regulations that encouraged hunters there to shoot more does. Prior to 1998, hunters were permitted to take two deer of either sex in each of the archery, muzzleloader and firearms seasons. Hotton said most hunters under those rules opted to save their tags for bucks, which allowed doe numbers to explode.
Currently on the Eastern Shore, hunters are permitted to shoot four deer in each of the three seasons, which, combined, run from Sept. 15 through Jan. 31. They can still take two bucks if they want, but before they can take that second buck in any one season, they must first shoot two does.
“That system really boosted our doe kill,” Hotton said.
During the 2002-03 hunting seasons, roughly 84,000 licensed hunters across Maryland harvested a record 94,114 deer. The total reflects a 27 percent increase in the antlerless kill over the previous year, coupled with a 2.5 percent decrease in the buck kill. On the Eastern Shore, Kent County was tops with 3,896 deer killed, followed by Worcester’s 3,601, and Queen Anne’s with 3,176.
Data collected over the years at check stations, where all deer bagged by hunters in the state must be brought, proves that hunters today are more selective when it comes to harvesting bucks. According to Hotton, more than half the bucks harvested in Kent County each year in the early 1990s were 1 1/2 years old. In 2000, only 44 percent of the bucks taken were that age. The rest were 2 1/2 and older.
“Hunters are letting the yearling bucks go,’’ Hotton said. “Our statistics show that.”
Schrader said he’s had some antler restrictions in place on the farms he owns and leases for 19 years. “At first, it was jut a few farms,” he said. “Now, we hunt 25,000 acres in Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Caroline counties and about three-quarters of it is under antler restrictions.”
Hunters on Schrader’s restricted farms are limited to taking only bucks with at least eight points on racks that stretch as wide as a deer’s ears.
“I know a lot of clubs and other guides in our area have the same restrictions,” he said. “That’s good for all of us.”
Miller said a hunting club of which he is a member leases the Kent County farm where he shot his buck. The club’s rule for shooting bucks isn’t aimed at a deer’s antlers, but at hunters’ wallets.
“The rule is, ‘you shoot it, you mount it.’ So if you want to shoot a buck, you have to be prepared to take it to the taxidermist,” Miller said. “That makes you think real hard when you have a buck coming in.”
So what opportunities are available on the Eastern Shore for the traveling hunter? Well, there are a few guide services, such as Schrader’s. Type “Maryland deer hunting” into any search engine on the Internet, and you’ll come up with a number of relevant sites.
And then there are the public-land opportunities. There are about 40 public tracts on the Eastern Shore where deer hunting is permitted. These lands, which are controlled by county, state and federal agencies, range in size from the 77-acre Welch Point property in Cecil County to the 28,518-acre Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area in Dorchester County.
The public lands available to deer hunting on the Eastern Shore are governed by a variety of rules and restrictions. On some, permits are awarded by lottery drawing to a limited number of deer hunters. On others, only bowhunting for deer is permitted. You can view a list of these lands and their associated restrictions on the Maryland’s DNR’s website at www.dnr.state.md.us. Click on the “Hunting” tab, then click on the “Wildlife Management Areas” link on the right. You can also call the DNR headquarters for more information at (410) 260-8540.
Some good bets for hunters are the four tracts of C&D Canal Lands in Cecil County; Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area; the Millington Wildlife Management Area and the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, both in Kent County; and Idylwild Wildlife Management Area in Caroline County.
“You’ve got to do some homework, but there are plenty of public hunting opportunities on the Eastern Shore,” Hotton said.
So if you’re looking for a new deer hunting location this year, bet on a “shore’’ thing. You just might find the buck of your dreams.
This article was published in the July 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.