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OUTDOORS: Hunters find sika deer as wily as whitetail cousins
KEN PERROTTE / THE FREE LANCE-STAR
I’M STILL SEEKING that first sika steak.
The day after Virginia’s whitetail season ended, I was packing gear for a two-day sika deer management hunt on the Maryland Eastern Shore portion of Assateague Island National Seashore.
This archery-gear hunt, sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Bay Shore Gobblers Chapter and the National Park Service, saw 24 disabled hunters (including several wounded warriors) take a crack at sikas.
I was accompanying my good friend Jimaye Sones, who had a leg amputated above the knee many years ago. While he doesn’t require a wheelchair to get around, the hunt’s attention to easy access sounded like a good opportunity. He was shooting my crossbow.
The tidal marshes of Maryland’s southern Eastern Shore are among the few places in America where sika run wild. This small, exotic elk relative is native to Japan and found throughout much of Asia. It was introduced to Maryland nearly a century ago and adapted well to the inhospitable environs around the Atlantic salt marshes.
A handful of Eastern Shore farms offer guided sika hunts. Assateague’s annual management hunts are designed to keep deer populations in balance with the habitat, which is also home to the famed wild ponies.
Hunters arrive on a Sunday and stay in Ocean City. Chapter members handle daily setup chores and cooking on the island. Hunt organizer Dean Ennis’ barbecued goose is always a hit.
The Park Service’s new ranger station is a base camp of sorts where hunters rally, eat, check deer and hang out. Part of the hunting area is actually the park’s campground, which is temporarily closed for the event. Blinds are often positioned right alongside paved roads.
The salt marsh sands are carpeted with sand burrs, but hunters able to venture off cleared paths can access additional stand locations away from the campground.
Sones has hunted his entire life, but this was his first time using a crossbow. National Seashore Chief Ranger Ted Morlock explained the number of hunters who arrive inexperienced with the equipment they’re using is an annual challenge.
Sones took a 20-yard shot with a practice bolt at a Gatorade bottle when we unloaded the bow the first morning. He drilled it dead-center. He also practiced quickly getting the bow up, acquiring a sight picture and shooting, without squeezing the trigger, dozens of time the evening before.
Hunters draw for stand locations. Our first was unproductive. The afternoon hunt directly abutted a large salt marsh with lots of cover. Tall marsh grasses often hide narrow sika trails and on sunny winter days, the deer will often bed in needle grass thickets and enjoy the warmth.
It looked promising, but there was no enclosed blind. Instead, our “stand” was a picnic table facing the marsh. It was comfortable; maybe a little too comfortable.
Two sika deer had flushed from the edge of the salt marsh, a good 100 yards away shortly after we settled in and we locked into serious hunting mode—for about 20 minutes anyway. Sones and I have shared many duck blinds and, except when birds are working in close, conversation and general goofing off is the norm.
As the afternoon sun warmed, we snacked on cookies. Attention to the marsh edges waned. Morlock stopped by while making a safety patrol. We were engaged in light conversation when I heard Morlock’s radio crackle with a report of “deer moving quickly past blind number 12.”
“Blind 12,” I wondered. “That’s the next one down to Deer!” I exclaimed as quietly as I could. The two sikas were moving left-to-right 40 TO 45 yards to our front. In desperation, I made a whitetail fawn bleat sound. Amazingly, the sikas froze broadside for a couple seconds as Sones tried to get in position to shoot. He quickly found the bigger deer in the bow’s optics just as they decided to skedaddle. The crossbow bolt flew past the startled sika hind (as female sikas are called).
Oh well, it’s hard to deer hunt and shoot the bull simultaneously.
Our final stand location was near the national park’s borders and faced a tangled jungle that fed down to the bay between Assateague
Island and Chincoteague. Morlock said a big sika stag had been routinely using the area.
We set up close to the main roadway and focused on the thickets. About 8 a.m., Sones looked over his left shoulder and said, “Check out that stag!”
The big stag sported a thick mane and was standing near the road’s guardrail nearly 150 yards from us, on the side of the island closed to hunting. The deer stared across the road where the hunters in the next stand location were likely seated. After a minute, the stag reversed course and bounded away, running in a manner similar to the western United States’ mule deer.
Everyone saw deer during the hunt and several deer were taken the second day, but none approached the stature of the big 3-by-3-point stag we saw.
GOOD WEATHER, GOOD FOLKS
Past Assateague hunts have seen wild weather extremes, but our weather was cool with moderate winds. Even if the hunting is cold, the food is always hot and plentiful.
Morlock said working the hunt is the most rewarding part of his 25-year career. “The tenacity of these guys is incredible; their drive is something to see, especially given the weather we sometimes get,” he said.
Sones was moved as he watched 14-year-old Dayton Webber, a first-time hunter with two artificial legs and arms with no hands that ended just below his elbows. The youngster’s face lit up every time he talked about his new sika hunting adventures. He seemed to clearly enjoy the outing, even if he didn’t get a deer.
“I hear people all the time talk about how rough they have it. I look at that young man and, well, they don’t know what rough is,” Sones said, an obvious lump in his throat.
For details on future hunts, contact Ennis at 410/957-1272 or PMC_Inc@hotmail.com.
Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or e–mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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