While many people will be sleeping in Saturday, 28-year-old Kyle Kruger plans to leave his house no later than 3:30 a.m. for the opening day of the modern firearms season for white-tailed deer.
Since learning to hunt from his father when he was eight years old, Kruger has always participated in the sport, using both bows and, when the even more popular firearms season opens up, with his .308 rifle. He remembers fondly taking his largest deer, an eight-point buck, when he was still a child just getting into the sport. He hopes to surpass that record this year and he seems to have quite an opportunity on the private land where he has secured permission to hunt this season in the Frederick area.
“I got a big 10-point up on, it’s a private farm, so that’s what I’m trying to get this year,” Kruger said. “I’ve been out hunting him with a bow, but he just hasn’t come in close enough for me to get him with a bow.”
Hunting has always been popular in Frederick County. A total of 1,491 deer were harvested in Frederick County during the archery and muzzleloader seasons this year, the most in any county in the state except for Baltimore County, which totaled 1,642, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ data. Frederick County also led the state in total deer harvested in both the 2017-2018 season and the 2018-2019 season with 7,354 and 6,545 deer harvested, respectively, according to the data.
That being said, not all of the services available to hunters are operating the same way as they did in years past. For example, Shuff’s Meat Market, a butcher shop in Thurmont popular among hunters, will not process any deer this year for the first time in 40 years.
“We’re too small, we’re too busy and I can’t get my regular work done,” said owner Brian Bowman, explaining his decision. “I’m 56, my wife is almost 60, and I just can’t continue at the pace I’m working at. I don’t want to work here all day and then be up until midnight or 1 in the morning cutting up deer.”
Bowman said he may change his mind next year, but as for now, he plans to turn away customers seeking to have their deer butchered and processed at his store, leaving Clint’s Cuts in Mount Airy, Pry’s Deer Processing in Knoxville and Rob’s Deer Shop in Rocky Ridge among the handful of processing businesses left in the county and nearby.
And while Bowman’s situation was entirely his own decision, other businesses have experienced change beyond their immediate control, including the Gun Center off Rosemont Avenue. Once as busy on the Friday before the season as many department stores on Black Friday, sales have lagged over the last 15 years, owner Bill Kelley said.
“The Friday before the season opened would be nuts, I’d have everybody on the staff in here and people would be buying all these last-minute things,” Kelley said. “Anymore, at least from what I can see, and I realize a lot of deer are killed in Frederick County, but we don’t see a big change or increase when the firearm seasons starts.”
Some of the reason might have to do with the number of people who picked up cheaper, more multi-purpose ArmaLite rifles in 2008 after President Barack Obama was elected and many gun owners believed there might be a crackdown on the sale of such weapons, Kelley said. Because many of these rifles can legally and very easily be used to hunt deer, the saturation of the market led to a dip in new sales, he added.
Another factor is much more local to the county, which is gradually experiencing development that can eat away at land available to hunters. This in turn makes it harder for hunters to secure permission from landowners, who can get away with charging increasingly high prices for the right to hunt on their property, Kelley said. Kelley himself hunted deer for about 30 years until the farm he had permission to hunt was sold to a new owner.
“The new landowner wanted to reserve it for his family, which is OK,” Kelley said with a shrug. “Deer hunting’s all right, but I don’t have to deer hunt.”
Kruger said he has experienced some shake-ups with hunting spots. Aside from his own spot closer to Frederick, Kruger said his brother has permission to hunt on private property out near Mount Airy, neither of which are taken for granted from year to year.
“We’ve gotten places and lost places,” Kruger said. “I use a climber, that way I can move around more.”
In spite of the changes and occasional frustration, true, dyed-in-the-wool hunters like Kruger and 22-year-old Frederick resident Joe Johnson Jr. aren’t likely to give up on their sport anytime soon.
“I’ve been all my life, my daddy took me hunting for the first time when I was six years old up in Gambrill State Park,” Johnson said. “Honestly there’s nothing else like it, when you get that first deer and all that adrenaline from sitting in the woods and then you take the shot and you see that sucker go down. I love it.”