Then, one evening in early fall, the principals will arrive, great formations of migrating geese down from the Hudson Bay barrens—the Maryland Flock of the Atlantic Flyway. They come, thousands strong, honking in conversation, onto the farm ponds and cornfields of the Eastern Shore. The birds will have six weeks or more to settle in before a second invasion comes.
That is the army of hunters, from every state in the union, from France and Germany, from as far as Japan and, last year, even from the People's Republic of China. The greatest goose hunting in the world is what they seek.
I had managed to live in Chestertown for better than three years without once jumping into a goose pit. Maybe it had to do with the sheer omnipresence of the birds. You couldn't look up at the sky without seeing them. My daughter, who came to live in Chestertown at the age of three months, talked goose before she learned to say "Mama." In her crib, she would hear them every night, and she could do the feeding call (a series of clucks), the comeback call (a long honk) and the loud greeting call.
In short, I suspected the geese would prove too easy, that there was little challenge. It was an idea sustained by the common sight, from eight on every morning during the season, of camoclad hunters yawing about town like sailors on shore leave, having shot their limit of (as it was then) three birds in the first hour of daylight.
Now, though, Brayton threatened to change my mind. For the past 10 years, he told me, he had participated in the hunt only to the extent of renting shooting privileges on his farm to groups from Baltimore and Washington. He knew, he said, that the hunting wouldn't be as surefire as the big Eastern Shore commercial gunning operations. He had no sanctuary ponds, no big swaths of corn left standing for feed and his fields were a tad small, a little too near the main road, maybe. But whatever geese we got, we would have done it our own way, the hard way.
It turned out to be hard indeed, like the Eastern Shore winter. That big, 200-strong flock we saw on New Year's Day never came in again. The birds must have been polishing off the last of the few rows of corn that Brayton had set aside. There was nothing to bring them back. One morning that first week, it was 7° at 5 a.m. as we set out, and we saw no birds. Every evening, as airborne flocks obscured the setting sun over the distant Chester River, we would try to call them in.
Sometimes, not very often, they would come, six or seven of them, low over the pit, lured by our calls, intrigued by our decoys. Then they would brake, their wings drooping for the landing like the flaps on a 757—what hunters call "tolling." Those first few days, though, we shot nothing. And the less success we experienced the more costly the venture became.
We had begun, for instance, with a dozen-and-a-half battered old silhouette decoys that had been abandoned in the bottom of the pit by previous hunting parties. They satisfied us for about a morning. At lunchtime on our second day, I picked up 30 spanking-new ones, at $7.50 a pop. That evening Brayton called me. "I've been reading about this new wind-sock type of decoy," he said. They didn't stock them locally, so we drove to Annapolis to pick up a flock of them. They weren't much more than big plastic Baggies attached to plastic goose heads, but they caused Brayton to write a check for another couple of hundred dollars.
In order to bring ourselves up to scratch with our new decoys, we bought insulated suits, handcrafted goose calls, camouflage face paint. The climax of this spree came when we each picked up a pair of boots guaranteed to provide comfort right down to 85° below, at a little more than $100 before tax.
That purchase finally snapped me into reality. We didn't need boots. We needed professional help (although not the type you might be suspecting). I called Brayton again. "Why don't we arrange a morning at Vonnie's?"