On January 1, 1988, I went goose hunting for the first time in more than 30 years. Right up to Auld Lang Syne time at a party the night before, I had laughed derisively just at the thought of it. That was when a friend of mine, Neil Brayton, who has a small farm in Queen Anne's County, just across the river from Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore, suggested that I might like to knock on his door at 5 a.m. the next morning—no, that morning—and take a walk out to a goose pit he had. "Lot of birds been coming in the last couple of days," he said.
"Sure, I'll drop round," I told him, barely straight-faced.
But I did just that, although several hours later than the suggested time, and found Brayton as relaxed as he normally is. His 10-year-old son, Jay, though, was bouncing around the kitchen in a near frenzy. "Kid's been up since dawn," Brayton said, "waiting to shoot his first goose."
So the three of us went out in the cold sunshine, across the yard and through a pine grove. "Keep very still," said Brayton. We peered cautiously through the trees. In the field beyond, maybe 200 Canada geese were feeding on a couple of uncut cornrows. Brayton grabbed Jay by the collar just as he started to make his break for the house and the pump shotgun he'd been given for Christmas. "Hold it," Brayton said.
We watched for a while, then retired to the house. In the kitchen, Brayton made hot chocolate. "Jay," he said, "we've got an ethical problem here. We could jump in among those geese, get off a few shots, kill a few birds, with almost no problem. But is that the way you want to take your first goose?"
"Yes," said Jay.
His father started again, carefully explaining that these birds had come in every day, unbothered, since the beginning of the season seven weeks earlier; that it wasn't a sporting proposition to charge them, blasting away; and that if we were careful, if we shot maybe twice a week from the pit out in midfield, we could work the flock again and again. "We'll wait a while," he said, "then we'll sneak over to the far side of the field and make a leopard-crawl into the pit I've got there. Then we'll see what happens. Maybe new birds will fly in, and I can try calling them in."
That's precisely what we did, later in the day, working our way down a frozen ditch, elbowing across the open ground. Brayton professed little expertise in goose hunting, my own shooting was both rusty and learned under far different conditions and, of course, Jay was but an excited tyro. It was no surprise, therefore, that long before we made the pit, one of the sentinel birds on the ground, his neck raised high while the others grazed, spotted us and gave the alarm call. He could hardly have failed to do so. At the last moment, the lanky Brayton chose to make an ill-judged dash for the pit, gun held high, coat flowing in the wind, leaping across the cornstalks like Ichabod Crane. For the next few instants the sky was black with Canadas, and then the field was empty. Jay turned up his collar and scrunched his head down in his jacket, humiliated to have it proved that he had an idiot for a father.
For myself, though, there was a different reaction. Squirming down the ditch, keeping my 12-gauge out of the mud, had reawakened something in me. The adrenaline had surged when the birds lifted off, and I was hooked again, after breaking the Canada-hunting habit—going cold goose, so to speak—in the late '50s. My abstinence had not been all that easy, considering that I now live in a town that calls itself "the goose capital of the world." For most of the year, Chestertown (pop. 3,500) is a quiet and charming college town (Washington College) near the mouth of the Chester River on Chesapeake Bay.
But all of that placidity vanishes when goose-hunting season comes along. From mid-November right through to almost the end of January, more Canada geese are taken in these environs than anywhere else in the U.S. The onset of the fever does not necessarily coincide with the opening day, though. No, there are signs far earlier than that. Starting in midsummer, the window display at the Towne Sporting Goods Center in the shopping plaza begins to feature T-shirts that say HONKER COUNTRY. By fall, all the gift shops—and there are many—are stocked to the ceilings with examples of what can only be called Art Ducko. It is a major achievement to find a drinking mug, a set of suspenders, a shirt, anything that is not decorated with the image of some kind of waterfowl.