"Without being anthropomorphic about it," says Skip Ladd, a habitat biologist for the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, "you have to wonder what goose would be dumb enough to overfly the cornfields of Delmarva for the empty fields of North Carolina. Any animal is going to stay where the feeding is good. You don't find many white-tailed deer in the deep forest; you find them on the edges of the protective woods and the rich meadows and farmlands."
Ladd and his fellow biologists in the bureau are concerned about this "short-stopping" of the Canada goose population for two reasons. "One of the basic aims of game management is to provide equitable recreation for all concerned," he says. "With most of the Canada geese concentrated in Delmarva, and particularly on the Eastern Shore, the traditional wildfowling states to the south are going relatively gooseless." During the 1969-70 season the bureau encouraged differential regulations between the northern and southern portions of the Atlantic flyway. Indeed, Georgia, Florida and the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina have had, or will have this year, closed seasons on Canada geese, while the rest of the South from North Carolina on down will have much more restrictive bag limits than the Delmarva area.
The second reason for concern is less recreational and far more biological. "A dense population of animals is prone to epidemic diseases," says Ladd. "Take that duck virus, enteritis, that ripped off the waterfowl in South Dakota in the winter of 1972-73. If something like that should hit the goose concentrations on the Chesapeake one of these winters, we could be right back to 1951 in no time."
In addition to the heavy goose gatherings in Delmarva, some smaller concentrations are beginning to winter even farther north. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York have acquired small pockets of Canadas that breed along the lake shores and sounds, raise their broods within sight and sound of highways and motorboats, and delay their fall migration or winter over in the proximity of sloppily harvested farm fields. Some families are even supported by delighted, do-gooding bird watchers. "A really tough winter—with ice followed by heavy snow—could do them in," says Ladd. "Our experience shows that it is almost impossible to drive wintering waterfowl further south once they've settled into an area. Starvation is often the result."
Another potential problem for the more northerly-dwelling goose is the rapid expansion of suburbia into the farmlands surrounding such cities as Baltimore, Philadelphia and the New York- Newark complex. Ladd is most concerned about a proposed bay bridge from Baltimore to Kent County, on the Eastern Shore. " Kent County is one of the heavier 'goose use' areas," he notes, "and the bridge could create a potential for extensive land development on the northern portion of the shore." Once cheap resort housing takes the place of cornfields, so long, honkers.
Still, for today, which the philosophers sometimes say may be all we have to live for, the geese are there in Delmarva. They are present in an abundance and density that few men have ever seen in this lifetime, and perhaps in greater numbers than we shall ever see again. Their presence has changed the life-style of the Eastern Shore for the better. In the old days, the waterfowl of the region were slaughtered out of hand by market gunners and later by their successors, the outlaws, for the rich man's market in the big cities of the Northeast. Hardy watermen of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the Carolinas snuck forth every fall in their sneak boats, armed with huge "duck cannons" capable of firing two pounds of shot, or with the equally lethal "battery guns"—mounting up to seven or 10 barrels loaded with black-powder and heavy shot loads—to mow down as many as 75 birds in a single discharge. These birds, gunned down on the water as they rafted together, or on the rise if the market gunner's luck was really good (rafting ducks tend to have their heads down; rising birds expose their vitals to the shot), were sold unplucked and ungutted to agents for the big city restaurants. A brace of canvasbacks might bring $2.50 to the gunner; a pair of Canada geese $5 at Christmastime.
Today, a single gunner hunting with a guide on the Eastern Shore—and one had better hunt with a guide if any shooting is to be possible at all—will probably pay $50 a day for the chance to shoot at a Canada goose. And if the shot comes, the kill cannot be guaranteed. Despite its barn-door size and relative slowness in the air compared to a duck in flight, the Canada is deceptively agile and very hard to kill. Geese shot in the body can lumber off, obviously "sick" but still flying hard, to die in some quiet swamp corner and make a meal only for foxes. One should shoot for the head and the neck, and only when the birds are so close that it seems they are perched on the shotgun's muzzle.
The key to Canada hunting is a good cornfield coupled with a tremendous display of decoys. In recent years the guides, who usually lease the fields from farmers eager for a winter crop of dollars (up to $10,000 per location) rather than legumes, have taken to using outsized silhouette decoys to draw the circling skeins of geese into the corn gleanings. Interspersed with the giant silhouettes are the more traditional goose decoys, most of them built neck-down as if feeding, with a few standing in the guard position: head erect, bill aloft and probing for danger. A guide like Matt Walsh, who works out of Chestertown, Md., will lease perhaps six fields and set out as many as 3,000 decoys. In each field he builds a blind or a pit, which is located with its back to the prevailing winds so that when the geese come in to land they will usually be moving toward the gunners.
"They are clever birds," says Walsh, a short, wide, infinitely hopeful man whose family has gunned wildfowl on the peninsula since time immemorial. "Sometimes I think they're as smart as a dog. You can see them looking over the decoy set and just shaking their heads. The old gander, the guy that leads the pack, he just flat don't like it. But you get a kick out of that anyway, even though a good look is mighty thin soup."
"Goozin' " with Matt Walsh or with one of his several assistants is a long day, but inevitably exciting. The rendezvous occurs before dawn in Bud's Restaurant and Raw Bar on the outskirts of Chestertown. Matt circulates around the tables, hearty and hopeful, stopping to meet his customers (as many as 40 a day), filling out license forms, introducing his assistants and talking with each party about their blind sites and the prospects for their day.