It is well that Canada and snow geese are beatiful to look at, because long freezing days of watching the great birds fly over out of range is all that many goose hunters get in return for a lot of trouble and expense.
All along the East Coast, the hot spots for decoying or pass-shooting geese are held by wealthy sportmen or by farmers who lease blind sites along the waterfront or in cornfields for hundred or even thousands of dollars a season.
The Washington area hunter's choice is generally between sharing a lease with friends and neighbors-which means taking the risk of sharing the blame if one of them scatters corn to bait the birds or commits other game law violations - and paying $50 to $200 a day to commercials guides, plus expenses for long drives, motels and restaurants.
Or he can take the two-hour drive to Smyrna, Del., and hunt on Ernest Council's place for $25 a day, bunk in one of Council's lodges for $5 a night, and listen to Council's stories while eating well at modest cost at Council's restaurant.
"A lot of folks commute from Washington, drive in early and go back late and pack their own lunch," Council said. "That don't bother me a bit. I think it's terrible what a man has to pay for a day's hunting any more. I think $25 is too much, but that's what we have to charge to make expenses. That's why we have a season rate of $150. For that you can hunt six days a week if you like geese, ducks, doves, deer, rabbits, quail, whatever's in season." The fee includes decoys and transportation to and from the blinds.
As many as 500 hunters at once have been accomodated on Council's 5,000 acres, which include ponds, cornfields and marsh and lie along the Bombay Hook National Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and the Woodland Beach state wildlife refuge. The operation is said to be the largest in the world.
Council's place is as down-home and informal as they come, but there are some absolutely inflexity rules: "You don't shoot early, you don't shoot late, you don't pass the limit and you don't bait." Use of the now-banned lead shot within 150 yards of water will be included in the litany as soon as he works out a rhyme.
Twice in 23 years game wardens have caught Council clients breaking the law. "That was because we didn't catch them first," he said. "Anybody who has a mind to play games better stay away from here because we run em' off quick . I think the laws are good, for the most part, but mainly it's a matter of staying in business."
Neither Council, his sons nor any of their guides have ever been cited, he proudly states, and the assertion is backed by the chief undercover investigator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
If Council seems to harp on the legality of his operation, it is understandable. Nearly are other operations where baiting is not seens to be routine. A hunter who goes home empty-handed as well as with empty pockets is not likely to return, and the competitive pressure is enormous.
If geese were as dumb as ducks there wouldn't be so many of them. A Canada that survives the hazards of infancy and its first few encounters with hunters' decoys may live as long as a man, getting smarter all the time.
The smart ones were in residences on a couple of recent days. Although an enticing spread of seven dozen decoys had been arrayed around the pit, the thousands of birds that flew over the field stayed high or veered just out of range all through the first day.
"They're blind-wise because they've been hunted all the way down from Canada and across the line in Maryland, where the season opened two weeks earlier," the senior hunter said. "With the moon near full they've been feeding all night, so all we're seeing are migrating birds or those that are just shuttling between the refuges."
For miles around over the dead-level countryside the situation was the same, except for a couple of blinds on the edge of the state refuge, where flights of geese could be seen pitching in regularly and from which the gunfire was nearly continuous.
The senior hunter, an off-duty federal wildlife agent, was disguted. "Any agent in Delaware ought to know they're baiting over there," he said, surveying the winter-brown landscape. "They'll be closing 'em down for 10 days or so pretty soon, I expect."
During the night snow fell and clouds obscured the moon until hunkering dawn. The geese, seeking foord after hunkering down in the refuges all night, flew noticeably lower. Low enough for the hunters in the next blind, 300 yards away, to limit out.