The waterfowlers have finally gone and the beachgoers won't be arriving for three more months, which means the Eastern Shore of Maryland is calm at last and Bill Jenkins can finally get to use his hunting land.
"I rent this farm with a goose club," Jenkins said last week as he roamed the edges of soybean and corn fields. "I come over during goose season and sit in the blind with my dogs. But I'm just waiting for the geese to quit flying so those boys (the goose hunters) will go home and I can hunt birds."
"Birds" means just on thing to serious hunters - quail. And for all the glorious publicity it gets about geese, the Eastern Shore is every bit as much a quail-hunting paradise as it is a waterfowl heaven.
If everybody loved to hunt birds as much as Jenkins does there might be wars over which faction got to use the flat fields and soupy marshes. But quail-hunting is work and goose-shooting is mostly play, so it works out that bird-hunters get the run of the land only the last two weeks of the season.
"Many's the day I've come home barely able to walk," said Jenkins, describing the bird-hunter's hardships. I"ve got charley horses in both legs, blisters on my feet, my face bleeding from the briars."
Last week Jenkins, desc and Mick Couchenour took a day off from work down in Charles County to show a novice some superb quail-hunting, Eastern Shore-style.
Quail are resident birds, and with its endless grain fields the shore provides great residence. The birds don't migrate, and some people believe they barely move from field to field. "We have coveys that we just know are going to be there every time," said Jenkins. "We even give them names - the bottom covey, the covey in the thicket, the pines covey."
But for all their predictability, quail are wary creatures and hard to spot, their brown-and-white feathers blending superbly with the dull colors of the winter marsh and field. They covey in the thicket may well be there, but it's making no announcements.
The best hunting is early in the season be fore the beans and corn are cut down, when the quail feed in the fields. The dog can sniff them out, then the hunters "kick them up" for superb shots in the open.
This time of year, with the fields cut back, the coveys hang on the edges and dart out to pick up waste grain, then scurry back to the cover. Even if the dog finds them they're hard to shoot in the woods and still harder to track down after the covey breaks up.
We found that out at Jenkin's farm. After two hours of slogging through the prickers and swamps we had one bird in the bag an one convey flushed, so we pushed on 1 Couchenour's land in Dorchester County.
Rough going there, too, battle through the deep brush behind the charging do. And not very rewarding. At noon we still had but one bird in the sack, though we seen two coveys flush out of range.
The novice, for one, was beat. Legs ache head ached, arm ached from toting the 1st gauge. He'd fired only once and it was a seeming a little silly.
Couchenour offered a break. "We'll then the truck back to town and get some lunch He looked nonplussed.
Halfway out the driveway he looked ever less plussed. He got to the road and kept going, across it and into another corn field "Just want to check this edge," he said "You guys can stay in the truck. I won't be minute."
Twenty minutes later we decided we couldn't let him have all the misery. We found him around a bend in the field, head down, pursuing his English setter, Cand along frozen cornrows.
As if on command, Candy went on point Jenkins and Couchenour raced to her, figures forgotten as they hurried across the quarter-mile of field, begging the birds not to jump prematurely. They made it.
Fifteen yards from the motionless do the stopped, then advanced slowly, guns at the ready. Five steps later came a silent explosion, a whoosh, and 15 golden brow birds burst skyward at breakneck speed.
Jenkins fired twice and one bird fell in puff of feathers. Couchenour pulled the trigger and swore. Unbelievably, he'd forgotten to load up. There was much laughter.
The dog pursued the singles into the woods and we plunged in after her. The hours spun by as we trdged through the unfriendly brambles and briars, footson and weary. Each time we felt the urge to stop another covey would explode or the dog would point another single.
At day's end six birds graced our sacks. We thought, we could remember eight coveys flushing and our shooting had been in a word, atrocious.
Cold, tired, hungry and battered, we worked back to the truck. Three men, 1 hours, six birds.
"They beat us today," said Couchenour. But tomorrow is another day.