James Beers is a hunter, especially of waterfowl. He also is a game biologist and has been a game warden among a series of outdoor jobs. So he had mixed feelings when he won promotion and transfer to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service headquarters here in the effete and overpopulated East.
"Hunting is by no means the center of my life but it is very important to me," he said as we drove into a spectacular dawn near Accomac on Virginia's Eastern Shore. "I grew up in Illinois, out on the prairie, and hunting was a big part of my adolescence. My son was just nine when I was transfered to Washington three years ago, and I was really worried that the hunting experience quality hunting experience, would not be available to him."
Beers had thought of the Boston-Richmond urban corridor as one unbroken belt of smoky cities and sprawling suburbs, the game long since driven away by destruction of habitat or fenced in on private preserves. Instead he had found that within a few hours by car from Washington there is good public hunting for every sort of bird and beast in the East, often better hunting than he'd had in such places as storied Montana and fabled Alaska. His son, now 12, is a veteran hunter and camper and harvester of oysters, clams and other wild food.
We were headed that morning for two of Beers' favorite hunting grounds, Folly Creek and Metomkin Inlet on the ocean side of Accomack County. We were going to catch a spring tide that promised a raft of rail birds in the marsh, and then go just offshore in pursuit of the sea ducks (oldsquaws and white-winged, black and surf scoters) that stream south outside the surf line in uncountable hundreds of thousands through the fall.
Local tradition dictates that rails, or "marsh hens," must be hunted from a light skiff poled through the patches of high grass left above water when everything else is submerged by abnormal tides, and that sea ducks must be sought from a boat big enough to survive turbulent shoal waters.
A traditionalist in the ethics but not the techniques of hunting, Beers uses the same small boat for rails and ducks and all other waterfowl. His 16-foot fiberglass Barnegat Bay sneakboat is "a mass of compromises," he said, small and light enough to be pulled or poled through the marsh but sufficiently weatherly to live in a moderate sea.
She poles like a pig in a pit, tending to go round and round, but Beers hunts rails on foot, slogging through waist-deep water in waders, holding his shotgun at high port arms while pulling the boat behind. When he hits a deep or very soft spot, the boat is always at hand.
Unfortunately, this morning few rails birds were at hand; although conditions were perfect for hunting them, only three flushed in two hours of hard stalking in the sucking mud. "I had been told it was a bad year for rails down here and this confirms it," he said. "If there was anything like a normal population we would be putting them up left and right." We found ourselves unable to be disappointed, because the play of the sun in the scudding clouds was so rich.It wasa relief to get in the boat and let the motor work for a while. Beers had timed things so that the trip to Metomkin Inlet was with the ebbing tide, and half an hour later we were putting out decoys between the inner and outer bars of the inlet, a cinch using Beer's bridle-and-snap rig. Once he was satisfied with the placement of the stool Beers anchored the boat less than 30 yards away.
"Now we cover the boat and ourselves with a camouflage net, right?" I said.
"Nope, now we pour a cup of coffee," he said. "Scoters are fast and tricky to shoot, but they aren't wary. Hardly anyone hunts them, because in the first place you have to come out in the ocean and in the second place they think scoters are fish-eaters and inedible. Actually they eat mollusks and whatever, rarely if ever fish, and the taste is unusual but excellent. I barbecue the breasts and legs, rare. The kids love them."
Flocks of scoters, ranging from half a dozen to several thousand, were passing beyond the outer bar. "My God, where do they all come from?" I asked. "And why don't they come over here?"
"Nobody is really sure about their breeding and wintering ranges, not like we are about most game birds," he said. "And they'll come over here, plenty of them, before long. Let's have some lunch."
Lunch was spread out on our laps when the first flight came whipping low over the boat, and mine got soaked by a black scoter that almost fell in the boat. Then lunch got trampled underfoot as a flight of surf scoters came out of the sun. They wheeled long enough for me to reload twice, so that I had the unnerving experience of firing nine fruitless shots at the same flock of birds.
"Now you know what the term 'gunning' means," Beers said. "This is what it must have been like at the turn of the century. And here we are within a few hours' drive of where 100 million people live, yet we are the only hunters out."
Wave after wave of birds came over, and the four that fell from the three o'clock flight filled our limit of 14 exactly. We rode back to the dock with the turned-again tide, and shortly after sundown were showered and seated before a splendid dinner at the Channel Bass Inn in Chinacoteague.
"Most of my hunting days down here are pretty good, especially when the boy is with me," Beers said as he candled the crystal wine. "Sometimes, like today, they are round and almost perfect.
"This sort of experience is available to anyone - all this marsh is public - yet most of the time I find myself alone or nearly so. I use a good deal of my scientific training in figuring out my rigs and where to hunt, but anyone who is willing to spend a little time watching the birds and thinking how to hunt them could do the same."
He shook his head. "I suppose the hunting tradition is dying out in the East; my son is the only kid in his school who does it, water-fowling, bowhunting for deer or whatever.
"It's not the world I grew up in, but while it lasts it sure is beautiful."