It's 6 a.m. in Queen Anne's County. Near the mouth of Southeast Creek, a gentle arm of the Chester River, a motley assortment of man and beast leaves a marina launching ramp in a sturdy boat. Loche, Star and Bumper occupy the bow, fine-tuned Labrador noses turned into a dark mist echoing with the cries of unseen Canada geese.
Within three minutes the hunters reach a blind in tall marsh grass and deposit cased guns and spare clothing while the guide gives her decoy spread one final, critical glance. She had put them out the night before, and now Jane Harding is asking herself whether this decoy isn't too far out or that one too near the water's edge.
She's only doing what dozens of her fellow guides are doing at the moment all over Maryland's bays, creeks and harvested cornfields. She's worried that one tiny mistake may be noticed by the wild geese; that the northern migrants may flare away from the decoys; and that disappointed clients may think twice before signing up with her again.
Such is the life of a guide, especially one that not long ago hunted the bogs of Ontario and Walpool Island, not far from a home in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.
In Maryland, it's accepted myth that the "Shore" guides are men of the tideland, the offspring of watermen and grain farmers with salt air in their nostrils the day they were born. Not being an Eastern Shore native doesn't worry Harding, though. "In 1970, after attending the University of Arizona, I helped punch cattle in Wyoming. You should have seen some eyes pop there. After that, anything else is easy," says Harding, 33, nonchalantly.
A fan since 1978 of the slice of real estate that Michener made so famous in Chesapeake, Harding fell in love with a place called Kennersley Pointe Marina in Queen Anne's County. "When I first came here and saw the number of geese that stayed here in Southeast Creek I didn't have to think twice. I'd look after boaters in summer and hunt the geese come autumn and winter."
There are a lot of geese, especially this year. In a distant cove, a couple of thousand geese mill about, chattering excitedly. No sooner are magnum shells shoved into long- barreled shotguns than three Canadas fly overhead, their necks craning to hear the factory-made call. They cup their wings and slowly descend over the decoys.
Guns sound and Loche, a powerful black Labrador, takes care of the business she was born to.
Success loosens everybody up; the gunners now laugh and banter easily. One of them slaps Harding across the back with a "Well done!" and a grin breaks over her face. "Compared to grouse," she says, "geese are suckers." That's just what the visitors don't want to hear. To a dyed-in-the-wool waterfowler, a Canada goose is as tough a prey as any. Stories abound concerning the uncanny intelligence of the bird. But the hunting clients know Harding is right.
"Don't get me wrong," she says, "sometimes I sit here and watch the geese fly around the decoys, carefully avoiding them. When one decides to drop in for a visit, I appreciate it as much as anything."
Around noon -- an unlikely time -- the tempo picks up. More of the birds are flying about and on occasion committing the mistake that gladdens a gourmet's heart. State and federal laws say three geese per outing is all that can be taken. It doesn't take long before Harding's job is done.
It was time to get out of the blind. On shore, Calvin Thomas, a man who performs magic in Harding's kitchen, mentioned something about sweet potatoes with goose gravy. Where there's goose gravy, the parts from which the sauce was made cannot be far behind. GOING GOOSING
Harding charges $50 per day per hunter. She has a number of waterfront blinds and two other guides who work with her. The Maryland goose season runs until November 26, and again from December 7 to January 29. Call 301/556-6364..