Long before the first frost of autumn settles over the corn stubble of Queen Anne's and Kent counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Jack Moore follows a daily ritual of checking his crab pots and running his massive boat to Rock Hall harbor to sell the blue-clawed delicacies that a sometimes stingy Chesapeake Bay wills him.
By 2 p.m. the commercial crabber's chores are done. But Moore, a powerfully built former state policeman, is only half-finished. The real task of securing a winter income still awaits him.
When icy winds and sleet become the norm along the mid-Atlantic states, Moore lives on the money made as a professional goose-hunting guide. Maryland's eastern counties have been called the world capital of the Canada goose--a compliment readily accepted by the weather-beaten hunting guides who, starting in late October, live with wooden goose calls dangling around their camouflaged bodies.
It is September and Moore has been hard at work, readying his guide operation for the 10th consecutive year. Not a day goes by when he doesn't check out suitable farmland that can only be leased for the duration of the state waterfowl seasons. The "Shore" farmers are a shrewd lot, and there is money to be made on acreage that anywhere else would lie dormant until the spring plowing.
The hunting guides know that wild geese favor certain cornfields year after year, unerringly homing into the food source again and again, despite 1,000-mile migration flights from northern breeding grounds.
If you find such a place, offers to rent the goose-producing acres come quickly. Lease costs for entire farms can run from $8,000 to $10,000. A single harvested field that still turns up surprising amounts of leftover, bird-attracting kernels can be rented for as little as $1,500 and as much as $3,500. All that for a scant three months of hunting.
The moment a deal is struck for a seasonal lease, Moore and a few dozen of his fellow guides in every sector of the Eastern Shore, go into action. In some cases, a backhoe needs to be rented to help dig goose pits--damp, rectangular holes covered with cornstalks under which hunters will hunker to await flights of geese attracted by inviting decoys.
If Moore is lucky enough to re-sign a lease for acreage he's hunted for several years, all the better. Chances are the hedgerow blinds or pits need only be freshly dressed with cornstalks or cedar branches, the work held to a minimum. But new, previously unused fields may require a bit of diplomatic negotiation.
"I sometimes have to talk the owner into going over the corn again to cut stalks low to the ground," Moore said. "A goose stays away if the stalks are so high they'll touch her wings when she lands. It has to be low. Real low. But most of the farmers on the shore know that already."
Like all experienced waterfowl guides, Moore has memorized flight and feeding patterns of the majestic winter visitors. Any sites that border on the Chester, Corsica or Sassafras rivers or any of their tributary creeks rate a hard second look. Jutting land points, away from houses or nearby road traffic, become prime areas.
If past flights and landings under certain wind conditions were noticed repeatedly in years past, such shore properties will be gobbled up by the guides. And it's all the better if the approaches to the hunting sites are difficult, some of them even requiring access by boat.
It is a serious game played by knowledgeable men raised along the shores of the Chesapeake. Lately, however, the natives have had to contend with competition from well-to-do sport hunters who enter the leasing contests with fat billfolds.
"It's getting so bad that some farmers you've been dealing with for years don't even want to talk to you," Moore said. "They're getting better offers from lawyers, doctors and other professional men from Washington and Baltimore. Take eight or 10 attorneys who like to hunt and want to form a little syndicate, then throw money around as if they owned a printing press. You can see what I'm up against.
"Luckily, many of the do-it-yourselfers are a little lazy. That's good for me. I'll end up with the more productive hunting for my clients. I don't necessarily have to be able to park my pickup and walk 50 feet to the nearest blind.
"I'll take a hard-to-get-to river island or cornfields around a nice marsh. My customers don't have to worry. I'll get them there in complete comfort."
"Complete comfort" means a boat or truck ride, a competent guide (if desired), many well-placed, handmade decoys, coffee and plenty of hearty banter while awaiting the birds' arrival. All of that, of course, for a fee. A single shooter who doesn't mind sharing a hunting blind bench with a stranger--who soon becomes a pal anyway--pays $50 to $60 a day. Group rates vary from $200 to $230 a day.
After the hunt, Moore can arrange for the geese to be "picked" and packed in plastic bags ready for the freezer or the oven. He'll also be happy to instruct newcomers in the intricate art of goose calling--or shooting--if necessary.
This type of hunting is by far the most expensive activity when compared with lesser outings, such as rabbit, quail or deer hunting. But the excitement of a decoying gaggle, the guide softly "talking" to them with a finely tuned call is unforgettable. So unforgettable, in fact, that novices to goose calling may as well know that professional guides often try out as many as 40 and 50 commercially produced calls before they settle on one or two that are deemed "halfway decent." The models cast aside frequently sit on a shelf awaiting an unsuspecting newcomer.
It is big business--a Maryland winter industry that few outsiders know much about. Big enough that the state has a special three-day visitor's waterfowl license--something unheard of in other areas of the United States.