Charlie Weis already has had one VIP customer at his goose hunting operation near here this season: the president of a national department store chain.
"We had to get him his limit in a hurry," said Weis, "so he could get back to Chicago for a 2 o'clock meeting."
Weis had been through this sort of thing before. Once, some high muckety-mucks from the International Monetary Fund walked out of a blind at 8 a.m., before a single goose had flown, because of a pressing engagement in Washington.
So he knew what to do. He assigned the department store chain president to his best guide and sent them off to the best of his 14 goose blinds.
As soon as daylight broke, Weis said: "The man pulled out a briefcase and started doing paper work. My guide told him, 'Now, you have to understand you're not the boss here. You have to do what I tell you.' The man said to just let him know when the geese were coming and he'd get his gun."
So the guide lured some geese, and the president put his paper work away on cue, shouldered his shotgun and killed his limit of three birds in time to catch a plane at Baltimore-Washington International and make it home for the meeting, Weis said. The geese, professionally plucked, gutted and iced in a Styrofoam cooler, went with him.
"And he got to tell his board of directors he'd been hunting that morning," said Harold Olson, head ranger at nearby Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, who was not mightily impressed.
It is goose season again and the big spenders and the beautiful birds are back on Maryland's Eastern Shore, which is rated as the best goose-shooting place in North America. The wintering Canadas cover fields, coves and ponds and fill the air with their eerie, wild cries -- and the big spenders fill the motels, bars and restaurants and the pockets of the men who serve them at anywhere from $60 to $100 per man per day.
"Goose hunting," laughed a great bear of a guide in a luncheonette outside Rock Hall after his party of four gentlemen had bought him lunch and awarded him a $40 tip, "it's 90 percent bull---- and 10 percent luck."
And a lot of money. Larry Hindman, who heads Maryland's duck and goose program, said the state figures that waterfowl hunting generates about $38 million a year, the vast majority for goose hunting on the Eastern Shore.
While duck hunting remains largely the province of adventurers who brave the marshes, almost all goose hunting is on leased farms, with professional guides, and for a price.
It's very productive. Hindman said shooters claimed 310,000 Canada geese during last year's 90-day season, a record kill. That's about one-third of the Canadas that winter in Maryland, according to unofficial state estimates.
But a kill that size evidently does not damage the stocks. This season, despite unseasonably warm weather, new flocks of geese already have arrived from the far north. Hindman said the wintering population in Maryland has stabilized somewhere under 1 million since extension of the season to 90 days in 1977, giving the Free State the largest concentration of Canadas on the continent. Before the season was extended, the population had been growing at rates that alarmed some game managers.
What is it like to kill geese from this huge flock for money? Not as bad as it sounds, say some folks, though it can be bittersweet.
Three days into the season, a couple of Western Shore men shared a blind in a cornfield leased by Capt. Dick Manning, one of Weis' competitors in goose-rich Chestertown. It was warm, windy and spitting rain when light broke. You could hear the geese nearby, and soon they were flying.
"This farm has been red hot," said the guide. He called to the geese and they responded. Two came over the blind and pitched their wings to land among the decoys, and the gunners brought them down.
More came and the men soon had their fill. The geese were not wily, and even as the men walked out birds were pitching into the decoys. But these men had been in blinds before and had sat all day never firing a shot, while thousands of Canadas soared overhead to safe resting spots. This had been a rare day.
Forty years ago, wintering Canadas were widely dispersed along the Atlantic flyway from the mid-Atlantic states to Florida, but events conspired to attract them to Maryland. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge opened near Cambridge in 1932, and corn was left in the fields for geese. Later, Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Remington Farms near Chestertown offered food and refuge.
In the 1950s corn and soybeans became the principal crops on the Eastern Shore, and wasteful new mechanical harvesters left a groaning board of grain in the fields for the birds to eat.
Maryland's wintering goose population rose from about 100,000 to close to 1 million, more than two-thirds of the flyway's population. Now, Blackwater officials say they are seeking to encourage geese to move south as they used to do.
Eastern Neck is concentrating on saving the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel and letting the geese do as they will.