The wind was pumping across the Eastern Bay at a brisk 15 knots out of the northwest. Off the port quarter, a string of decoys bobbed along in the building chop.
The guide and his one-man hunting party were hunched over in a camouflaged 16-foot aluminum skiff, scanning the horizon for swift, low-flying sea ducks. A whitewing scoter wheeled into view, spotted the decoys and made a long sweep around the boat.
The big drake was 30 yards off the bow when the hunter rose and fired, missing the bird's tail feathers by 10 feet. By reflex, he pumped another shell into the chamber, swung and fired again. The duck fell cleanly; the guide's golden retriever leaped overboard to gather it in.
"Nice shot," said the guide.
It was a nice shot. Nice and illegal.
The hunters had enjoyed a fairly successful morning (four shots, two ducks in the bag), but as the day wore on, the guide grew itchy. The birds had stopped flying near his six strings of decoys as the boat lay at anchor a mile or so east of Poplar Island.
"Let's try something different," he said. "Let's try a drift."
The hunter asked if that was legal, hunting from a drifting boat. "Sure," replied the guide. "As far as I know, you can shoot from any boat as long as it's not under power."
As far as he knew wasn't far enough. The hunter checked it out later and found specific language on just that subject on a map of zones for the special sea duck season in Maryland. "Shooting from boats or gunning rigs will be permitted only during the time they are resting at anchor." Case closed.
The sea-duck season in Maryland is designed for hunting five species - whitewing, surf and common scoters, old squaws, which arrive later in the year, and eiders, which are only found near the ocean.
There is a specific sea-duck zone that includes the open Chesapeake Bay plus aections of some estuaries, including the Eastern Bay. There is another gunning rig zone for all waterfowl in season, but it does not include most of the estuaries.
Since the hunters were in the Eastern Bay estuary, their prey should have been sea ducks and only sea ducks.
But with goose hunters banging away in the fields on shore and driving the geese out to open water, they found themselves in prime pass-shooting territory for Canadas.
On the guide's advice, they took their shots, although without success. The hunter didn't find out until later that that was illegal, too. He was glad he had missed.
Even that's not all.
Beyond risking the lives of game he shouldn't have been pursuing, the hunter was putting his own life on the line. The little skiff had no floatation devices. The bay is big water and it was not flat calm day. By law, they had to be 800 yards off shore before they hunted. Had the boat gone over, they were goners.
Maryland law is specific on that, too. Personal floatation devices are required for all passengers on any boat.
One more violation to round out the day. The guide advised the hunter he needed no special gunning-rig license to hunt sea ducks. Only the owner of the rig needed the special license, he said.
But again the law is clear. Anyone hunting from a gunning rig needs a special $5.50 license, obtainable from the clerk of the court in the county in which the rig is located. It was quite a day. Three ducks and four violations of state law.
The simple fact is that as the Eastern Shore becomes more popular with hunters, the people who make their livings off the hunting grow less likely to know the law.
Plenty of goose and duck guides are not even native Marylanders, let alone natives of the Shore. They are "big chips" to be made from the hunting boom, as a loquacious entrepreneur was babbling the other day at the plush Decoy Bar in Haston.
Leave big chips around and people will trample the game laws to get at them.
And the sportsman will be playing the fool.