The lights from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power station twinkled gaudily across the dark waters of the Chesapeake. We were making our way west out of the Little Choptank, inching through the shallows near Taylors Island.
"A lot of fellows don't like to travel at night like this," Tom Collins was saying. "They don't know their marks, but if you want to hunt you've got to get out early. There's no point in getting out there after the morning flight."
Albanus Phillips III was at the helm of the sturdy wooden skiff. From afar came the endless honking of great rafts of Canada geese.
But this day Phillips (no relation to the writer) and Collins weren't after the mainstay of the Eastern Shore waterfowl scene. With a two-week hiatus in goose and duck season they were taking advantage of a gift from the state - a short special season on scaup, delicious river ducks that nobody calls by their real name.
"Blackheads," said Phillips. "Man, it sure would be nice to get into a mess of them. We haven't seen a good crop of blackheads around here in years."
Like just about every kind of waterfowl on the bay but Canada geese, scaup are on a downtrend. Times are changing and the habitat isn't what it once was.
Grasses used to cover the shallows in the creeks and backwaters of the Bay. They provided food for wintering ducks, but today in most places where you can see bottom, all you see is mud.
And the laws are stricter and better enforced, so the age-old Eastern Shore practice of baiting with grain to keep the ducks around is declining, happily.
Long gone are the days when Collins and Phillips, as youngsters 25 years ago, could shoot at ducks till their gun barrels threatened to melt, then meander out into the flats and dig oysters for lunch.
But the memory lingers, and these two grown men shared the same kind of excitement last week that they took with them a generation ago to the shooting hotbeds of Bloodsworth Island and the Bishop's Head Gun Club, then owned by Phillips' father.
They laughed that their guest had brought along only two boxes of ammunition."Man, shells are expensive out there on the Bay," said Collins, hefting an ammo box that must have held a lifetime supply.
The decoys were set in the dark before dawn, then set and reset again until they flared out properly in strings of 20. Cedar boughs were jammed into the thwarts of the little boat. Coffee was poured, shells loaded, the men hunkered down on the floorboards and the wait began.
As if by command, as the first pink rays of sunlight lit the eastern sky the first flights of ducks began.
We'd see them whirring across the gray horizon, frantically beating their wings and heading in bee-lines for unknown places.
Were they blackheads?
"Hard to tell in this light," said Phillips. "But they look like see ducks to me."
Second later came the ducks' first mistake. Two came barreling south against the faint morning breezes, flared briefly and swing toward our decoys.
Phillips was up in an instant and firing. Two quick blasts from his 20-gauge Remington pump brought both ducks down.
"Oh Lord, I hope that's not a canvasback," he said as the first turned belly up to show bright grey feathers.
Canvasbacks were banned to shooters several years ago, more victims of changing habitat. As luck would have it, we were spared the agony of an illegal kill.
The felled duck turned out to be a hen old-squaw, also in season, and with light fast increasing identification proved easier the rest of the morning.
We saw blackheads, but it wasn't until hours later that three of the prized river ducks took our bait and flared to the decoys.
Phillips and Collins wasted no time. With three shots the three scaup were dispatched. The guest stood shaking his head, wondering how he could have missed.
"You got one," Collins comforted him. "In this kind of hunting, everybody shoots and everybody hits."