November is harvest time. On Maryland's Eastern Shore the corn is freshly in and farmers are running big combines through the soy bean fields. The machines thunder through the low bean bushes, cutting 40-foot wide swaths. Behind them seagulls wheel in the sky and dip down to pick over the combine's leavings.
Oystermen are tonging shellfish so big that a couple served at the H&G Restaurant in Easton had to be cut in half before they could be swallowed. Crabs are at their peak but few seem to want them. Signs by the roadside offer live crabs for $10 and $12 a bushel, half what they cost two months ago.
Fishermen are catching perch and pickerel, drifting live minnows.
Geese and ducks fill the skies. They flap in and out of the refuges at Blackwater, Eastern Neck and Remington Farms at dawn and dusk. Squirrels are loading nests with acorns and hickory nuts. Rabbits dart from their warrens in the woods. Doves and sparrow hawks swoop down from the power lines to feed.
And along the field edges quail covey up, meandering from the woods to the fields. They fill their craws with soy beans, grain and corn.
The world should be beating a path to the Eastern Shore to hunt quail. I've tried it twice now, once last year and once last week, and both times the results were startlingly good. But quail hunting remains a barely tapped resource on the Eastern Shore.
The quail season opened Tuesday in Maryland. On Wednesday, veteran bird hunter Mick Couchenour had us out at the crack of dawn on one of the Dorchester County farms he leases.
His two English setters, Candy and Sarah, were out of the truck before we doused the headlights. Daybreak is an odd time to hunt quail, but Couchenour has his ways. "I like to listen for them whistling. That way we can locate some coveys early," he said.
The birds weren't whistling this cold, rainy morning, so we set off at an even pace after the dogs. We worked a standing soy bean field first. It was 40 acres or so, and before we'd covered the first 20 my legs ached from the effort of busting throught the clingy vines.
There were no quail in the field so we set off along the edges, watching as the dogs bounded over the bushes and sniffed along the plant rows.
At 7:30 Candy came to her first point - she locked still and directed us toward a covey. We were on a soy field edge near tall woods. We split up and approached from different angles, but the dog broke her point before we got to her and began working the ground, looking for scent.
"They're running," Couchenour said. "Get ready."
One can never be ready enough for the frantic explosion of a covey of quail. The birds flushed 15 feet from Couchenour, and before I had the shotgun shouldered he and a third member of our party had fired off four quick shots. Two birds fell and 10 others flared into the woods at breakneck speed.
We picked up the downed birds and set off into the trees to hunt the rest. We found two, bagged one and the rest were left to covey up again.
It went on that way until lunch break at 1, by which time we'd scared up a half-dozen coveys and by some rather poor shooting managed to bag only 11 birds.
Six coveys of wild birds in a morning is superb quail hunting, anywhere.
The limit on quail is six a day, which may explain why few folks venture to the Eastern Shore to pursue them. Six quail make a fine meal for a couple, but three geese, also the limit and also available here, make a feast for nine or 10.
And as costly as the pursuit of those three geese might be, in won't require the leg-numbing work that goes into chasing quail for a whole day.
For Couchenour, that exercise is a blessing. "At 44," he said, "it's not easy to keep in shape. If I get over here a couple of days a week for quail hunting I'm going to live a lot longer."
He walked us into the ground that morning, so after lunch we made for his goose blind near Blackwater. We rested weary bodies.
Shortly before dark, two obliging flights of low flying geese ventured over the sunken pit in search of corn. There birds fell to round out a perfect hunting day, Eastern Shore style.
It's tough to find hunting spots for geese on the Shore because almost all the farms are privately leased. But many farmers are willing to let out-of-town hunters work their fields for quail.
We stopped at a couple of places where we were promised a free oneday quail hunt for the asking. The habitat is perfect for the birds, and even without dogs some measure of success can be expected from a serious hunt.
The best hours seem to be just after the sun begins to warm the fields in the morning. The birds move out of the forest edges and into the bean and corn fields to feed. Coveys can be raised simply by waking the field edges.