The phone rang at Joe Rupp's place long after dark, interrupting his latest ranting about the stupidity of goose hunters.
He snatched it off the hook. "Goose hunting?" he thundered, incredulous. "I'll tell you what the word is. The word is OVER. That's right, oil the guns, put up the decoys, light the fire and open the whiskey. It's done with. Better luck next year."
He slammed the receiver down and roared, "Goose parties! Are they ever going to leave me alone?"
The following morning the short-tempered Rupp was up before dawn and shortly after that he was setting out decoys for his querulous final hunting party of the year, us.
It was, he assured us, an exercise in futility. We would hunt a water blind, but there was no water. Only ice. "We're just going through the motions. The geese are gone." He was right.
So ends what may be the most disappointing goose-hunting season ever for Eastern Shore gunners, who have come to expect great things.
Last year they got them. Faced with a monumental oversupply of high-flying migrants from Canada, the state expanded the season from an already expansive 70 days to 90.
The idea was to cut down on goose concentrations by either killing off the surplus or inducing a portion of the birds to move elsewhere by harassing them.
It worked. In 1977-'78 Maryland hunters killed close to a quarter-million Canada geese. It marked a half-again increase over the year before and word spread fast.
Rupp and other Eastern Shoremen now can be heard across the flat Delmarva Peninsula, raising voices against the hordes of interlopers who have come to seek "their" geese.
The fact that he makes a living by guiding those same interlopers doesn't seem to matter.
"These people that came over here in the last few years, they don't know anything about waterfowl, about their habits or how to go about hunting them. They leave decoys out in the fields and the water from October to January. They shoot at birds out of range; they shoot at birds coming into another guys blind. And then they wonder why they can't get birds to come to their decoys, when there's decoys and blinds in every field from here to Dorchester County."
It has been a bad year indeed for goose hunters, from the Sasafrass and Bohemia rivers where Rupp roams to the Blackwater swamps down south.
Vern Stotts, head of waterfowl in the Maryland Wildlife Administration, guesses the goose take in the state fell to about 160,000 this year, even though the long season was in effect again.
It wasn't for lack of birds. His agency's aerial counts indicated just about as many Canadas as last year. The birds just seemed smarter.
Stotts guesses it was not a particularly year for reproduction in Canada, and the birds that flew here this fall were mostly mature geese. They didn't get to be older geese by flying into anybody's decoys.
Other factors entered into the decline in "harvest," as the wildlife managers call it. There was very little rough weather early in the season, when most geese normally fall to hunters. Bad weather is good hunting weather.
And the birds appeared to stick in larger flocks, Stotts said. Big flocks are more wary than small groups.
Stotts had one other theory, and if it bears out it bodes no good at all for Eastern Shore waterfowlers. He claims the geese seem to be following a trend toward wintering further north every year. That led to heavy concentrations on the Eastern Shore north of the Bay Bridge this year and left the costly leased hunting fields around Easton, Cambridge, Oxford and St. Michaels high and dry.
Canadas used to winter in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. In the last two decades the trend has put them in Maryland and Delaware.
In the meantime, the goose-hunting guides at the head of the $20-million-a-year Maryland waterfowl hunting business are nursing ulcers, leaving the phone off the hook and waiting for next year.
Says David Powell, who leases farms in the Easton and Tilgman's Island areas, "It's so bad this year even the guides aren't lying."