When a man shouts "watch out" in a goose blind, it's time to duck, and that's no pun.
"Watch out," Pat Luckett of Pittsburgh hollered at 10 minutes to 8 on opening morning of the goose season Friday.
Dany Keene, the guide, jumped back in his chair. Pete Smith of Birmingham, Ala., plastered himself against the back wall of the barn.
Long seconds passed while geese squawked and honked overhead. The echo of Luckett's final shot died over the water. Then it came down, like a bowling ball dropped from the Tower of Pisa.
The goose fell form 40 yards high, missed the leading edge of the blind by five feet and smashed into the water, sending a shower 10 feet high in the air that splashed the hunters' faces.
"Wow," said Keene, who sees some strange things guiding parties for 90 hunting days each fall. "A man got his arm busted that way last year over at St. Michaels."
So goes opening day.
Luckett already had dispatched the first Canada goose of the season at five minutes past 7 that blustery morning. A ridge of red sunlight over the cornfield behind the blind said it was shooting time.
Keene was still standing waist-deep in the wind-whipped water out front, organizing the floating decoy.
The man on the radio said it was 40 degrees but it didn't feel it, with the sea breeze fresh in the hunters' faces.
Geese made their eerie cries from a pond 200 yards away. Suddenly, the sky off the left hand corner of the blind turned black. It was Canada geese, 30 of them, wings cupped, pitching into the decoy.
"Take 'em," Luckett urged, and leapt to his feet with his gun raised. But Smith, his partner, had made the inexcusable mistake of failing to load up, and while he fumbled about, the deed was done.
"Should have waited," said the guide, which is what guides always say.
Anyone who wonders what goose hunting means to the financial welfare of the state of Maryland ought to spend the night before opening day at the Tidewater Inn here in Easton.
This venerable and pleasant old hotel suddenly turns into an armed camp.
"I tell ya, it looks like the beach-head at Anzio," said a veteran goose hunter. "They come in with bandoliers across their chests. I've never seen anything like it."
Last year, I had dinner at the Tidewater on the night before the opener. I found myself sitting next to an elderly gent with a British accent.
"Here for the hunt?" I asked.
"Yes," said he. "I flew over today on the SST."
This year, I could find no Britons but I did manage to link up with the old Goose Hunting and Martini Drinking Association of Burlington N.C.
They are a dozen or so paragons of the textile industry who enjoy such elegant and expensive diversions as salmon fishing and bear hunting in Alaska, antelope hunting in Colorado and bill fishing in the Atlantic.
But their favorite thing in the whole world, they say to a man, is goose hunting near Oxford on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
They call the spread they hunt "Murderers Row."
Maryland's Eastern Shore is considered the finest goose-hunting place in the world and Thursday morning's hunt with Smith and Luckett on the Miles River showed how that benefits locals.
The men were hunting a piece of property run by an outfit called Professional Guide Service Inc. of St. Michaels. The codiector, Charles Novak, was at the Tidewater at 5 a.m., gathering up his clients and assembling his guides for the hunt.
"We'll have 20 parties in the blinds today," he said.
"Twenty people?" I asked innocently.
"Oh no," he said. "That's 20 blinds, with four to a blind. We hit over 1,500 acres."
That's close to 80 hunters each shelling out at least $60. Add it up. It's not goose feed.
How long can the goose bonanza last?
There are those think the peak is over, although the geese have yet to show it.
Vern Stotts, who heads the water-fowl division of the state Wildlife Administration, predicted that the Shore will again be awash in Canadas this year.
But Stotts believes that geese are showing an increasing tendency to winter further and further north. "We're already losing some wintering geese from the southern end of the range in Maryland," he said.
Last year, the goose harvest in New England and New York was up, he said, while it declined everywhere south of there in the Atlantic flyway. It dropped by half in Maryland, from 240,000 to 120,000.
Still, with a predicted wintering population of close to a million birds here this year, no one is selling his goose guns.
And even Stotts admits that this year should be better than last. $"We had an excellent nesting season north," he said. "And we expect an above-average number of juvenile birds."
Juvenile Canadas are the least wary and most susceptible to hunters.
So another season is on and hunters ply the coves and fields from the Susquehanna to the Transquaking and points beyond.
Men toot, goose calls in the streets. The Tidewater Inn is booked solid until Nov. 18, and down at the Federal Wildlife Refuge at Blackwater, the geese and ducks fly in and out all day.
And sometimes they venture over the hunters' blinds nearby.
"Magnificent," said Pat Luckett, peering up at a huge V of a hundred sturdy Canadas just out of gun range.
"Just the looking, that's the joy of it. If you get to shoot, why that's icing on the cake."