The best goose-hunting season in anyone's memory came to a close at 5:26 yesterday evening, when dusk descended over the marshes, rivers and cornfields of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Today the 10 members of Dave Henderson's hunting club near Centreville will be doing the club's yardwork, closing up shop for the year. There are 300 or 400 goose decoys to retrieve and stack, some to be repaired and repainted before October, when it all begins again.
The pit blind in the cornfield, the hedgerow blind and the two water blinds on the river will be left to suffer at nature's hand. Then they'll be rebrushed before gunning season is resumed in the fall.
It was, the crowd at Henderson's and similar groups all across goose country will say, a season to be toasted and relived in memory for years to come, maybe decades.
From the time the first shots of the season were fired a half-hour before sunrise on Oct. 24 until quitting time last night, this was a year that seemed handcrafted for the pleasure of goose hunters. It was a great, unexpected change after the two subpar seasons that preceded it.
Opening day this season was raw, cold and windy with a slashing rain. That's everything a goose hunter wants, particularly early in season when he's more likely to encounter sunbathing weather. Few gunners went home without their three-bird limits.
The weather cooperated throughout the season and so did the geese. Nesting conditions had been right in the far north last spring, and the result was excellent reproduction among Canada geese there. The offshoot of that was a high proportion of juvenile birds among the flocks that came south in the fall.
A shortage of juveniles had been the bane of Maryland gunners until this year. There consistently have been plenty of wintering birds (the state estimates up to 1 million Canadas winter here), but in recent seasons there was a preponderance of older, wiser, hard-to-fool birds within the population.
With plenty of young birds and plenty of foul weather, the goose hunting this season lived up to its glittering reputation for a change.
Henderson and his partners knew they were leasing a good farm when they took it two years ago. It sat near enough the goose safety zones at Remington Farms and Eastern Neck federal wildlife refuge that they always saw plenty of geese when they hunted. But in their first season, 1979-80, they killed only about 60 Canadas.
Over last summer they improved their blinds, increased they supply of decoys and studied up on calling and hunting tactics. This season they let the hammer down.
"We've taken more than 600 geese so far," said Henderson, a lobbyist for a group called the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America. He was watching down break last week over a cornfield on the 150-acre farm.
"I'd say 90 percent of those birds were killed at the point blind on the river, where we'll be hunting this afternoon.
"It's gotten so I hardly ever shoot my gun any more. I get so much pleasure out of calling the birds or even just watching them that I let my guests do the shooting. I'm just the backup in case they miss. I don't know how many geese I've given away already, picked and cleaned and ready to cook."
No matter how good a season is, however, by the last few days it's hard to fool a goose. Most of the wintering Canadas on the Eastern Shore have been shot at many times by the time a 90-day season draws to a close, and Canada geese are not stupid.
Henderson honked and tooted on his caller all morning and we watched thousands upon thousands of first white snow geese and then Canada geese zoom overhead. Over one Canada strayed close enough to shooting range, and it met its fate.
At noon Henderson had us shift to the point blind on the Corsica River, where the lion's share of the club's success had come. It was a strange day for hunting, with a temperature in the fifties and only the faintest hint of a warm, southern breeze. Not ideal, by a long shot.
Yet from first light until last light the waterfowl flights never stopped. You couldn't step out of the blind without spooking something going overhead.
"Has it been like this all year? I asked Henderson.
"Oh no, we've had a lot more birds than this. I'd say two-thirds of the Canadas moved south of here when the river froze."
And indeed the Corsica presented not a warm welcome, with only occasional patches of open water in a flat slick of ice.
But still the birds came, flock after flock. The later it got the thicker they flew, until it was hard to imagine where in the sky more geese would fit.
They were wise by now, and only with some practiced calling and deft shooting did we claim two more Canadas by the time quitting time arrived.
And then the show began.
Whistling swans came first, great vees of them, the giant snowy birds emitting their high-pitched errie, "whooo, whooo" as they flew over low. Above them were smaller white snow geese, which make a call like a duck with bronchitis. Interspersed with the snows were dark Canadas, and atop all the three species were high-flying mallards and black ducks and canvasbacks.
It created an incredible moving canvas against a darkening gray sky. Someone suggest that if you were a really good shot, you could shoot a duck, have it land on top of a snow goose, which would call on a Canada which would in turn knock out a swan, thereby doubling the old adage about kiling two birds with one stone.
But shooting time was long gone and we were having more fun just watching anyway. We stood outside the blind, craning our necks and gawking at the crazy, whooping panoply of waterfowl streaking overhead.
Then it was dark, so we packed our gear and went home to toast the finest goose season ever. CAPTION: Picture 1, Canada geese fly over the Corsica River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Weather and waterfowl cooperated in the goose-hunting season that ended Saturday, making it one of the best ever; Picture 2, Taking flight over the Corisca River, birds fly at three altitudes: snow geese at the highest, Canada geese in the middle and the large whistling swans at the bottom. photos by Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post.