In 1946 Gordon Downing's father bought 380 acres of farm land and marsh on the Patuxent River. A few years later Gordon, still just a lad, picked out a spot in the marsh and built a duck blind. Thirty-some years later he hunts the same blind. In his opinion it is, simply, "the best duck-hunting place on the river."
There are plenty of ducks and plenty of room to hunt them, but what makes Downing's spot doubly nice is that he still farms the high ground for tobacco, soybeans and corn. Thus his brick farmhouse is within walking distance from the hunting place, and the wood stove goes strong all winter long.
Duck hunting being so pleasant here, opening day has become something of a celebration. It's gained a reputation as a terrific place to be, and this year Downing turned that reputation into a profit for Ducks Unlimited, the conservation organization.
He auctioned off an opening-day hunt on his farm at the Prince George's County DU banquet. The buyer was Maryland state Sen. T.V. (Mike) Miller of Clinton, who donated $200 to DU so he and his father-in-law, Dick Clifton, might hunt.
Downing, a great big bear of a man, did it up right. At 5 a.m. his whole family was waiting for the guests to arrive. Downing had a chuckle while he waited. "When I told Mike's wife to have him here by 5:15, she said, 'In the morning?' I said, 'No, 5:15 in the afternoon, when it's dark.' She said, 'Oh, that's okay then.' "
Miller and Clifton were only a little late. When they cleared the door Downing's wife, Virginia, started piling food on a formal dining table.
There was country ham, thin-sliced breaded venison, sausage, eggs, orange juice, cheese grits, toast, coffee and, as a crowning touch, two bottles of chilled Rhine wine.
Outside, the fields were bathed in the light of a full moon, a fact that displeased Downing. "We might get shooting today," he said, "but with that moon and no wind, I can't promise anything." He speculated that ducks and Canada geese had been flying and feeding by moonlight.
Breakfast took too long. Day was already breaking when Miller, Downing and I headed for the marsh blind and Clifton and one of Downing's sons set off for a goose blind in the cornfield.
We tramped along a wet path through the marsh grass. At the end lay a battered old rowboat, into which we loaded decoys. A field mouse jumped from the decoy pile and skittered away.
Ducks were flying everywhere. We paddled the rowboat down a narrow creek to the blind. "Late," muttered Downing. "Ten minutes late."
It mattered not. Once the decoys were scattered the ducks began to alter their course to get a look at our little spread. A few out of the hundreds we saw charged into the cove with the idea of joining the decoys. Downing, a superb wing shooter, had his limit in minutes. His yellow Labrador, Daisy, retrieved the ducks expertly.
The wood ducks and mallards kept flying. It took Miller and me a while, but eventually we had our limits, too.
Downing stayed in the blind to act as guide for the next gaggle of hunters. We paddled out and Clifton and his crowd took the boat back in. By 10 they had one duck shy of their limit, and called it a morning.
This may sound like the kind of hunting one only gets hundreds of miles from civilization, but Downing's farm is in the little town of Nottingham, near Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County, 45 minutes from downtown Washington.
The tidal Patuxent is something of a treasured secret among those who hunt on it. Downing said it's primarily because farms along the river, like his, were bought up years ago by local folks who still make a living raising tobacco and grain. They keep the marshes largely to themselves.
Unlike those in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where farming is becoming more and more a function of conglomerates whose aim is profit, profit, profit, the farms along the Patuxent remain family-oriented. "Four generations of my family have hunted this marsh," Downing said proudly.
People come around frequently to ask Downing for permission to hunt his land. With Canada goose populations increasing all along the Patuxent every year there is even pressure to lease some fields, the way it's done on the Eastern Shore.
But so far most farmers along the winding old river are resisting change. Downing said he doesn't mind taking an acquaintance hunting, but the fields and the marsh remain, first and always, his.