The live goose landed in a gaggle of wooden geese, just 30 yards from a blind filled with goose hunters. That is normally a terminal state of affairs for a goose. But according to Bruce Maxwell's watch, there were still 15 minutes to wait until Maryland's goose hunting season would legally begin.
As the early morning sky grew lighter over the Chester River, the hunters watched the goose paddle among the decoys, sure that this Canada bird, descended from a long line of suspicious travelers, would soon notice its wooden company and split. But at exactly 6:53 a.m., one- half hour before sunrise, any chance of a goose getaway was gone.
"That was a young one," said Maxwell, a white haired Chesapeake Bay waterman and sometime goose hunting guide. "Still had the yolk on him."
If early reports prove accurate, Friday was a dangerous day for geese and a great one for the men and women who come here from all over the United States to hunt them. The start of Maryland's 90-day goose season was announced by fire from wooden blinds by the water and pits dug deep in farm fields, as shotgunners took aim on Canada geese that had stopped in Maryland for a mid-migration snack.
"We've got a bumper crop of geese," said Tom Beaver, a Centreville native and one of hundreds of Maryland and Virginia guides who wait for the return of the great gray and white geese each year with something between hope and hopelessness. "I've been living with them (geese) for the last month."
Geese are more than game birds. For hunters, guides, farmers who lease their fields for hunting, restaurant owners and motel operators, they are modern-day manna from birdland.
While other waterfowl, such as black ducks, have lately turned tail on their traditional resting spots by the Chesapeake Bay, geese have remained more than loyal. Every year when cold winds blow them out of Canada, they travel down the Atlantic Flyway, stopping off in Maryland and Virginia despite the sometimes lethal welcome.
"Twenty years ago there were fewer geese than there are now," said Capt. Richard Manning, a 48-year-old Chestertown guide who has been fooling geese with decoys and artificial calls since he was 12. On opening day, Manning had 17 guides working for him, with hunters on fields he had rented within a dozen miles of Chestertown.
By 11 a.m., when the geese made their usual midday pit stop, most hunters took their own break at roadside restaurants for coffee, lunch and first tellings of what would eventually be well-crafted lies.
"Our blind was being attacked by geese," joked Richard Berkeley, a 30-year-old Bethesda lawyer who spent the morning hiding in a cedar-covered shack in the middle of a cornfield a few hundred yards from the Chester River. "You get the dumb ones early."
Berkeley and two friends, John Camp of Middleburg and Bill Martin, a Baltimore banker, had invested a night's sleep and a day's pay to get themselves guided to geese.
"You break through time here. From work time to solar time," said Martin, who has been coming to the Eastern Shore for a decade to hunt. "You get a fair bargain for your dollar over here."
Goose hunting is not a cheap thrill. The average fee charged by guides on the Eastern Shore is $70 per hunter. For that you get a blind or pit to crouch in, decoys and artificial calls to catch the geese's interest and, most crucial, fertile land to hunt on.
"When I was a young boy, only the rich who owned waterfront property could afford to hunt waterfowl," said Manning, who has a round, red face and green eyes the color of his camouflage cap. "Gunning is still expensive, but not like it used to be."
Fields that used to never see a duck or goose are now some of the choicest spots for goose hunting. The reason for that is a change in farming in the area. As more corn and soybeans have been planted inland, more waterfowl have left their marshes and river banks in search of them. Manning estimates that 65 percent of the geese killed this season will be over fields rather than water.
Guides every year go through a preseason hustle to rent hunting rights from the farmers who own those fields. Lease fees range from $1,000 for a few acres of corn stubble to $15,000 for the best waterfront rights.
"I had a man quote me a price of $20,000," said Sonnie Conley, a Tilghman guide. "It was 350 acres of waterfront land, but $20,000?"
Guides say it can take them half a season just to make expenses. And in some years, when the geese come late or leave early, that is sometimes more than all the guides get. But Friday, with skies filled by honking geese and the customers happy, the guides were thinking happier thoughts.
"On a scale of 1 to 10," said Maxwell, who had donned a yellow cap with pink feather in honor of getting a first-day limit for his customers, "I'd have to give this day a 10."