It was a perfect day for goose hunting--cold, gray and threatening rain. But after three hours on the marsh, hiding in a hunting blind that was about as big as a coffin, we hadn't seen a snow goose fly close enough to down with a ground-to-air missile.
"It's been rotten," said Carlton (Cork) McGee, a 52-year-old waterman, decoy carver and hunting guide who ferried us to a blind directly opposite a federal wildlife preserve on Assateague Island, where he has successfully hunted wildfowl for 25 years. "Haven't had but two good weeks the whole season."
The goose-hunting seasons, which ended Saturday in Maryland and ends Monday in Virginia, began with a bang. But with a few exceptions, most notably in some of Maryland's inland cornfields, the seasons closed with a whimper.
The unusually warm weather put a chill on folks who like to go gunning for geese. Blue skies allowed geese to fly higher while searching for food, and moderate temperatures made the need for those trips less frequent.
"We just haven't had the weather to drive them," said McGee, who has a face that is ruddy red from a lifetime on the water, eyes the color of robin eggs and an accent that is peculiar to Chincoteague and Elizabethan England. "It hasn't been cold enough to freeze the farm ponds, so the geese have kept going there. They're not gonna come into these marshes when they can get corn on the mainland."
In the best of circumstances, goose hunting can induce mania and despair. The giant birds are extremely intelligent to begin with. By the time they get to this area on their migratory trip down the Atlantic flyway from Canada, they have been shot at so many times they are as hard to fool as IRS agents.
"Hunting geese is like waiting for somebody rich to die and leave you money," said McGee, never moving his gaze from the horizon. "It don't happen too often."
McGee is not much for story telling. But wait with him long enough and you can hear stories about Chincoteague before it became a stop on the tourist trail, when poaching was a way, sometimes the only way, of life and the area seemed boundlessly rich in ducks, deer, oysters and clams.
"I don't know what happened," said McGee, "but the water just gave out. Oysters can't live anymore in the deep water and the clams are no good. Something's made them small and black. A man's got to have three or four jobs just to survive now."
McGee has tonged and dredged for oysters and clams since he was a boy, done a spell of commercial fishing and, in the last three years, has begun selling duck and goose decoys that he carves to collectors. The job that would seem easiest, leading hunters to waterfowl, is the one that has worn on him most.
"There ain't no heavy labor to it, but I swear it's the hardest work I've ever done," said McGee, turning from the horizon to share a quick look, then quickly turning back. "Worrying about where to take people so's they can find ducks or geese just gets on my mind so bad I can hardly sleep. There's nothing I can do, I know. But I just fret about it."
McGee had so many gooseless days this season that he even began talking about retiring. That is conversation that alarms his customers, some of whom have been hunting with him for more than a decade. But as uncooperative as the geese have been, McGee has nothing but respect for them.
By the end of the season, the Canada geese are so wary, they seldom get close enough to his blinds for hunters to see more than their silhouettes. Fortunately, there are snow geese. They are a bit slower and, because they have only been hunted in recent years, less cautious.
This day, we are hunting the snows, five- to seven-pound geese that are white except for black trim on their wings. For Mike Bianco, a 29-year-old waiter at The Palm restaurant in Washington who had never hunted them before, the prospect kept him eager even after hours of empty skies.
A little after noon, the rain began. Suddenly, the marsh was alive with ducks, gulls and geese. We were huddled in the blind, talking softly, when five geese, attracted by a flock of white decoys a dozen yards from us, wheeled into a northeast wind and began to set down almost on top of us.
Bianco and I waited until they were almost directly above us before we stood to fire. Four of the five geese were hit. Bianco dropped three with as many shots.
Two hours later, we had taken eight snow geese and McGee was no longer talking of retiring.
"The more they are hunted, the smarter those snow geese get," said McGee as we walked through knee-deep mud to his boat. "I guess the wilder and smarter he gets, the more I like to shoot him."