The first, far honk of the day's first Canada goose sounded like the horn of a 1940s DeSoto. In an underground bunker, dug in the middle of a cut field of corn, we choked the conversation in our throats and listened past the drip of the early morning drizzle for more.
"Coming straight at us. Get ready," said Steve Neukam, 37, a tugboat engineer, Chesapeake Bay waterman and part-time goose guide, who was peering through the dried corn stalks that covered our pit while he waved a small black flag to imitate the flapping of goose wings.
"Forget that pond," he whispered to two geese looking for a place to land. "Come over here and have some of our corn."
The wild and magical Canada geese have returned again to Maryland. By the hundreds of thousands, the black and gray honkers have migrated from their summer homes in Canada and near the Arctic Circle, down the Atlantic flyway to the farm fields and marshes beside the Chesapeake, where most will spend the winter.
Another migration, of hunters armed with shotguns, has traveled here from Maine to Florida to greet with gunfire the birds they love. In wooden water blinds and camouflaged field pits, the hunters watch the sky for wedge-shaped flights of geese, hoping their decoys and false calls will bring them near.
"There are a lot of geese here. A lot of geese," said Capt. Richard Manning, 50, a Chestertown guide who has been putting customers in goose-shooting range for more than a quarter-century. At 6 a.m. on Monday, the third day of Maryland's 107-day goose hunting season, Manning was inside a Chestertown restaurant, crowded with guides and hunters dressed in camouflage, drinking coffee and exchanging money.
The business of waterfowl hunting is worth $38 million a year to the Maryland economy. Farmers sell hunting rights to choice fields for as much as $10,000 a year. Guides get that money back by charging customers up to $95 each. Gas stations, motels, restaurants, gun stores and government licensing agents take the rest.
Despite the lethal fire and rising expense, both the geese and their hunters keep their annual rendezvous with fidelity.
"We seem to have more birds here for this time of the year than usual," says Larry Hindman, waterfowl program manager for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. At the moment, most of the geese are located in just three counties -- Princess Anne, Kent and Cecil. When the temperature drops, the geese should begin again to move south. But there is no accurate way to predict exactly where or when.
"The only thing I'm convinced of after 25 years in this business," said Manning, who had 10 guides working three farms and half a dozen water blinds during the first week of the season, "is that I don't know anything about geese."
Fortunately, the field we hunted was in an area thick with geese. On the first two days of the season, most of Manning's parties had shot their limit of three geese per day each before the sun had risen above the trees.
"In two days, I've only been out here for a total of four hours," said Neukam, as we began setting up about 60 painted decoy silhouettes around our blind. "I've been spoiled."
We had just climbed into the pit when a light rain began. If it grew any stronger, we knew the geese would not fly. Then there was the temperature, warm and threatening to get positively hot as the day progressed.
"Geese just don't eat much when it's warm," said Neukam, removing his hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Then we heard the sound of distant honking. Neukam watched the geese. We watched Neukam. Two geese approached on the left, then wheeled away, cupped their wings and soared across the pit opening, well within shotgun range.
"Get them," said Neukam, as we stood and fired. Both geese dropped. During the next 90 minutes, there was never a time that we could not at least hear the grronk of geese. Most flew too high to risk a shot. We did not want to hit a bird unless we were sure it would fall, and this day there was no temptation to compromise principles.
By 9 a.m., we had shot our limit. Too soon, it seemed. We would have liked to sit and watch the great v-shaped flights of geese for hours more, but ours was a choice spot and we knew there were other hunting parties eager to take our place.
"Let's let some of the other boys in here to get their geese," said Neukam, attaching the geese to a sling for the hike home.