Canada goose season opens Friday in Maryland and all across the Eastern Shore, except where Bill Sayler holds sway, hunters will be hiding in damp little holes in the ground, sqawking out goose sounds on wooden calls.
Not at Sayler's place. "If somebody brings a goose call to our blind we shoot it," he said.
He won't hide, either. At 6 feet 7, Sayler stands up tall when geese are flying around and waves at the birds like an airport traffic director bringing in a 747.
He's a true believer in a relatively new tactic for hunting Canadas, about 1 million of which spend the winter eating corn and soybean spillage on the Delmarva Peninsula. He and his three sons run a guide service called "The Flaggers." Instead of tooting on goose calls, they flap home-made styrofoam wings at passing flocks to lure them into range, and apparently it works.
Sayler, a student of such things, is convinced lack of motion on the ground is what scares geese away from conventional decoy sets. "Look at these birds," he said as he punched up a videotape of Canadas in a field. Sure enough, every few seconds one or another stretched its wings and flapped. Some even hopped off the ground.
"That's what we're trying to duplicate," he said.
Over the last 10 years he's built electrically powered flapper decoys, waved nylon flags and silhouette decoys over his head and even flown goose kites. Finally he designed the setup he thinks works best: a pair of plain, black, three-foot-long styrofoam paddleboards with handholds, which he waves overhead until the instant it's time to shoot.
It might sound ridiculous, but hunting tapes Sayler made outside his blind all end pretty much the same way -- with vees of geese shearing off big flocks and heading like homing pigeons for his spot.
Sayler admits last season was not his best. That was true across the goose fields of the Eastern Shore as unfavorable weather and wary geese combined to make life difficult for commercial guides.
But the hard times did nothing to shake his confidence in flagging, and he'll be hard at it again this weekend.
If flagging works it could be a boon to goose hunters like me who hate hiding. Normally, a paying gunner has to stay down in a covered pit all day while the guide watches the sky and works flocks with his call. When a few birds do get in range, the guide throws off the top of the blind and the gunners rise up, half-blind and bewildered. It's less than thrilling.
Much of the joy of goose hunting is watching the birds, anyway, which Sayler lets his parties in on. "I want my gunners standing up and ready when geese are flying," he said. "It scares the birds when three people jump up at the last second. They're going to flare off. But if you're flagging, you can stand there waiting and they come right in."
By way of demonstration, Sayler ran more tapes in his living room in Bradshaw, Md., just outside Baltimore. They showed geese sailing into pit blinds full of rowdy-looking characters making a ruckus. "I was sitting in the decoys in a folding chair when I made these tapes," said Sayler.
He doesn't use goose calls because he doesn't think geese can hear them, and you can't flag and blow a goose call at the same time.
Other rules he and sons Mike, John and Billy break at the blinds they lease on the Shore?
"Most folks like bad weather, but we like sunny days when the geese can see us flagging," said Sayler. "We hate clouds."
Where most waterfowlers use heavy, 12-gauge shotguns, the Saylers favor lighter 20-gauges. They say flagging brings the birds close enough for 20-gauge shots.
"And we don't care where we hunt, as long as it's in the flyway," said Sayler. "People say one farm is better than another, but I don't care. As long as we can see geese, we can bring 'em in."
Sayler said he learned about flagging from Charlie Gunther, who used to toss his decoys in the air and splash the water with his hands to simulate action on the shallow Susquehanna Flats.
Nowadays many Eastern Shore guides will wave a black nylon flag on a pole to get the attention of distant flocks, but Sayler is the only one I've seen who keeps at it until the geese practically land on him.
One other nice thing: He's cheap. Sayler and his sons run half-day hunts, mostly so they can get back to their day jobs after lunch. For information on his guide service or on the styrofoam flags, write him at 12227 Philadelphia Rd., Bradshaw, Md. 21021.