When Johnny George started hunting snow geese near Sudlersville, Md., a couple of years ago, it wasn't by choice. "It was more like self-defense," he said with a chuckle.
Now he's girding anew for the annual invasion of hungry hordes from the Arctic. "We only have a few so far," George said Thursday, "maybe 1,200 to 1,500, but the rest will come soon. They eat their way over from Delaware."
Within a week or so, George expects 10,000 to 15,000 snows to settle into their winter schedule of resting nightly in his freshwater ponds and flying out daily to graze en masse, like some giant food processing machine, in surrounding corn and soybean fields, picking them clean.
This is hardly textbook behavior for the pretty snows, which are supposed to winter in small groups in the salt marsh, nibbling at cordgrass roots. That's how it was until about five years ago when, following the lead of Canada geese, snows moved inland around Queen Anne's County to devour grain left in fields by mechanical harvesters.
Along with this change came a big increase in population, according to Maryland waterfowl specialist Larry Hindman. Suddenly, where a few years ago a handful of snows wintered along Maryland's seashore, now at least 60,000 will take up residence on the coast and inland. And the snows that travel inland don't come in bunches. They come in barrages.
For a while, fellows such as George, who runs a Canada goose-hunting operation called J&P Lodge, ignored the hordes in hopes they'd go away, but when the new birds started pushing Canadas out of traditional hunting fields, the battle was joined.
Now, every year a few more goose-hunting operations in Queen Anne's switch over and gear up for snows. Hindman said he sees the white-decoy rigs popping up when he makes his waterfowl census flights.
Because snows travel in flocks of 10,000 and more, hunting them is nothing at all like hunting Canadas, which are more "family-oriented," as Chestertown guide Floyd Price put it. New techniques are emerging, but some guides still find it hard to adapt.
"They're the most unpredictable bird there is," said Price. "You might see 10,000 at a time and not get to shoot any." Other times, all 10,000 might try to land on your head.
"I never used to like to shoot at big flocks," said Price. "I felt that way about snows, too, until I found out that if you don't shoot big flocks, you don't shoot."
Watching a flock of 5,000 snow geese try to land on top of your blind is one of the wild wonders of the outdoors, I found out last winter while hunting with guide Charlie Weis in Price, Md. The feathered mobs descend like occupation armies.
The snows emit a weird, gravelly growl as they fly, which Weis insists is their rallying cry: "Food-food-food-food-food-food."
Against this low-pitched chorus, thousands of birds come barging across the sky in waves. When the leader sees and approves of a decoy spread, the entire flock begins a half-hour or more of circling. This is something Canadas never would do.
Lower and lower they fall, flock atop flock, some circling clockwise and some counterclockwise, until the sky is filled with a spectacular melange of noise and motion and life.
It'll take your breath away.
On other days, of course, the lead goose votes no on your decoy rig, 5,000 geese keep on trucking and nobody shoots anything. These are the days that give the willies to fellows such as Price, who knows he generally can get a few Canadas to give him a tumble as long as they are flying.
Weis, who has been pursuing snows for three years, is taking the lead among Eastern Shoremen on developing innovative snow goose techniques.
Everyone agrees that big decoy spreads are required to fool the big flocks, but no one likes to spend the kind of money 1,000 snow goose decoys cost. Last year, Weis solved that problem by spreading disposable diapers in his fields, but he didn't like the plan at the end of the year when he had to throw all his decoys out. "They came apart in your hands," he said.
So last spring, he bought several thousand bleach bottles at 10 cents apiece and spent the summer halving them and painting black patches on to signify the black on snow goose wings.
Weis now has the half-bottles rigged 20 to a string, and is planning to mount a washing machine wringer on the back of his pickup so he can wind up his entire spread of 1,000 or more decoys in an hour and move it to a new field as the geese change their feeding spots.
Weis has other tricks, including flapping a white bag on a 20-foot bamboo pole to get the lead goose's attention as the flock passes. "If you miss the first goose, you've missed them all," he said.
Weis is putting all this energy into snow goose hunting because he's convinced it is "the goose of the future." He foresees snows, with their aggressive feeding habits, displacing Canada geese from large areas on the Eastern Shore.
But Hindman said the Canada goose "is still king" in Maryland, and he doesn't expect anything to change that.