The goose decoys didn't look quite right, but then the ducks didn't look so hot, either. If you thought about it, the whole setup was off.
Wild ducks and geese don't mix. Even if by some accident they did, they wouldn't mix this way -- geese off to the left of the blind, huddled in a bunch, ducks on the right, and down the middle a zone so straight and barren it looked like the part in a fourth-grader's hair. All that was lacking was a big sign: "Newcomers Land Here!"
I was bellyaching about this to Dave, my cheerful and optimistic hunting companion, when he said to pipe down because a goose was coming.
This was on Friday and hunting conditions were excellent, which is to say it was miserable, rainy, cold, gray, windy and unfit for humans on the Eastern Shore. It appeared the old goose wanted a place out of the weather and was about to make a poor choice.
The bird flew directly overhead, not far out of range, as we scrunched up against the blind to stay out of sight. It went on up the muddy Miles River for 15 seconds or so, then, in response to Dave's urgent calling, started a long turn that clearly would bring it back our way.
This is the magical moment in goose hunting, when the bird is deciding whether to commit to landing in the decoys or thumb its nose and flap away.
Enthralled by the scene, we failed to notice the flock of 15 wood ducks that looped over the trees on the far shore and barreled across the river at flank speed, headed straight for the blind. The ducks banked en masse over the decoys and whizzed off downriver before we could decide whether to shoot, salute or give 'em a toot on the duck call.
"We could have had those," I hissed at Dave.
"We've got the goose coming," he hissed back.
But when I looked up the goose had made up its mind, too, and was veering away. Did I see it shaking its head? Was that a snicker from on high?
The lesson of this disappointing sequence is simple: One mission at a time.
If it sounds obvious, consider that in our everyday lives we forever combine tasks. If we go to the Post Office, we stop for gasoline on the way. We take the paper when we go to lunch, listen to Cyndi Lauper tapes while jogging, watch TV at dinner.
In a complicated society where time is priceless and gadgets help us, it makes sense to try to do two or three things at once. So why not duck and goose hunt at the same time?
Because in the outdoors, where time goes unmeasured, it doesn't work.
I concluded that several years ago while watching Jody Powell, then press secretary to President Carter, trying to paddle a rubber kayak down the Cacapon River in West Virginia and simultaneously fish for bass.
He wasn't really kayaking and he wasn't really fishing, and by day's end he'd caught no fish, hit about half the rocks in the river, and opened a hole in the rubber boat and sunk it twice.
I'm reminded of the perils of doubling-up every time I try to fish from a sailboat, which is like lighting a pipe while tying your shoes. And I often recall the answer of the Wanderbirds Hiking Club stalwart when he was asked why club members don't chat, sing or sniff flowers during their challenging hikes in the mountains.
"You'll find out," he said, "when we get to the next hill."
Things in the wild are hard enough to do one at a time.
So how come whenever someone suggests a quick trip over to Cathole Creek to see if the perch are biting, I wonder whether to bring the camera, in case an eagle should happen by, or a few chicken necks to entice the crabs if the fish won't play nice?
Well, you never can tell. An hour or so after the wood-duck-and-goose debacle, a couple more woodies happened by our schizophrenic rig and dropped into range for just a moment. Dave's gun jammed but I dropped the pair, neat as you like.
And that afternoon a great, fat goose, its craw gorged with corn, came careening up the river looking for a place to spend the night. Dave, past the stage of thinking any bird was dumb enough to be fooled by our curious spread, said, "Take him on the pass," and I did that too, with one, clean shot.
What is it they say about blind squirrels and acorns?