GALENA, MD. -- David Price is a goose-calling wizard. If you don't believe it, just ask him. A homegrown product of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Price has been listening to the haunting Aa-RRONKs! of passing Canadas and man's efforts to imitate them all his life -- long enough to know by heart the cries of lonesome hens, wary ganders and contented feeding geese, and duplicate them all.
And although he's too nervous to compete before audiences in goose-calling contests like the big one in Easton, Md., "When there's geese in the air," Price said confidently on Monday, "I very rarely make a mistake."
He, Sam Beachy and I were on Beachy's 360-acre grain farm here, hidden away in a well-brushed blind on the edge of a one-acre pond, with geese nowhere in sight or sound as the sun came up. It was opening day of the second half of Maryland's vaunted Canada goose season, but everything pointed to a hard day's hunting.
The drive over the Bay Bridge at 4:30 a.m. was under the silver glow of a full moon, which provided all the light geese needed to feed at night and retire to the safety of water for the day.
Nor was a cloud in the sky, which meant the sun would glint brightly off the plastic decoys, making them look even more lifeless than they already did, sitting flat and still on the skim-iced pond. Trees in the distance signaled no hint of a breeze, and on top of it all it wasn't even very cold. Just icily quiet.
Price conceded there was little reason for geese to move in numbers on a day like this, but he wasn't worried. "If they fly at all, I'll get 'em in here with this," he said cockily, brandishing a foot-long, wooden "Eastern Shoreman" goose call hand-made by Sean Penn in Easton.
It was more than idle bragging. Price must be the most experienced 29-year-old guide on the Shore. He had his first job at age 11, when a group of hunters from Hagerstown drove over every few weeks, stopping to pick him up before dawn.
The stop was a bother, Price said, "but they wouldn't go without me." He called geese for the men and in return they took him to lunch or brought him a trinket. In those days, his father was only charging $10 a day as a guide, Price said. "I thought it was great. I was really doing something."
Nearly 20 years later, Price still takes people goose hunting, but now the price is $300 a day for a party of three and he's making a good living at it. He employs a dozen-odd guides and leases enough land on the upper Shore for 38 blinds.
But he still loves the hunt. So sure is Price of his goose-calling skills, he claims he doesn't even like the days at the start of a season when a limit of birds is almost guaranteed. "It's no fun to go out and get three geese in half an hour and go home," he said. "My favorite time is late in the year, like in January, when you really have to work for 'em."
The sun by now was up to the tree line. Out on the eastern horizon, huge strings of geese began moving, but the wrong kind.
"Snow geese," said Price as the strings made their way across the orange sky. "You can tell by the faster wingbeat, and they look lighter. You can just about set your watch by snow geese. They get up the same time every day. Not like Canadas."
A few flocks bled off the big pack and crossed over the blind, high, snow white in the body with bright black wing tips. Their cries were eerier even than Canadas, gravelly on the low notes and high-pitched at the end. It's a call Price freely admits he doesn't do well. "I've never had any luck with snows."
A lull of nearly an hour passed before the great brown-and-black birds began to move. "They're waiting for the frost to get off the fields before they come out to feed. The sun's got to warm things up, and by then the decoys will look bad," said Price. "It's going to be hard."
He had it right. The first Canadas flew in small, wary flocks. Price put up his call and went to work. It was a raucous symphony of goose talk that evoked no sign of interest from the passing birds, which no doubt were put off by the still-life below. But shortly after the first flocks passed, a single appeared, flapping our way from out of the sun.
Price redoubled his efforts, working the call so hard and long that sweat sprouted on his brow, saliva dribbled down his chin, his eyes bugged out and he grunted like an offensive lineman. Hard going, but it worked.
The single crossed, circled high, reversed direction and came back 150 yards up, almost directly over the blind, cupped its wings under its breast and tumbled out of the sky like an autumn leaf dropping to its destiny. A stunning sight, and the first of several over the next couple hours.
Geese never did move much, as expected, but from among the few that did Price pulled enough into range with his animated noisemaking that Beachy and I had our limits by 10:30, when the morning flights stopped altogether.
It made for a perfect hunt, salvaged under tough conditions, Beachy and I agreed. Price acted as if he did it every day.
I doubt it. But maybe he does.
Maryland's Canada goose season runs through Jan. 30. Price said he has plenty of open dates late in the season, his favorite time to hunt. His chief rival on the upper Shore, cousin Floyd Price, has even more land and also has dates open. Write David Price at Rte. 2 Box 238C, Centreville, Md. 21617, or Floyd Price at 213 Box 34, Kennedyville, Md. 21645.