MASSIE, MD. -- Geese milled around the pond on a neighbor's farm all morning, but they stayed well east of where we'd been hunkered since dawn in a row of standing corn with a spread of decoys out front.
About 9 a.m. a pair finally came off the water flying low, headed our way. Dutch Swonger had no doubt his man Chester Wojcik could lure them in.
"Sing to 'em, Chester," he said, and Wojcik put his call to work on a mournful, plaintive, raspy song. "That's it," Swonger said. "They can't resist that."
The pair altered course, aiming straight for Wojcik's music. But it's never easy with geese, even this early in the season, and there were dipsy-doodles, course corrections, circles, nervous glances and wary retreats before they locked up and came sliding in against the breeze, dropping straight for the decoys and our 12-gauge guns.
We froze. Then, when the birds were 30 yards out and 20 yards high with feet extended and necks outstretched, we stood up and let them have it.
"Hi, geese!" we shouted, waving our hats. "Welcome to Maryland!" The astonished duo banked and flapped away, shaking baffled goose heads.
See, these were Canada geese -- big, dark, handsome creatures with grey breasts and white cheek-patches. The 41-day Canada goose hunting season doesn't open for two weeks -- Nov. 14 to be exact -- when Eastern Shore farms again will echo with the clatter of another gunning year.
Meantime, we were hunting geese of another sort -- smaller white snows, for which the 107-day hunting season began Oct. 17 and runs until February. We saw plenty of wary snows too, silhouetted against a distant sky in great swarms.
Once or twice they even got close enough for us to hear their gravelly cries, like an old pickup with a blown throw-out bearing. But the snow geese never fell prey to Wojcik's charms and though there was much to recommend it, the morning ended with nary a shot fired.
Which bothered me not a bit. I was there to make the acquaintance of Swonger, who'd been recommended as perhaps the last goose guide on the Eastern Shore to offer hunting opportunities to people of modest means.
Nor did the lack of shooting worry him. "Snow geese are funny," Swonger said. "You never know what they're going to do. With Canadas, I can just about promise you shooting. But snows are something else."
Anyway, he was just glad to be here at all. A chief engineer on an 800-foot oceangoing freighter, he had just survived a saga on the far side of the world that nearly ended his hunting season altogether.
On Oct. 1, Swonger was headed through the Suez Canal after a three-month tour of the Persian Gulf and Far East, bound for home and his beloved duck hunting, when his ship struck a shoal, tearing a 400-foot-long hole in the bottom. It took a week to make a temporary patch, after which the vessel steamed for Malta and five months in drydock for repairs.
Unfortunately, the steamship company wanted to keep the crew on for the whole period for technical reasons. Swonger, with seven leased hunting farms, 20 goose blinds, three duck ponds and a fleet of seven gunning boats waiting, panicked.
But in Malta he won a reprieve and a plane ticket home, landing at midnight Oct. 18. The next morning he was in his favorite pond blind, celebrating opening day of duck season.
"I love hunting and I love the sea," Swonger said. But only by meticulous planning and good fortune has he managed to combine the two. Once more he lucked out.
Which is good for us all, because Swonger really does offer an everyman's opportunity at Eastern Shore goose and duck hunting, otherwise largely the province of big spenders willing to shell out up to $250 and more a day.
"He's got a kind of a headboat approach," said Ed Stivers, mate on a Chesapeake Bay fishing boat who first told me of Swonger. "You pay your fee and if you can't find anyone to go with you, he'll put you with a group or even take you by yourself if he has to."
For $80 a gun, Swonger offers guided goose or duck hunting on his fields and ponds. For $50 a gun, he runs sea duck trips (four-person minimum), or for $100 you can go goose hunting in the morning and sea ducking in the afternoon. "But that's just an introductory offer," said Swonger. "After that it goes up to $120 for the combination."
Moreover, Swonger has the flexibility to book the day before you want to hunt, so you can watch the weather and pick a good day. In waterfowling, that means the nastiest, coldest, windiest one. And he'll let you call the birds yourself, help set decoys, bring your own dog and so forth, making the day more a hunt than a business proposition.
Stivers said he's had good luck with Swonger, and from the looks of the operation, the prerequisites are in place -- good fields, decoys and guides.
Of course, I'll need to hunt with him a few more times to make a knowledgeable assessment of the operation, but I liked it enough to book a spot on opening day for Canada geese.
"I figure a lot of people only get two or three chances a year to hunt," said Swonger. "I try to make it easy for 'em."
"One thing I like," I told him. "If the motor breaks down when we're out in the middle of the Bay sea-ducking, at least we have the chief engineer aboard to fix it."
But Swonger laughed and said, like almost everyone else on earth, he looks at a broken outboard and sees the devil disguised as a machine. "When they break, I just take 'em off and put on a new one," he said.
Ah well, so much for expertise. At least he's honest.
Maryland sea duck and snow goose hunting seasons are now in progress, with Canada goose and the brief November duck season to follow. For information on Swonger's operation, call (301) 643-2766.