Chris Wolfe has been watching Canada geese fly around Bull Run Mountain since he was a boy. He used to slip out into his pastures from time to time to sneak up on a flock and pot one for dinner during hunting season.
That's as much as he knew about goose hunting until he noticed a spiraling increase in the population in recent years and decided to try hunting over decoys, Eastern Shore style. "About five years ago we had our first 'official' goose hunt," said Wolfe, a cattle farmer.
"My brother Richard and I borrowed 13 silhouette decoys and set them out in a field. We lay down shoulder to shoulder on the ground and covered ourselves with corn shucks. Fifteen minutes later, we were walking out of the field with two limits of geese. There was nothing to it."
Later that year the Wolfes took a break to hunt Sika deer in an Eastern Shore marsh with Alger Stoneburner, a part-time hunting guide who'd been forced to give up commercial goose guiding when populations of Canadas declined in Eastern Maryland. The brothers described their mountain waterfowling success, and an alliance was quickly born.
"Stoney came out and we did the silhouette thing for him," Chris Wolfe, 34, said. "We showed him what we had and he said, 'You've got the geese, sure enough, but we're going to have to make some changes in the operation.' "
Stoneburner saw an opportunity to revive his goose-guiding business by moving it from marsh to mountains. The upshot is Appalachian Waterfowlers, a goose-guiding service he runs with the Wolfes on 20,000 acres of leased farmland in the rolling Virginia countryside west of Washington.
So far, so good. "Last year we ran 117 parties, and 104 of them got their limits of geese," Stoneburner said.
Goose season reopened last week, and the Wolfes and Stoneburner were out in the dark before dawn to greet it. I tagged along for a look and was not disappointed. Geese poured in to our box blind under the loom of Bull Run Mountain, and we bagged our two-bird limits in a hurry.
Stoneburner, who works as an electrical contractor in the District when he isn't organizing deer, turkey and waterfowl hunts and overseas hunting expeditions for sporting clients, conceded there's still something weird about goose gunning in cattle country.
"It's backwards," he said. "We're guiding for geese up here and turkeys in the marsh, the exact opposite of what we used to do."
To join him at 5:30 a.m. at Gilberts Corner, where he meets his hunting parties, I had to drive first through the Maryland suburbs, then the deserted District streets, then the Tysons Corner megalopolis. It was a predawn concrete-jungle tour.
But it was worth it to watch a golden sunrise over Bull Run Mountain on a cold, still, clear morning. It was the sort of bluebird day we used to hate when goose hunting on the Eastern Shore: cloudless, mild weather that gives geese little incentive to move from the safety of overnight roosts on rivers or ponds.
"It's different here," Stoneburner said. "The birds here roost on small ponds. They don't all bunch up in one place and just stay there the way they used to on the Shore. You get them moving around from ponds to fields all day. Just watch."
We busied ourselves in the predawn darkness setting out six dozen magnum shell decoys. It was below freezing, cold enough that Stoneburner encouraged us to set the decoys close together in small family groups. "When it's cold like this, geese crowd together to conserve body heat," he said.
The wind was hard to judge, swirling a bit before the onset of day, but we reckoned it would settle in from the north when the sun came up so we set the spread to encourage birds to land from the south, into the expected wind. "Leave a pocket," said Stoneburner, clearing an opening in the middle as a landing zone.
We could hear geese gabbling contentedly in the valley behind us, where a large pond lay, and a few more out front on a smaller pond. The first rays of light lit a freshly plowed cornfield where Chris Wolfe said birds had been feeding for several days.
We piled into a plywood hedgerow blind overlooking the field and pulled the cover shut. It was a chicken wire lid with cedar stalks tied on sparsely so you could easily see through--a crucial feature for those of us as interested in watching birds work as we are in shooting.
The sun hadn't yet crested the eastern ridge when the first small flock of geese lifted off the pond out front. Stoneburner and Wolfe honked away on their goose calls but the birds were uninterested. Another small flock lifted off behind us and went its separate way.
Slowly the action built until groups of birds were flapping east, west, south and north. "It's just a matter of time," said Stoneburner.
Sunrise brought the breeze--a steady, gentle zephyr from the north--and the breeze brought the birds. A flock of 12 came upon us from the pond behind, circled out front eyeing the decoys, spun behind the blind again and flapped along the hedgerow directly overhead. Then the birds turned sharp left and cupped their wings for the agonizingly slow descent into the wind that is every waterfowler's fondest hope.
On they came, feet down, necks craning, honking softly.
"Get ready," said Stoneburner, and our free hands moved involuntarily to the lid of the blind, to be ready to throw it open when the command came:
Goose season in portions of Virginia west of I-95 will run through Feb. 15, with a two-bird daily limit through Jan. 15 and a four-bird daily limit thereafter. Appalachian Waterfowlers charges $450 a day for parties of up to three gunners, $600 for four. Call 703-327-6188 or 410-226-0077.