We weren't five minutes into opening day of migratory Canada goose hunting season last week before we got a sobering reminder of the difference between Eastern Shore waterfowl hunting and the softer, Western Shore variety.
"Get in the blind! Get in the blind!" urged George Hughes, our host on Thursday at his creek-front farmette off the Wye River near Easton, Md., where migratory Canadas are once again plentiful enough to support a 45-day hunting season with a two-bird daily limit.
Four of us bumped into each other, scrambling through the mud to the blind's plywood swinging door in the dim light of dawn, while Hughes sped away in his tin boat, having had time to set out only about half of the floating decoys he'd planned to deploy. The air rang with the eerie honks of wild Arctic geese on the wing and our expectations were fast going stratospheric.
"Load up! Get ready!"
We jammed shells into the shotguns and peered up at a horizon suddenly all but black with birds. A thousand or more had arisen with the sun from their roost on a nearby pond and were bound down the creek toward us en masse, headed noisily to wherever it was they would spend their day. Hopefully, some would stop off right here.
"Call to 'em!" somebody said, so I pulled out my shiny new goose call and honked as forcefully and alluringly as possible. Someone else chimed in on another call. I thought it sounded pretty good, all things considered, but after a moment or two we glanced up to a woeful sight as 1,000 geese took a gander at our thinly brushed blind, the sparse stand of decoys bobbing in the chop and heard our grating efforts on the goose calls. They veered off en masse as if following some terrible, otherworldly cue, and flapped away.
How did they know? You'd think on opening day, a goose or two weary from the long flight south from the Ungava Peninsula near Hudson's Bay would be dumb enough to make a mistake. Then again, perhaps we've been spoiled.
In the time since migratory goose hunting was closed on the Eastern Shore in 1995, then reopened on a curtailed basis from 2000 to 2004, many waterfowlers (including this one) switched to hunting more gullible resident geese on the Western Shore.
These fat, complacent golf-course geese proved about as wary as farmyard chickens. When you tossed a few decoys out, hid behind a corn stalk and tooted on a plastic goose call, they'd come rolling in, low and slow. The wily migratory goose is a bird of a very different feather, not so easily duped.
Maryland and Virginia wildlife officials put the clamps on migratory goose hunting a decade ago in hopes of restoring a dwindling population of the prized game birds back to historic abundance. It worked -- maybe too well. "These geese are wary," said Paul Peditto, chief of the Maryland wildlife division, "because there are plenty of mature birds in the population now, and they didn't get old by being stupid."
Peditto says the states won't be stupid this time and won't make the mistakes they made in the 1980s, when migratory goose hunting grew into a $40 million-a-year industry on the Eastern Shore as outfitters benefited from an overly long, 90-day goose season and an overly generous, three-goose daily limit.
Even the wiliest migrating geese couldn't withstand that kind of withering pressure and the population plummeted by the mid-'90s to an all-time low, prompting the five-year moratorium on hunting. Today, said Peditto, annual surveys on the Arctic breeding grounds track the nesting success of the wild birds, while hunter surveys on the Eastern Shore track the annual harvest here.
"We were flying with one eye closed back then," he said of the bad old days. "Now we have much better information. The current data we have will alert us long before we have a problem, unlike before." Of course, that's what natural resources officials always say. Let's hope this time they get it right.
Meantime, lazy waterfowlers spoiled by those plump, Western Shore golf course goose hunts will have to re-refine their tactics and skills and get back up to speed in the wild-bird game. It took six of us almost until lunchtime to get four birds to take home, which is hardly the way it's supposed to go on opening day.
Of course, hunting wild birds is supposed to be challenging. Next time, we'd better get there a little earlier, brush the blind a little more carefully, expand the decoy spread to a more convincing size and work on our calling in the meantime so it draws the birds in, instead of running them off.
Migratory Canada goose season opened Thursday in eastern portions of Maryland. It runs through Friday, then shuts down during deer season and reopens from Dec. 17 to Jan.28. For a list of Maryland outfitters, check the Web site www.mdoga.org.
In eastern portions of Virginia, the migratory goose season opened Saturday and runs through Dec. 3, then reopens from Dec. 23 to Jan. 28.
The daily limit in both states is two birds.