On January 1, 1988, I went goose hunting for the first time in more than 30 years. Right up to Auld Lang Syne time at a party the night before, I had laughed derisively just at the thought of it. That was when a friend of mine, Neil Brayton, who has a small farm in Queen Anne's County, just across the river from Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore, suggested that I might like to knock on his door at 5 a.m. the next morning—no, that morning—and take a walk out to a goose pit he had. "Lot of birds been coming in the last couple of days," he said.
"Sure, I'll drop round," I told him, barely straight-faced.
But I did just that, although several hours later than the suggested time, and found Brayton as relaxed as he normally is. His 10-year-old son, Jay, though, was bouncing around the kitchen in a near frenzy. "Kid's been up since dawn," Brayton said, "waiting to shoot his first goose."
So the three of us went out in the cold sunshine, across the yard and through a pine grove. "Keep very still," said Brayton. We peered cautiously through the trees. In the field beyond, maybe 200 Canada geese were feeding on a couple of uncut cornrows. Brayton grabbed Jay by the collar just as he started to make his break for the house and the pump shotgun he'd been given for Christmas. "Hold it," Brayton said.
December 19, 1988
We watched for a while, then retired to the house. In the kitchen, Brayton made hot chocolate. "Jay," he said, "we've got an ethical problem here. We could jump in among those geese, get off a few shots, kill a few birds, with almost no problem. But is that the way you want to take your first goose?"
"Yes," said Jay.
His father started again, carefully explaining that these birds had come in every day, unbothered, since the beginning of the season seven weeks earlier; that it wasn't a sporting proposition to charge them, blasting away; and that if we were careful, if we shot maybe twice a week from the pit out in midfield, we could work the flock again and again. "We'll wait a while," he said, "then we'll sneak over to the far side of the field and make a leopard-crawl into the pit I've got there. Then we'll see what happens. Maybe new birds will fly in, and I can try calling them in."
That's precisely what we did, later in the day, working our way down a frozen ditch, elbowing across the open ground. Brayton professed little expertise in goose hunting, my own shooting was both rusty and learned under far different conditions and, of course, Jay was but an excited tyro. It was no surprise, therefore, that long before we made the pit, one of the sentinel birds on the ground, his neck raised high while the others grazed, spotted us and gave the alarm call. He could hardly have failed to do so. At the last moment, the lanky Brayton chose to make an ill-judged dash for the pit, gun held high, coat flowing in the wind, leaping across the cornstalks like Ichabod Crane. For the next few instants the sky was black with Canadas, and then the field was empty. Jay turned up his collar and scrunched his head down in his jacket, humiliated to have it proved that he had an idiot for a father.
For myself, though, there was a different reaction. Squirming down the ditch, keeping my 12-gauge out of the mud, had reawakened something in me. The adrenaline had surged when the birds lifted off, and I was hooked again, after breaking the Canada-hunting habit—going cold goose, so to speak—in the late '50s. My abstinence had not been all that easy, considering that I now live in a town that calls itself "the goose capital of the world." For most of the year, Chestertown (pop. 3,500) is a quiet and charming college town (Washington College) near the mouth of the Chester River on Chesapeake Bay.
But all of that placidity vanishes when goose-hunting season comes along. From mid-November right through to almost the end of January, more Canada geese are taken in these environs than anywhere else in the U.S. The onset of the fever does not necessarily coincide with the opening day, though. No, there are signs far earlier than that. Starting in midsummer, the window display at the Towne Sporting Goods Center in the shopping plaza begins to feature T-shirts that say HONKER COUNTRY. By fall, all the gift shops—and there are many—are stocked to the ceilings with examples of what can only be called Art Ducko. It is a major achievement to find a drinking mug, a set of suspenders, a shirt, anything that is not decorated with the image of some kind of waterfowl.
Then, one evening in early fall, the principals will arrive, great formations of migrating geese down from the Hudson Bay barrens—the Maryland Flock of the Atlantic Flyway. They come, thousands strong, honking in conversation, onto the farm ponds and cornfields of the Eastern Shore. The birds will have six weeks or more to settle in before a second invasion comes.
That is the army of hunters, from every state in the union, from France and Germany, from as far as Japan and, last year, even from the People's Republic of China. The greatest goose hunting in the world is what they seek.
I had managed to live in Chestertown for better than three years without once jumping into a goose pit. Maybe it had to do with the sheer omnipresence of the birds. You couldn't look up at the sky without seeing them. My daughter, who came to live in Chestertown at the age of three months, talked goose before she learned to say "Mama." In her crib, she would hear them every night, and she could do the feeding call (a series of clucks), the comeback call (a long honk) and the loud greeting call.
In short, I suspected the geese would prove too easy, that there was little challenge. It was an idea sustained by the common sight, from eight on every morning during the season, of camoclad hunters yawing about town like sailors on shore leave, having shot their limit of (as it was then) three birds in the first hour of daylight.
Now, though, Brayton threatened to change my mind. For the past 10 years, he told me, he had participated in the hunt only to the extent of renting shooting privileges on his farm to groups from Baltimore and Washington. He knew, he said, that the hunting wouldn't be as surefire as the big Eastern Shore commercial gunning operations. He had no sanctuary ponds, no big swaths of corn left standing for feed and his fields were a tad small, a little too near the main road, maybe. But whatever geese we got, we would have done it our own way, the hard way.
It turned out to be hard indeed, like the Eastern Shore winter. That big, 200-strong flock we saw on New Year's Day never came in again. The birds must have been polishing off the last of the few rows of corn that Brayton had set aside. There was nothing to bring them back. One morning that first week, it was 7° at 5 a.m. as we set out, and we saw no birds. Every evening, as airborne flocks obscured the setting sun over the distant Chester River, we would try to call them in.
Sometimes, not very often, they would come, six or seven of them, low over the pit, lured by our calls, intrigued by our decoys. Then they would brake, their wings drooping for the landing like the flaps on a 757—what hunters call "tolling." Those first few days, though, we shot nothing. And the less success we experienced the more costly the venture became.
We had begun, for instance, with a dozen-and-a-half battered old silhouette decoys that had been abandoned in the bottom of the pit by previous hunting parties. They satisfied us for about a morning. At lunchtime on our second day, I picked up 30 spanking-new ones, at $7.50 a pop. That evening Brayton called me. "I've been reading about this new wind-sock type of decoy," he said. They didn't stock them locally, so we drove to Annapolis to pick up a flock of them. They weren't much more than big plastic Baggies attached to plastic goose heads, but they caused Brayton to write a check for another couple of hundred dollars.
In order to bring ourselves up to scratch with our new decoys, we bought insulated suits, handcrafted goose calls, camouflage face paint. The climax of this spree came when we each picked up a pair of boots guaranteed to provide comfort right down to 85° below, at a little more than $100 before tax.
That purchase finally snapped me into reality. We didn't need boots. We needed professional help (although not the type you might be suspecting). I called Brayton again. "Why don't we arrange a morning at Vonnie's?"
If Chestertown is the goose capital of the world, then Vonnie's is the White House. There presides Floyd W. Price, not merely over 4,000 acres of prime goose habitat but also over Vonnie's Sporting Goods store (SHELLS BY BOX OR CASE), Vonnie's Farm Restaurant (BREAKFAST FROM 4:00 A.M. DURING HUNTING SEASON), Vonnie's Farm Market and Vonnie's Motel. If you are a bit mystified, it probably helps to know that Vonnie is the name of Price's daughter.
We were lucky. Price does little guiding himself these days, but he granted us an audience. He turned out to be astonishingly conservation-minded for someone who services here-today-and-gone-tomorrow hunters from all over the world. The bag limit in Maryland was three Canadas last year, but Price limited his clients to two. "There was a bad, bad nesting season in the tundra last year," he said recently. "But the state biologist said we were going to have a great season, so there'd be no need to reduce the limit. I didn't agree so I just reduced the limit myself. A degree and a book don't always work."
Price did us proud by putting us in the care of his No. 1 guide—and son-in-law—Gerry Haggerty, who is the second-best goose caller in the world. At least he came in second last year in Easton, Md., in the world championships there. "I went in with a bad attitude," Haggerty mourned to us. "I went in for fun. I only lost by a point. I should have won the Beretta shotgun and the $700 and the title by a landslide! I would have loved to be world champion...."
These heart-searchings would not be revealed until later, though, well after Haggerty had demonstrated to us why he had been such a formidable contender. That came the next morning, after we had jounced over fields iron with frost, on the tailgate of his pickup. "I'm taking you to the Junkyard," Haggerty shouted from the truck cab. There was more truth than hunting hyperbole in that name. When the pickup stopped, we could not help but be somewhat dismayed. Old tires, split to look vaguely like feeding geese, stood upright all around the shooting pit, and a rig of tatty-looking silhouette decoys was scattered nearby. The Junkyard, indeed: we needed no further explanation of the name.
Haggerty motioned us into the pit. We crouched out of sight in the back of it. "Hey, you don't have to do that," said Haggerty. "Stand straight up and lay your guns out in front of you. Those tires will camouflage you. Just stay absolutely still and the geese won't see you."
All of this was strange to us, against accepted canon. Things grew stranger still when Haggerty's No. 2 guide joined us carrying a couple of pieces of Styrofoam painted black and a black flag, the latest in high-tech hunting, it seemed. Or maybe the oldest in low tech. "One time, Indians used to hunt geese the way we're going to," Haggerty said. "Only they didn't have Styrofoam, so they used real goose wings. Now you just hang in quiet, watch what happens and don't shoot till I say so."
Obediently we did as he asked. We watched the horizon until a dark smudge on it defined itself as an approaching skein of geese. And then all hell broke loose.
Suddenly, No. 2 was waving his wings and flag like a goose on a hot tin roof and Haggerty—well, as Yehudi Menuhin is to the violin, Haggerty is to the goose call. Frantic obbligatos issued from his bulging cheeks: cadenzas, toccatas, jazz riffs, rock beats. He reddened and sweated with the effort. Not in vain, though. Soon to be killed by curiosity, a five-strong subflock swung into the Junkyard, flapped down, undercarriages down. "Take them," yelled Haggerty as the birds spotted us at the last moment and labored to regain height. Take them we did, a couple each, a Price bag limit. It had been a short, revealing morning.
"Does it always work as fast as this?" I asked Haggerty.
"A lot of the time it does," he said. "Last season there was only three days it took me beyond lunchtime to get my party limited out. And there was just one day when I ended up a goose short, which was because this guy couldn't wait for his limit, he had to go pheasant hunting in the afternoon. That ruined my 100 percent record."
At 8:30 a.m., with our day over already, we headed back to Vonnie's for a second breakfast. The Hunter's Breakfast is a rite of the Chestertown goose hunting subculture. Every other house, it seems, has a sign proclaiming that such a meal is available inside.
Hunter's Breakfasts are all pretty much the same. First, the dining room must be unbearably hot, especially if the customer is wearing polypropylene underwear and an insulated suit. Next, the food has to be heaping and totally saturated with animal fats, creating the kind of havoc with physical well-being just short of what could be achieved by a toxic chemical attack on the U.S. The New England Journal of Medicine, indeed, might find it fascinating to commission a study of the incidence of savagely acute heartburn in Eastern Shore goose pits.
The Hunter's Breakfast is but one of the Chestertonian goose-season rituals. Those houses that do not offer breakfast may well have a different, crudely lettered sign that reads GEESE PICKED. Goose-picking is a Dickensian occupation but a necessary accompaniment to the hunt. And now, to avoid the messy chore of preparing our bag for the oven, Brayton and I dutifully headed to one of the more professional of these establishments, a small red-painted hut on Route 213, right next to Smiley's Market. The structure is known locally as the Hellhole because, though outside the windchill factor might be in the minus triple-digits, inside the hut the heat and humidity, not to mention the reek, resembles that of a summer afternoon in Singapore.
In the swelter, we handed our bag to Sonny Stafford, 17, who figures he labors from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. each of the 70 days of the goose season, processing more than 5,000 birds. He said, "The hunters have to tag 'em and register 'em, then I grab 'em, chop the wings off, take 'em to the automatic picker, then to the hot tub, pull out the leftover feathers, dress 'em out, rinse 'em, pat 'em out, dry 'em, pack 'em, stack 'em ready to go, freeze the ones that want freezing. It's tough when there's a crowd of sports in, jostling and pushing for their birds."
Patti Capel, who also works at the Magnolia Nursing Home, runs the Hellhole. "We charge $2.50 a bird but we get no real profit from that," she says. "Our money comes from the down. A company in Delaware processes it for comforters and pillows." In two days' time, she said, she would herself migrate to Cancún, for a couple of weeks.
We promised to pick up our birds before 5 p.m.
Later, as we grew wiser, Brayton and I began to realize that there was no reason in the world to start out goose hunting at the crack of dawn. On a clear day, especially when there had been a full moon, you didn't bother to go out at all. If it was wild and stormy, the birds would be flying all day, which meant you could start at 10 a.m., break for lunch and hunt again around dusk if you wanted to. And there was no rush on an average cloudy day either.
You don't mention this to the out-of-town hunters. It horrifies them. It's wimpy, unmacho. They need heartburn at dawn and, a fast limit. Then, limited out but with thousands of calories raging through their systems unburned, they rush off to try for a few pheasants at Peter Sheaffer's Hunting Preserve, or maybe the Sporting Clays.
Not Brayton and myself, however. After stocking up on more cholesterol, we went into the Bear's Den to stock up on Styrofoam wings and a tutorial videotape of goose calls. There, Mr. David Hoops, Prop., brought us to our senses. "Going to dig yourselves out a sanctuary pond as well, boys?" he asked. Then he quietly lectured us on the fact that Price's land was as close to goose heaven as could be found on earth, in many ways. He reminded us that it had been made that way through a great deal of planning and preparation and at no small cost. Shamefaced, we settled for a box of ammo.
Besides, we still had a major problem to remedy. Young Jay hadn't got his first goose yet. His father had—wisely I thought—held back from taking him out on a wham-bang commercial hunt. On the other hand, though, the home farm seemed to offer him slim pickings.
It was time for a compromise. Few of the Eastern Shore guiding operations are as big as Vonnie's. Mostly your hunting guide was the farmer who owned the land. Like Kenny Shrader, just out of town, who had a couple of ponds on his property and 10 acres of corn left uncut. So we fixed on Shrader. The date we set turned out to be a morning perfect for the Ride of the Valkyries. Wild gray clouds scudded overhead, and the water out on the Bay whipped up white. White indeed as Jay's face when the geese came tolling into the decoys and his father and I quickly limited out. It was physically hard for the boy to bring the big pump gun up fast, but in the end he had the stage to himself, and in the end, by heaven, he brought one down.
We grabbed him in congratulation. It was a Norman Rockwell moment, as corny as the fields of Silver Queen that are the pride of the Eastern Shore. That was after we had picked him up. "I didn't see my goose go down," said Jay. "Did he go down?" We told him yes. "The gun threw me back so much," Jay said.
Which gave me the chance to tell the story I had heard growing up in Wales about the old man with his flintlock gun and its five-foot barrel and how a couple of strangers saw him fire it at a goose flock, heard the gun go off like a bomb and lay the old man flat. Twenty minutes it took them to revive him. The old man's first words were, "Did I get the goose?" They told him he had. He turned to his gun and slapped its stock. "Bless you, old beauty," he crooned to it. "You treated me extra kind this time. Mostly it takes me an hour to come round. But I always gets the goose!"
This, I told Jay, was the true spirit of goose hunting, a hard sport. And now, to celebrate this initiation, his proud father was driving, not to the Hellhole, but to Tommy Morel's house. Morel is a taxidermist; the boy's first goose would attain a limited form of immortality. That, however, was not the reason we had the party at Brayton's house at the end of goose-hunting season.
The Goosefest, in fact, celebrated the first successes we had had on the Brayton farm. We had learned the hard way, pretty much on our own, aside from our basic tutorials with Haggerty and Vonnie and at Shrader's. We had learned to call respectably, to shoot respectably. We downed our first goose, I noted, on Jan. 8, and there would be a few more before the season ended along with the month, so that Brayton's wife, Robin, could serve them up at the inaugural dinner of the Rye Hall Gun Club, named for the Braytons' home.
There is a postscript. It has always seemed to Chestertonians that for the past couple of decades the Canada goose was a limitless resource. But this year the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has shortened the season from 70 to 60 days and cut the bag limit in the opening portion of the season to one goose per day and then, after a two-week hiatus in hunting, to two geese thereafter. Since 1986, a steady reduction had been noted in the number of geese returning to Maryland, according to the DNR (a fact spotted a season earlier by Floyd Price).
And strangely, though there were odd, hysterical voices raised against the decision—and a death threat to Larry Hindman, the state program manager for migratory game birds—the reaction in Chestertown has been resignation, understanding. The town, after all, has survived for more than 300 years.
And there are ways, after all, of compensating. In the Hellhole, a voice from the depths declared, "The pickin' price will go up, that's all." And from Vonnie's, the ever-philosophical voice of Price: "All through the '50s, when I was guiding, the bag limit was one. And I didn't suffer any. I'm a farmer. I don't expect 100 bushels an acre every year."
And as for the Rye Hall Gun Club—if we bagged a single goose every time we went out, hell, we would start our own Hall of Fame.