By Will Brantley
It is January, toward the end of Maryland’s goose season, and temperatures are forecast to hit record highs. But as I drive across Chesapeake Bay en route to the Eastern Shore, the weather is barely a concern. I am a half-day late, having spent the better part of eternity at the airport’s baggage claim office, waiting for my hunting clothes and shotgun, misplaced somewhere between Memphis and Baltimore. When they finally arrive, I hurriedly pack the rental car. But, thanks to a greasy burger, a tall cup of coffee, and my excitement to be hunting Canada geese on the fabled Eastern Shore, I am anything but discouraged as I make the modest drive to Chestertown.
Early the next morning, about two dozen camo-clad patrons are milling about the hotel’s breakfast bar. Goose hunting is big business in Chestertown. I approach several hunters and introduce myself, which only serves to make them as confused as I am, before finally shaking hands with DU Regional Director Chip Heaps and Maryland State Chairman Terry Lemper.
On our short drive to the goose field, we see several groups of hunters working on cornfield decoy spreads by the headlights of their pickups. Upon arriving, we join Richard Van Stolk, the landowner and our host for the day, and his friend, hunting guide Jimmy Usilton. Hurriedly we set a mix of full-bodies, silhouettes, and shells.
We settle into a stand-up blind tucked into a row of pines separating two cornfields. Many Eastern Shore hunters use these blinds because they can be moved relatively quickly and are easier to shoot from than a pit.
Although a few distant flocks trade back and forth, most of the Canadas seem to be holding tight. We hear and occasionally see geese working a roost pond a few hundred yards behind us, but the birds seem to have little on their minds besides resting in the balmy weather. The morning is so slow there are even a few suggestions that we head in for breakfast, but around 10 o’clock, the birds themselves grow hungry and restless. Suddenly the skies are black with geese, and the atmosphere shifts from laid-back to frenzied.
It doesn’t take long for a flock of about 25 geese to show interest in our subtle calling. They make a wide pass before turning into the wind and setting their wings about 100 yards away. We clutch our shotguns and wait, making a few soft clucks as the birds approach.
At about 35 yards, just shy of the landing hole we’ve arranged in our spread, the geese at the front of the flock hesitate. Set wings suddenly pump nervously, and the entire flock begins to gain altitude. On Usilton’s command, we rise to shoot. Four geese fall as their comrades beat a hasty retreat.
As we retrieve the geese, we discuss what may have prevented the birds from finishing, and we come up with a likely hypothesis. A few decoys are spread across the end of the landing hole, and apparently, the geese didn’t want to cross them—likely the result of a season’s worth of hunting pressure. We grab the offending decoys and move them back toward the blind, creating a long, wide landing strip ending 10 yards from our gun barrels. The move proves to be a sound one.
A few minutes later, a big flock of 50 or more birds approaches our spread on the same flight path as the first bunch. As they cross the critical 40-yard mark, there is no hesitation. The lead birds land within a few yards of us while the rest of the flock backpedals, feet down, in easy gun range. We rise into a wall of geese, and each of us easily downs the remainder of his two-bird limit. Once the action begins, the hunt is over in little more than half an hour.
After cleaning our birds and eating lunch, we spend the rest of the afternoon hoping for a canvasback from another of Van Stolk’s stand-up blinds on the edge of a bay on the Chester River. Several hundred cans, along with many more scaup, buffleheads, and ruddy ducks, are rafted in the middle of the bay and perfectly content to stay there all afternoon. With just a few minutes of legal shooting light left, a pair of bluebills finally approaches the spread, and Van Stolk cleanly folds the drake, avoiding a shutout for the afternoon.
The next morning, I meet Heaps and a crew of his hunting partners for what will be a short hunt. A modest-sized lake on their club lease, surrounded by cornfields, serves as a roost for several thousand geese throughout the season. Once or twice a year, usually toward the end of the season, the group will make a quick morning hunt at the lake.
Hundreds of geese flush in a deafening roar as we approach the lake in the dark. We hurriedly set out a spread and haul a pair of stand-up blinds from two truck beds to the lake’s edge.
Geese begin returning soon after sunrise, in pairs and small groups at first but in progressively larger numbers as the morning wears on. We take turns shooting and avoid firing into the largest flocks, but even so, by 8 o’clock we each have a brace of geese to carry home. We work diligently to clear the spread as birds continue to return to the roosting pond. Soon after we finish, a vortex of geese is spiraling down into the small lake.
After we clean our geese and say our goodbyes, I pack my bags for a short drive south to Ocean City, where I plan to meet Jeff Coats, a sea duck guide and Avery pro-staffer. I am eager to reach the final destination of my Eastern Shore excursion, as I’ve wanted to try sea duck hunting for years.
Unfortunately, the forecast for the next morning is stormy, and if anything will keep a sea-duck hunter at bay, it is high wind, thunder, and lightning. Coats has a backup plan, however. His friend Greg Steen manages a converted fish farm for waterfowl, and the last time Steen hunted in the rain, teal poured into the fishponds. Steen, along with his father and a few friends, graciously invites Coats and me along in hopes of a repeat performance. Although we don’t shoot any teal, we do manage another surprise limit of Canada geese, a few mallards, and a black duck.
After three days of hunting, my frustration at the airport seems a distant memory now, and I am driving back across Chesapeake Bay in high spirits. On my first Atlantic Flyway adventure, I’ve enjoyed some incredible goose hunting and have even shot a few ducks in a torrential downpour. And I have absolutely no doubt that I’ve set a personal record for pounds of seafood consumed—yet another reason why Maryland’s Eastern Shore remains a classic waterfowl hunting destination.