CHESTERTOWN -- Some hours earlier, as Dutch Swonger steered with his knees and juggled a thermos of hot coffee and &&TC small, red cup, we had trundled east on Route 301 and up Route 213 from the Sportsman's Service Center in Grasonville.
Before first light, Swonger, a waterfowl hunting guide in Queen Anne's and Kent counties, had begun to talk of the pleasures and pains of the closed world of waterfowl hunting on the Eastern Shore.
"I've been hunting here for 30 years and had my own guide service for 10 of those," Swonger said, as he refilled the coffee cup and steam condensed on the windshield. "But that isn't the same as being born here -- after 30 years, I am still an outsider, if you know what I mean."
Knowing what Swonger means is not difficult. His manner is straight-faced and direct -- even if his driving sometimes is not -- and he takes his waterfowl hunting seriously. Which, oddly enough, does not translate simply to the most bangs for a buck.
"To be in this business or out here goose hunting these days, you got to love it," Swonger said. "The guides don't make minimum wage -- if that -- once you figure in the hours spent settin' decoys, callin' birds, movin' decoys, movin' parties, settin' out and takin' in decoys and takin' home parties.
"You got to love it enough that you know you'd be out here anyway, guiding or not."
Anyone who goes out to hunt Canada geese early in the season these days is faced with the same problem: the limit of one bird per day until the limit goes to two birds on Dec. 9.
Swonger doesn't like the one-bird limit. His clients don't like it. Judging by the vacancies and uncrowded dining rooms at the Tidewater Inn in Easton the night before opening day, a lot of people don't like it.
On Opening Day in years past, all roads led to Easton. But things have changed, Swonger said, since the start of the split season and the one- and two-bird limits in 1988.
"And some of it is for the good," Swonger said as we stopped along Route 213, across the road from a farm that was open to public hunters willing to pay a day rate. "There are more birds, it seems, and there still will be more coming down -- if they don't all get shot, crippled or over-educated in New York or Pennsylvania."
Across Route 213, a short distance from one of six farms Swonger leases for his goose hunting service [(410) 643-2766], a couple of dozen hunters were working hard to educate as many birds as possible.
"Sky-bustin'," Swonger said, gesturing toward several flights of dozens of birds. "Those birds, most of them anyway, are 70 yards high. No sense even shooting at them. They're just going to spoil it for someone else."
The education of a Canada goose once the shooting starts is a quick and simple -- essentially, once a group of birds gets shot at in a given location, they instinctively change their flight patterns.
What once was perhaps the shortest distance from the security of large areas of tidal water to fields of feed or freshwater ponds, becomes a more carefully piloted journey.
"It doesn't take them long to get their bearings, find their landmarks," said Swonger, a marine engineer who spent seven months this year at sea in the U.S. Merchant Marine. "You can see them, once they get up for their morning fly, making their transits in safe zones, over roadways or over areas between fields where they have been shot at from.
"Canada is a smart bird. He will adjust real fast."
Down the road from the sky busters, Swonger has leased a field surrounding a pond shrunken by drought to two thirds of its original size. This year, ponds throughout the Upper Shore are thinner than they should be.
At the north end of the pond, a guide in Swonger's service has set his decoys with the pocket making a perfect landing zone before a blind set in tall grasses fronting a willow tree.
From a rise a hundred and some yards east of the pond, Swonger and his chief guide, Steve Holt, are watching the birds on their early flight, rising in great numbers from a large pond to the northeast or coming north over a distant tree line from the Chester River.
The birds that rise from the pond must first encounter the hunters in the pay-per-day fields across the road. Those that rise from the Chester must pass several ponds and blinds beyond the tree lines to the south and west.
By the time they near Swonger's pond, the flocks of birds have broken into family groups of six or eight and smaller groups of stragglers or abbreviated families. These are the birds Swonger prefers to target early in the season.
"If you shoot on a single or a pair or triples, and miss, you are only educating a few birds," Holt said, as a trio of Canadas slowed their wing beats, turned their heads slightly and then locked up toward the blind before the willow. "And with a one-bird limit, even if you take all three, like these, with four or five guys in a blind, there still will be time to hunt."