QUEEN ANNE -- There was a light frost and a patchy fog to the morning as we walked along a pebbled farm lane a short distance from Tuckahoe State Park. There was talk of dogs and shotguns and pickup trucks, and nearby the babble of ducks.
Dogs and bitches. Remingtons, Ithacas, Brownings. Chevy or Ford.
"Wouldn't have anything but a bitch out here, and my preferences run to Fords and Remingtons," said Ray Marshall, who likes his retrievers laid back, his pickup trucks built tough and his shotguns to be reliable.
Marshall is a goose and duck guide, a straight forward man, who, over 30 years, has built his business the old-fashioned way -- he has earned it.
On Wednesday, Marshall had invited four writers to the Shore to hunt mallards over a flooded impoundment he has been developing for a couple of years on leased land.
"These are wild mallards," Marshall was saying as we waded through a feeding impoundment toward a blind camouflaged with pine boughs. "Or as close to wild as they can be.
"They fly like wild birds, they act otherwise like wild birds and the shooting is like going after wild birds."
The mallards and the waters they use, you see, are largely Marshall's creation. The ducks have grown here since they were ducklings, the impoundments were built from the landowner's fields.
A short distance to the east of the blind stands a sanctuary pond that is never hunted. Over a hill from the sanctuary is a second feeding impoundment.
The mallards move at their whim among the three and, with some cajoling by Marshall, numbers of them wheel past the blind, out of range on the other side of the impoundment, and then circle around over the decoys and before the guns.
"Mark!" Marshall says, and five shotguns are held at ready.
Four mallards are coming diagonally across the pond from east-northeast, slipping through the last of the fog and momentarily lost in the glare of the early sun.
When they are upon us, Marshall says, "Take them!" and the morning explodes.
Within a couple of hours, everyone had their limit of mallards, and a few snow geese were taken as well. One flight of Canadas slowed to take a look, but were disinterested despite Marshall's entreaties.
Flights of swans passed. Blue herons cruised by, oblivious to the commotion. A hawk hunted over a nearby field and Pepper, Marshall's 6-year-old Labrador, delighted in the retrieve.
The morning seemed as wild as could be.
Marshall's service is not limited to the mallard impoundments. He also offers sea duck hunting, goose hunting, other duck hunting and flighted mallards.
But in these times of economic hardship, continuing to earn a living has become increasingly difficult for Marshall and other guides. The number of goose and duck hunters is down, and the call on guides is down as well.
The reasons are not new -- the early season had a one-goose daily limit for Canadas and the second season has a daily limit of two. Corporate bookings are down. Private groups are scarce.
Simply, fewer people are spending the money to get to the Eastern Shore and hunt.
"Heck, on opening day I drove past here to pick up some bookings, and there were maybe a small handful of guides picking up clients," Marshall said later over lunch at the Tidewater Inn in Easton. "Used to be that all up and down the street and around the block, you couldn't find a place to park for all the guides, dogs and pickup trucks.
"Just look at this place now, and it says it all. It's lunch hour and there isn't another hunter in the room except us.
"I don't think this business ever has been this bad."
But, if the judgment were made by the morning's shoot, the customer's end of the business couldn't have been much better.
Ray Marshall's Guide Service and Preserve can be contacted at Box 83, Newcomb, Md. 21653 or by calling (410) 745-2060. Other Talbot County guides may be contacted through the Chamber of Commerce at (410) 822-4606.