Anticipation at dawn of duck season

OUTDOORS

October 19, 1993|By PETER BAKER

There were two hours and more to sunrise. Ninety minutes and more until shooting time, but the talk was easy and the coffee fresh at the Sportsman Service Center in Chester.

Sleep had come slowly to several among us the night before.

Dutch Swonger, for more years than he can quickly recall a guide on the Shore, said, yes, he had tossed and turned -- anxious for the morning and the whisper of wind on ducks' wings.

One gunner, eager to be settled in a blind, paced in the parking lot, newly purchased double-reed duck call making strident sounds.

Small knots of other hunters and guides talked of hunts in seasons past -- mostly of booming success, but some of abject bust.

The opening split of duck season had arrived and in each of us was a curious, excited anticipation of what the day's hunt would bring.

The pre-dawn was foggy, the marsh creeks as flat as a glass table top, and even soft voices came clearly from the light of the doorway to the edge of darkness in the parking lot.

"A little wind'd be nice. Stir 'em up a bit. Get the birds flying."

"Wind would clear the fog, though. Rather have the fog. Keep 'em low to the water. Better shootin' that way."

"Might be a good day, either way. Them ducks haven't been shot at yet. They'll be comin' in low, no matter if the fog stays or a wind blows it away."

With an hour and some left until shooting time, Swonger had his parties together and the caravan of pick-up trucks and cars wound north from Chester on Route 213 through Chestertown to a small, private launch on the Chester River.

Looking skyward from the shoreline, the air was clear and the moon was new. Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Castor and Pollux and thousands of other stars stood out against the blackness.

But tight over the river hung a shroud of fog, densest in the coves where the shoreline was flat and thick with reeds.

A party and its guides were left there to slink away to their blinds, while Swonger and three other hunters wound away north through the fog to a blind set along a farm pond.

"Got some good ducks there," Swonger had said earlier to the gunner with the newly purchased, double-reed duck call. "Some of those fat mallards you like so well."

On the walk to the blind, ducks and geese could be heard stirring, getting ready to fly -- and indeed eight or 10 swept in low over the blind before we had our shotguns uncased and loaded.

The mallards banked and dipped beneath the fog toward the far end of the pond and another group of hunters already in their pit blind unloaded on them.

Through the next few hours of the morning, ducks came mostly singlely or in pairs -- mallards, pintails, shovelers and a ruddy -- and the shooting was spotty.

By 9 o'clock or so, when a game warden stepped to the blind to check guns, licenses and birds taken, two-plus limits were in, a light wind was moving the ground fog away from the pond, and the talk had changed to geese.

Had it been goose season, the shooting could have been excellent. The farmland around the pond was filthy with geese. Each time a flight of Canadas crossed low over the pond or landed 20 or so yards from the blind, a collective groan went up.

Each time a goose honked, Magic, Swonger's retriever, trembled with anticipation, eyes looking upward, haunches tense and ready to spring him from the blind on command.

It was five weeks or so until the opening of goose season and already the fever was running high in Magic and in us.

"But, you know," said Swonger, "by this time of the year I usually already have rented out pits to groups of hunters for the goose season. This year there seems to be some hesitancy.

"I don't know if people are all tied up with rockfish, dove, ducks or bow season and just haven't gotten around to thinking about goose season or if they just don't want to spend the money for a 35-day hunt."

But for mid-October, the goose prospects seem bright, Swonger said.

"Should be plenty of good hunting coming up," he said, "for ducks and geese, either way."

The first split of duck season closed Saturday. The next split is Nov. 25-26.

Canada goose season opens Nov. 22.

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