No replacing Canadas in fields or hunters' affections


November 26, 1995|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

In past years, Thanksgiving was the season opener for Canada goose hunters, who flocked to blinds along creeks and rivers or field pits on the middle and upper Eastern Shore. But this year, the season for Canadas is closed, and hunters and guides are pursuing other options.

The second split of duck season ended Friday, and the bow season for deer gave way to the start of the two-week firearms season yesterday. Seasons for duck and deer, though, apparently provide little solace for those among us who hold a special preference for the art of hunting the Canada goose.

"We had a real good early season for resident birds," said Charley Downs Jr., who outfits deer and waterfowl hunting parties in several Eastern Shore counties. "But when that ended, I realized that it was the last fling for this year on non-migratory birds and maybe for several more years on the migrants."

Late last summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the unanimous approval of representatives of the Atlantic Flyway states, declared a moratorium on hunting migratory Canada geese throughout the flyway. The ban will be in place for one year or until populations of breeding pairs of Canada geese recover from an eight-year decline.

The annual survey of Atlantic Flyway breeding pairs in Canada last spring counted 29,000 pairs, down 27 percent from 1994 and 75 percent below the figure for 1988, when the decline was first noted.

While the season on geese moving into Maryland for the winter from the breeding grounds in northern Quebec has been closed, a September season for non-migratory Canada geese, said Downs, afforded a painful taste of what has been a Maryland waterfowling tradition.

"You get to the point where the killing really becomes secondary," Downs said. "You get to love calling in the birds and watching them, and during that September season the reality of the situation finally kicked in -- and it hit hard."

As have a number of other waterfowl outfitters on the Eastern Shore, Downs, who runs Charley Downs Outfitters, and Bo Kennedy of Fly By Island outfitters in Trappe, have expanded their deer- and duck-hunting operations.

"We have had bow hunters and a few shotgunners here for deer for a number of years," said Kennedy, whose operation includes tracts on several large farms in Talbot County. "And recently we have picked up the number of shotgunners and duck hunters. But that is not going to fill the bill the way goose hunting did."

Ray Marshall, for 25 years a goose and duck outfitter on the Eastern Shore, has made an effort over the past several years to promote deer-hunting parties at hunting shows along the East Coast. In most of those years, out-of-state hunters were eager to come to Maryland to hunt Canada geese, whose numbers have dwindled in the states to the south over the past 30 years.

"But deer hunting? I've tried it and it won't work," Marshall said. "The people I have dealt with over the years won't come here for deer, and they won't travel very far for ducks, either."

Downs, however, said that he is booking increasing numbers of deer hunters from North Carolina and Pennsylvania, hunters who are attracted to flatland whitetails.

"The gene pool is very good in most parts of Maryland," Downs said. "The deer have large bodies and big racks, which is the opposite of deer in many parts of Pennsylvania, for example."

On the middle Shore, Downs said, the deer are plentiful, and this year he has seen more big bucks than in previous years. To Downs, the size and number of deer are indications that the herd is more than the middle Shore can handle, and may even benefit from increased hunting pressure.

"I do have a conscience, and a dollar doesn't always drive me," Downs said. "But the deer are really turning on this year, and I think that's because you're beginning to see the big bucks forced into areas where you normally wouldn't see them."

Downs reasons that pockets of residential development are concentrating deer in smaller areas, and the mild conditions of last winter have contributed to a healthy deer population.

"What that means to me is smaller habitat, which makes it important that the population be reduced," Downs said. "Deer [populations] cannot continue to grow at the rate they grow and remain healthy. A balance of numbers to habitat is critical."

Kennedy, Marshall and Downs, with close to eight decades of experience among them, all said that deer hunting with bows, muzzleloaders and firearms has been growing fast, and the number of outfitters booking hunting parties is also increasing.

Kennedy sees a long-term problem for Canada geese outfitters who lease lands from farmers on the Shore, not all of whom can be expected to be sympathetic to the position outfitters find themselves in.

"A lot of us have tried to hold onto our leases for this year, in part because a lot of these deals are made a year in advance, but also because we are hoping that the geese will recover quickly," Kennedy said.

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