Goosebumps on the Shore

Hunting: Eastern Marylanders are excited about the return of Canada goose season and what it will mean for the local economy.

November 18, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - It's Thanksgiving week, and the venerable Tidewater Inn here in the heart of the Talbot County seat is booked solid. Guests are arriving from all over the East Coast, and the staff is reviving a hotel favorite - the 4:30 a.m. breakfast buffet.

Across Harrison Street, gun shop owner Larry Albright has extended his hours and will open the store on a Sunday for the first time in years.

Down in Trappe, outfitter Bo Kennedy is dressed head to foot in camouflage and tramping around 2,000 acres of leased farmland and marsh, waiting.

All over the Eastern Shore, there's a holiday atmosphere that has nothing to do with turkey and dressing. Over here, where heritage and the outdoors are revered, only geese can generate this kind of excitement.

With the first Canada goose hunting season since 1995 set to begin at dawn tomorrow, hunters are trying on duck boots and oiling shotguns as innkeepers, retailers and restaurateurs anticipate a boost to the local economy.

The six-year moratorium on hunting migratory Canada geese has helped restore the birds to numbers not seen in nearly 30 years. Now, with the return of huge flocks of honkers, comes the revival of a fall and winter pastime that has been cherished for generations.

"It's as if all the planets have aligned, and the Eastern Shore has goose hunting again," says Albright. "Nothing else has the economic impact of goose hunting - not deer, ducks, turkey."

Albright's cash register has been ringing in anticipation of tomorrow's sunrise. Last week, he says, he sold $750 worth of hunting gear to a woman who had promised her husband that she'd go with him if goose season ever reopened.

But to the dedicated hunter, the season is much more than a shopping excursion or a sport, Albright says. "What the non-hunting population doesn't realize is that with goose hunting, it's as much about tradition and fellowship as it is shooting geese," he says.

If there's anything dampening the enthusiasm, it's the strict limits set by state wildlife regulators, who were wary of loosening the rules too much. Hunters will be allowed to take only one goose per day during a split season that runs from Monday to Friday this week and from Dec. 26 to Jan. 19; that is the same bag limit allowed just before hunting was halted six years ago.

Researchers at the Department of Natural Resources say the moratorium, and favorable weather at the birds' nesting grounds in northern Quebec, has resulted in a large increase in the Atlantic Canada goose population.

"This will be one of the largest fall flights ever, numbers that haven't been seen since the mid-1970s," says Paul Peditto, director of the state's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "Mother Nature has provided very favorable breeding conditions."

Annual surveys of the birds' summer nesting area on Canada's Ungava Peninsula show that the Atlantic population has recovered from a low of 29,000 nesting pairs in 1995 to nearly 150,000 this year.

Hunters are hoping that if the population grows or remains stable, the state will increase bag limits and extend the hunting season in future years.

Ardent hunters are more than happy to take what they can get. The state had allowed limited hunting of non-migratory "resident" Canada geese the past six years, but hunters say it was no substitute for the chance to take aim at far-flying geese from the north.

"I'm so excited, I know I won't get a lot of sleep the night before," says Austin Webster, a Dorchester County native who will take the day off from his job as Talbot County's housing director. "A bunch of us have already been out and built our goose blind, so we're all ready. I still have a picture of the four of us from the last time we went goose hunting. It's been a long time."

But no one is predicting a return to goose hunting's glory days of the 1920s and 1930s - when presidents, business titans and politicos filled the ranks of numerous shooting clubs on the Shore. And with the one-goose limit, no one is expecting a return of the social scene that brought wealthy hunters aboard corporate jets swooping into Easton and Cambridge airports for a weekend of shooting and partying.

Still, says Ed Slavinski, general manager at the Tidewater Inn, things will be jumping at his hotel during a week that normally would be slow.

"I can't wait for January, when the second half of the season comes in," says Slavinski, who will be sitting tomorrow morning in a goose blind on a farm owned by the investment group that bought the hotel a few years ago.

Even with a one-bird limit, hunting guides on the Shore say, interest remains strong.

For one thing, shooting geese from a blind - a shelter, usually made of wood and covered with brush and marsh grass, to conceal the hunters from their prey - is less arduous than other types of hunting. There is no clomping around in an icy marsh, where fast-flying ducks are hard to hit; no sitting on a frigid deer stand waiting for a big buck to walk by.

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