Week 8. Sean Mann: World Champion Goose Gunner
You could be forgiven for thinking Sean Mann was raised by geese. After all, countless geese have been fooled into thinking his hails, greetings, and landing calls were one of their own, and Sean always seems to be one step ahead of the flock.
Sean is, in short, a Maryland waterfowling legend.
Growing up in Easton, he absorbed everything he could hanging around his dad’s Gun Shop and was obsessed with learning how to “talk goose” from a young age. He was guiding by the time he was in high school, and had won the World Goose Calling Championship by the time he was in college.
He started making goose calls to get that extra edge as a hunter and a guide since nothing on the market could quite capture what he was hearing from the birds in the fields. After a few trials and errors, he finally created the Eastern Shoreman call that was so effective he could charge a price premium and hardly meet demand.
Today, Sean Mann Outdoors is a successful business that makes a variety of duck and goose calls and boasts a Pro Staff of over a dozen guides. I caught up with Sean on a September afternoon to hear about how he found himself getting paid to hunt geese. My questions are in bold below, followed by his answers.
I joke about you being raised by geese, but where’d you learn to everything there is to know about them?
I’m the youngest of five kids, and my main goal since the day I could walk around was to jump in my father’s back pocket and do whatever he was doing. My family moved to the Eastern Shore when I was six years old, and my Dad grew up surf-fishing Long Island and hunting Pennsylvania but was really just discovering the everything the Eastern Shore had to offer when I was growing up. Everything he was getting to know on the Shore, I wanted to do too.
My Dad owned the Gun Shop in Easton, and I was severely bitten by goose hunting at a young age. My first love has always been and will always be hunting geese and guiding, and the call business was really aby-product of that. Everyone and their dog would come in to the shop trying to sell us something, and as a kid, I didn’t know a good call from a bad one, but I wanted to know everything they did.
I also grew up around the corner from Dr. Harry Walsh who wrote the Outlaw Gunner and went to school with his kids. We’d be playing with his decoys and calls out back while he was inside writing the Outlaw Gunner.
When did you start making calls?
The business and making calls really emanated from my wanting to be a better hunter. Making a better caller meant being a better hunter, which meant being a better guide, which meant better pay, which meant I could spend more time hunting! I make all my own lures and tie my own flies too, so to use a fishing analogy — it’s like when you see trout rise all around you and you don’t have that particular size 24 black midge that they’re biting on, and you want to break out a vise right there on the stream and tie what’s going to catch them.
A lot of the calls at the time could reproduce some — a percentage — of the sounds I’d hear in the field, but not all. I had to learn all the calls I was hearing out there in nature, and then capture it all. I had to find a way to surpass anything that was available, and I ended up reinventing the wheel.
By the time I came up with my call, I had developed a good book of guiding clients. That’s what got me through college at Loyola. I would go to my classes and tend bar during the week and guide on the weekends. The better I got, the better the pay and tips and that went a long way toward school expenses.
It’s also just really a lot of fun to be able to see a bird and call it in. You can’t see the fish approach very often. You can’t call in that bluefish/mackerel/rockfish/trout and watch them come in. But you’re able to watch geese sometimes from over a mile away based on your presentation, and that grabbed me very early, consumed me very early.
What are some of your “home waters”?
Between Easton and St. Michaels, on Miles River Neck, right around Hunting Creek, Leeds Creek, the Miles River. I guess you could call those my natal waters or childhood streams. We would run around in an aluminum boat crabbing, fishing, harpooning skates, getting into everything "outdoors".
Where do you find certain species of waterfowl on the Shore more than others?
It’s funny, more people call me to hunt ducks than geese even though we’re really a goose hunting state. A think a lot is based on the history where you can read about the market gunning days when Maryland had a lot of ducks, especially in the upper Bay. Of course, back then the Bay had submerged grass and aquatic vegetation, and that brought a lot more ducks than now.
You can read the logs of gun clubs or the merchants from the market gunning days that most of the harvest was canvasback and redheads. Now the redheads are almost non-existent and the cans are few and far between. Cans and redheads will go down to Crisfield late in the year, down to Cedar Island, and the end of Broad Creek where there’s grass. We get some bluebills here and there, and then it’s just some sampler ducks: buffleheads, goldeneyes, ruddies. Divers are going to be where clam beds are, and of course that can happen anywhere.
Kent County and the Susquehanna Flats hold the puddle ducks early, and then they’re mostly scattered by mid-December. When I was a kid, we had widgeon, teal, woodies — we actually probably have more woodies now. We’ve never had a lot of mallards on the Shore, but probably more now than we ever did.
There’s also a big battle going on regarding Ag on federal wildlife refuges that have always had regular Ag land that is farmed for game. They harvest some of the corn, but leave some of it standing for the ducks, and strike a good balance between Ag and game. That’s being reduced, and that will mean less habitat for ducks, and they’ll end up in the impoundments. Folks with the ability to build impoundments will end up with the lions share of ducks. Folks like Tyler Johnson on Quaker Neck and others with impoundments have really built a lot of great habitat for ducks. Don't get me wrong, they help a lot more birds than they hurt. I applaud their commitment to the resource.
Growing up in Talbot County, I thought we had a lot of geese here until I started guiding in Kent County. Kent, Cecil County, Queen Anne, the Sassafras, Chester River — they hold much more from a biomass perspective. But they’re very different birds up there. They seem to have their morning routines and pond-hopping habits. In Talbot or Dorchester, I feel like if I see a bird flying, I have a chance at calling and flagging it down. Maybe ours are more transient birds.
What do you look for and anticipate in the seasons?
Looking back at 49 years of experiences, we would usually see our first Canada geese — not just a couple, but a lot of birds! — by September 17-18. We’d be playing football and the first group would come over us, always from the same direction. We’d all stop what we’re doing and hear the roar and look up.
We don’t get that these days. If I could decide, my weather goals would be to have a cold September and frost on the ground in October, with snow on Halloween. That happens every once in a while, but not too often.
It’s usually around Thanksgiving that you get that first push of birds, and that usually happens right around deer season. I'm convinced that the orange drives the geese absolutely nuts! I’ve observed their aversion to blaze orange and witnessed that they’re totally terrified! But Thanksgiving is my favorite just from a traditional perspective. It’s when my sons shot their first birds and had their first productive hunts.
After that, the next opening after deer season in mid December is when it starts getting good.
But the month of January is my sweet spot — I really love it. It’s like in fishing, a lot of people pack up their rods after Labor Day, but the fishing it just about to get good. When the Holidays wrap up, a lot of people have checked waterfowling off their list, but we’re just getting started! The snows are showing up, new waves of Canadas are coming in. The hunting is better and just seems less frantic. If you’re going to have friendly, fresh new birds, you’re going to have them in January.
When we have years like last year where it was abnormally warm, the birds that are here get stale, and the discussion in the blind turns to arguments about equipment and decoys. But it’s like being on fish that aren’t biting. I’ve found that if you’re having a bad day, most people are too.
Do we need February hunting?
Years ago, we had a six-year closure of Canada goose seasons. Prior to that, we had long and pretty loose seasons: 90 day seasons with three birds a day. Biologists found the decline was due primarily do to poor reproduction, and we ended up with a closure. Lots of shooters were shaking their fist at the biologists, but they don’t really have a dog in the fight other than the science. So I don’t think we need a later season. And, we don’t want to go too far in February anyway because that’s when the pair bonding happens before flying back.
Any other favorite traditions?
When waterfowling is wrapping up, we’re heading up to Harrisburg for the big show and catching up with folks up there. That’s right before turkey season too — I don’t guide for turkey but two my favorite hunts ever were calling in my sons first two turkeys. And then of course it’s on to rockfishing in the spring and crabbing in the summer.
But there’s nothing like watching geese fly in. It will never get old seeing what the geese do and learning about them. It hasn’t been about shooting them for over 20 years for me. It’s about watching their acrobatic and aerobatic abilities, and watching what happens.There’s no better show in the world than the show the geese put on. It’s like watching an acrobat and listening to a singer at the same time.
Every hunt is different too, and the lighting conditions change the way the hunt goes. When it’s snowing, it’s magic, and after the snow, when’s it’s totally freezing and the sun hits the goose as its flies across the snow and you can see its breath — that just knocks me out. It’s sensory overload.
There’s also 13 different kinds of Canada’s and multiple kinds of snow’s, and they all act differently and talk differently. A cackler is totally differently than a larger Canada, decoys totally different, sounds totally different.
The Chesapeake has a lot to offer all four seasons, and if you’re spending time indoors, you gotta get out there and look up and around, because you’ll fall in love with it.
~ Patrick Ottenhoff, 52 Week Season ~