"The thing to remember about Canada geese," Sen. Fred Malkus was saying, "is there's safety in numbers. That's what's behind just about everything they do."

We were cruising the narrow roads of the marshland that is Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The refuge is only half a mile from the state senator's farm. It's alive with geese this time of year, and with that in mind we had high hopes for the following day, which was opening day of goose-hunting season.

"We'll kill some geese tommorrow," Malkus had said. Now he was showing us what made the big Canadas tick.

The evening flight was headed back into the refuge. It would be the last time the birds would fly unassailed by gunners for weeks to come.

Yet even now, in the safety of the refuge, the beautiful birds were wary.

"Watch," Malkus said, pointing to the sky. "You see those birds coming into the field?" We looked up to see half a dozen Canadas peel off from a formation of a hundred or so. The six birds pitched their wings and began to plummet.

They had started perhaps 600 feet in the air. They dropped at breathtaking speed, wings cupped, then wheeled halfway down and made a slow circle of the empty field of cut corn, peering into the ruts and hedgerows for predators.

Satisfied that there was no danger, they resumed the descent. In seconds they were safely on the ground, shaking their wings and strutting through the stubble, where they would feed until night fell.

"Now, you see all the other birds?" Malkus asked. "Once they've seen that these geese are in and safe, they'll all pitch in."

We watched the big flight wheel and pitch, and before five minutes had passed the air was full of Canadas, all with one destination in mind. The sky was dark with geese.

It was a sight to set a waterfowler's pulse fluttering. My partner and I would share one of Malkus' goose blinds the following day, and we had visions of geese pouring into our stool of decoys the way they poured into this field. We would not sleep many hours that night.

Four, to be precise. At 3 a.m. I woke up and stumbled out to the balcony of the motel in Easton. Outside the news was bad. It was moon bright, light enough for the Canadas to fly now, and they would be in the fields feeding, so that by dawn they could be safely back in the refuge.

But with hundreds of thousands of geese already settled in for the winter, we could hope for exceptions. We were in the blind before dawn, and waves of birds soared overhead, far out of range, singing the cracking song that accompanies geese wherever they fly.

Malkus has seven water blinds perched along the marshy banks of the Blackwater River, and all the blinds were full on opening day. Should a goose stray low over these waters, it would be caught in a hellish crossfire of shotgun shells.

To lure the geese to just such an eventuality, 250 floating decoys were scattered in front of the blinds. But the birds were too smart. By morning's end only three geese had been shot, none having decoyed to the blinds. They all fell on long passing shots, the most difficult goose shot there is.

"Worst opening day we've ever had," said Malkus.

It was more of the same that evening when the birds moved again. They were high, out of range and utterly unconvinced by our stool of wooden decoys. Six geese fell on Malkus' land that day, two from our blind. He couldn't remember an opening in the last decade when fewer than 27 had fallen to the bag.

This will change. It's warm still, early in the year. Malkus, a veteran goose-hunter and observer, said Canadas will feed on grasses as long as they're available. "When it gets cold, they'll be in the cornfields and the soybeans. We'll just have to wait."

Meantime, as we learned the following morning, hunting will be a sometimes thing. We watched the dawn come up over the marsh and our ears rang with the cries of thousands of geese passing high overhead. Only a few found their way to our decoys, and fewer still fell to our shots.

No matter.

We're hunters, but we're watchers, too. And there was no bitterness over the scarcity of shots as we wound our way back home.

Goose-hunting on the Eastern Shore is the best goose-hunting in the nation. Even at that, there are days when the birds fly high and the hunters wind up napping in the blinds.