Judge Dickson Phillips says the happiest duck-hunting moments he can recall involved no fancy blinds, no expensive guides and no elegant lodges.

"The more primitive the better," he said. "Best of all is if you can toss a half-dozen decoys out in some isolated marsh and just hunker down in the mud and the reeds."

To many Washingtonians, waterfowl hunting has come to mean paying a ridiculous amount of money so some narrow-minded farmer can lead you out in a field in the dark before dawn, plant you in an underground ambush pit and restrain you from seeing sights or making sounds until he has lured a Canada goose or two in range.

At that point the guide howls "take 'em" in his best hissing gangster basso profundo, the shooters leap up to a dizzying vision of geese in terror, blast three times and then wait for the wrathful comments of the offended guide, who will have killed the geese they have missed.

Not exactly a total wilderness experience.

Better to suffer through an evening of empty nothing in a place of one's own choosing. During Virginia's special early duck season this year Jim Crumley had one of the more memorable hunts of his life in a beaver pond in Stafford County, a piece of publicly available land where he has never seen anyone else in the 10 years he has hunted it.

He went after work, arriving an hour before dusk. For half an hour nothing moved but beavers, including some that came so close he feared they would take a chunk out of his waders. "They have no fear at all, you know," Crumley said.

He had no decoys, no blind, nothing but his hat and his gun. Crumley squatted next to some brush and felt his legs sink calf-deep in the mucky bottom. Then wood ducks -- the most beautifully plumed of all North American ducks -- began cascading down the creek and filtering through the oak trees to their roosts on the water.

Crumley had his limit of four within 15 minutes, then stood in wonder as the ducks kept pitching in around him after dark.

The following day he sent a friend to the same spot and it was more of the same. Two days later Crumley went back with two friends. He almost said, "I'm going to guarantee the best duck hunt you've ever been on." But he caught himself, recognizing that boast as the kiss of death.

The three men hiked the half-mile through the woods to the pond, saw the beavers, heard a large bass leap from the water and splash, watched the sun sink and dark clouds gather, saw the sky turn a different, depthless shape with each passing minute, and saw not one duck fly all night.

Not one.

"Can you believe this?" asked Crumley, who had remained silent through the long and agonizing evening.

There is no predicting the real wilderness, and Perry Hollins, another veteran upland duck hunter, was quick to point out that "nothing leaves as quick as a wood duck."

Maryland hunters seldom visit the stretches of the Potomac and the Monocacy above Washington and the Patuxent near Upper Marlboro, which harbor wood ducks and mallards along with various other species, including geese, that occasionally stray by or stop over.

Duck hunting season reopens November 10 in Maryland and November 24 in Virginia.

The interim period is a good time to explore some of the two states' public rivers and marshes that could provide decent shooting without fancy private blinds, bored guides or big fees.

Both Maryland and Virginia offer pamphlet-type guides to state public hunting lands. In the last two years I have enjoyed remarkably successful opening-day hunts on state public lands, last year in Maryland, this year in Virginia. One of the unfortunate rules of hunting these public lands is that once you discover a good one you must not tell anyone but your dearest friend about it because it would otherwise become overrun and instantly no longer any good.

But Maryland officials have been crying the blues about underused public hunting lands in the area around Chincoteague Bay on the lower Eastern Shore. There are good opportunities there, as well as closer to home, for the duck-hunter who is willing to put himself out a lttle bit.

Ducks seek the most remote areas to rest and roost. The duck-hunter who paddles the extra mile in his canoe or slogs the extra thousand yards in the mucky marsh is most likely to succeed.

Such hunting requires a special capacity to suffer dirt and cold and damp. But that's what duck-hunting is, and the folks who would tell you different have probably been spending too much money and not enough energy.