Back in the flatlands of Virginia's Northern Neck, where man rarely goes, lies the world of the eagle and the osprey, the turkey vulture and the great blue heron.

Big birds.

Jay Cleiman was piloting his fast, shallow-draft bass boat up the turgid waters of a little creek across the Rappahanock River from the town of Tappahanock when he spied the first surprise.

"Isn't that a bald eagle?"

The great winged beast was soaring in the distinctive wide circle of America's national bird. It was unmistakable -- brilliant white tail, brilliant white head, the remainder of the body solid dark brown; a massive bird drressed in a tuxedo.

It should come as no surprise any more to see a bald eagle, knowing as we do that there are at least 90 nesting pairs and unknown numbers of other immature and nonbreeding eagles in the Chesapeake region.

Yet for two guys from Tacoma Park and Silver Spring, out for a day of bass fishing in a quiet creek the world hasn't discovered yet, this vision is still more exciting than the tug of a big fish on the line.

From the last bridge crossing on upstream, the creek winds its way five miles or more through thoroughly undeveloped country. No roads, no houses, no farms. The swamp oaks are bare in early spring and the marsh grass has not yet broken ground. It's wet, barren country, with only the barely perceptible hint of pale spring green back in the woods.

The farther upstream you go the clearer the water becomes, until four miles up from the bridge the last remnants of mud disappear and you can see the ripples in the sand on the bottom four feet down. It's a beautiful day, blue skies, warm southern breeze; the first day out after the winter.

The fish won't bite where the water is cloludy, but up here in the clear water the taps begin to come. A big fish hits a purple plastic worm, then lets go.

Cleiman, retrieving a large spinnerbait, sees a fish flash at the lure just as he gets it to the boat. There is experimentation with various lures, and finally the comforting tug of a fish on the line. It snatches up a small spinner, the lure that seems to catch every fish that exists in fresh water.

It's a yellow perch, colorfully barred in black and gold like a raccoon, which is where it gets its nickname -- raccoon perch.

Both yellow and white perch are stacked up in a turn of the creek, where a deep hole shallows into a sandbar. For half an hour they're hitting on every other cast; then the line stops on a strike and doesn't give at all. Big fish.

Cleiman wrestles with the thrashing beast and finally nets it -- a three-pound chain pickerel, fat with roe, ready to spawn.

Just upriver, silhouetted against the pale blue sky, another fish predator goes about its business. An osprey, or fish hawk, has returned to this creek from its winter in the south. It will next here shortly, but first there is the matter of food. The osprey hangs in the sky, stilling over some bait fish it spies fifty feet below. The wings fold back like a paper airplane.

The bird plummets. You can watch it drop until it disappears behind a mud island, five feet before it hits the surface. Then you wait. Two seconds, three, four. It reappears, flapping back up, regaining altitude, heading your way. As it flaps overhead you see the fish in its talons, a white perch, silver in the sunlight, trapped, squirming, about to join the food chain.

Upstream 200 yards farther and around the bend another giant bird sits on the branch of a dead tree overlooking the creek. It turns its head, revealing the characteristic profile of still another eagle, the fourth spotted this day.

You draw close with the camera, silently working upstream under the power of the electric motor. When you are fifty yards away it drops off the branch like a stone and flaps away, showing solid brown, head to tail, with regular white splotches. Immature bald eagle, nearly as big as the mature eagle spied earlier.

Herons depart from their perches on trees, croaking a horrible croak as they fly away.

Overhead eight turkey vultures soar in endless circles, looking for carrion in the land of the big birds, where man rarely goes.