The pudgy man who works the landing on Knott's Island was talking about birds.

Oh, he talked about the weather, of course, and about the drought's effect on his business; but mostly he talked about these small shore birds that Depressionborn locals pop into a kettle of grain for dinner.

Which is to say that the fishing was lousy, and the anglers were eating so much crow.

For months they'd sworn one another to great deeds inthe shallow acres of Back Bay, a brackish, marshy border between Virginia and North Carolina that turns out eight-pound largemouth bass like a breeder reactor. Last year more than 200 were caught; so what's a couple more lunkers to Mother Nature?

What confidence they had. What elan . What baloney.

The first sign that all would not go well blew in on the tail of a shifting blow that hailed first from the northwest, then due north, and then northwest before rotating back again, always pushing the water out of the bay and into Currituck Sound.

The thick, sour-smelling grass that the bass love was stunted by the drought.

Still the dismal conditions seemed only a nuisance when the telltale ker-splash erupted from the four feet of water that Rick Sawin was working with a silver lure shaped like the business end of a spoon, joined at the hook by a wiggly pair of plastic legs that dance through the topwater. Surely a big one had taken the lure.

But when his friend turned, expecting to see the arched rod foiling the bass' escape, he found a stout man struggling to clim out of a deep hole, his waders full to the brim and his pride still under water.

The chill wind added to his misery; then his allergy went bananas when he put on a goose-down jacket for warmth.

Not once in the two days they fished did fish kiss the lures; only five or six times did they even to rise to snub the offerings. It was humilitating.

To make matters worse, they spent hours hearing the roiling love-making of carp celebrating spring. Aside from the thrill they give naturalists, carp serve only to irritate. They are to bass what an Orangeman is to the Irish Republican Army. Quite simply, neither swims together.

But there will be other, better days, when the amorous carp settle down, the bass will bite, and there won't be so much talk of the Depression, the drought and skinny birds.