SEPTEMBER IS supposed to be bright and breezy on Virginia's Eastern Shore, so what were we doing struggling through the marsh under a 98-degree sun, in a small boat all but awash with sweat?

The three of us were sharing the joys of a new hunting season, that's what. We were playing hooky from the office. We were getting back to nature. We were half-dead from the heat and half-mad from mosquitoes and greenhead flies. We would have had a mutiny, if we could have figured out who was in charge so we could throw him overboard.

Our boat of fools had put out from Wachapreague Marina some hours before, on the rise of what promised to be the first spring tide of the marsh-hen season.

Marsh hens (clapper rails) are tall thin birds that are often heard but seldom seen in coastal marshes. The nights resound with the chicken-like cackling that gives them their common name. Their narrow bodies, source of the expression "skinny as a rail," allow them to slip away swiftly through the grass when foxes, raccoons or hunters approach. But the foxes, raccoons and hunters keep trying, because marsh hens are sinfully delicious.

Only when a spring or storm tide covers the marsh does the advantage shift to the hunter. A real "marsh hen tide" covers all but isolated tumps of tall grass, and allows hunters to pole their boats freely over the marsh; lacking deep cover, the birds will flush, and are fairly easy to bag. The daily limit is 15, which sounds like a lot until you serve them to a family of four; a marsh hen has less meat than a quail.

Marsh hen tides are rare, and this wasn't one of them. We hadn't really expected much, but had hoped to at least see a few birds.

We saw lots of them. We saw them fly up in our faces while we were motoring from one "gut," or channel, to the next, but you're not allowed to shoot from a vessel under power. We saw them swim away, staying just out of range, as we tried to pole the heavy boat through the heavy grass. We saw a few fly away unscathed through hails of shot. And we listened to them cackle.

Poling a boat takes lots of muscle and even more skill, neither of which we had enough of. Trying to pole a boat against the wind, across the tide or through the grass is just foolish. We fooled around for some hours.

Local hunters, who knew from experience that the tide wasn't going to "make," smiled at our foolishness in going out. They know the winds and waters and can read the marsh. They warned we were in for a miserable day.

We went out anyway, partly because we'd come more than 200 miles but mainly for mental health. Beyond a need to exercise our atavistic urge, we each had psychic baggage that needed sorting out. One of us greatly fears any body of water bigger than a hot tub; another has a specific phobia about touching birds still warm with life; and the third is so afraid of being crowded that he goes into meltdown in elevators.

These are ills of "civilization," and knowing they are silly doesn't help. But forcing ourselves to face them does help, sometimes, and it did this time. By luck or chance we finally bagged one marsh hen. The one of us who is afraid of water leaned far out over the water to retrieve the bird; the one who has a horror of touching warm birds took the warm bird in his hands; and the one who's afraid of being crowded didn't jump out of the crowded boat.

It may be that many "recreational" hunters, knowingly or not, go out for similar reasons: to re-create the predatory role for which evolution so long and patiently shaped us, and to deal with phantom problems in a real-world setting. Anyway, we had a very good day on the marsh.