The old hunter stooped in the concealment of his blind, garing out across the water and 50 decoys at a gaggle of geese noisily honking their way across an azure sky.

Next to the crouching, almost primitive figure of the hunter was the somewhat more foolish figure of a 19-year-old youth - the guide - holding a wooden object to his mouth and making honking sounds to encourage a couple of geese to break off from the others, join the decoys, and be killed.

The old hunter is 72 years old today. He has killed elephants in Africa and bears in Alaska, and today he has come to maryland's famed Eastern Shore for the opening of the goose season hoping to kill some of the magnificent migratory waterfowl that stop hee to feed on the leftovers from the corn and soybean harvests as they fly south from Canada for the winter.

Hunting is older even than war, explains the old hunter, a retired college professor named David Rowe, who says he has spent a good deal of time defending himself against colleagues who can't understand what he sees in hunting. He simply loves it very much - for the sport, not the killing. There's just something about it. Difficult to explain.

"I go to dinner with people and they say, 'Why do you kill animals?' I had some damn woman preaching to me about killing baby seals up in Alaska. 'What is that you've got on your plate?' I asked. 'Veal,' she said. 'Well, did you know that's baby cow?' I said, and then I asked her, 'What are those shoes you're wearing, calfskin? She looked at me in horror, as if I dipped her finger in something."

He paused to consider, eyes scanning the sky.

"It isn't that I enjoy killing things. It's that I enjoy pitting myself against the animals. i don't kill much - three geese a day. you can't live on that, from an economic point of view, I mean."

Actually, said the old hunter, he may have trouble killing even three geese today because of a new federal law that requires hunters to use steel rather than lead 12-gauge shotgun ammunition.

The law was put into effect because waterfowl were thought to be ingesting the lead shot while feeding fromt he bottom of the bay and to be dying from its effects. But the steel shot damages gun barrels and does not have the weighty impact that gives a superior killing power, hunters have complained.

"They'll find they lose as many geese who are wounded and die later as they did from the lead poisoning," said the old hunter. "It's all part and parcel of this environmentist crap."

"Look, I'm a conservationist, but these environmenatalists, their arguments don't make any sense. They'll say you can't build a dam somewhere because it will kill off minnows. But what they don't look at is if they built the dam, then instead of the minnow they'd have vast quantities of bass, millions of birds and so on.

"It's a tradeoff. In Taiwan they had raging malaria and they got rid of it with DDT. Now there's no malaria naywhere on the whole island, but there are some funny effects on birds and so on from the DDT. Now which do you choose? Evolution is a process in which species become extinct. Man has got to be sure he doesn't become extinct."

Eyes still scanning the sky.

The old hunter says he certainly does not want geese to become extinct. He belongs to an organization, Ducks Unlimited, that he says purchases land in Canada as waterfowl refuges.

"You know, there are more deer in the state of Pennsylvania now than there were in Indian times. People came and killed off all the predatory animals. Also, people are no longer allowed to shoot deer indiscriminately for food."

According to Maryland's Natural Resources police this year's goose season was extended from 70 to 90 days as a goose population control measure - there are just too many geese for Canadian waterfowl habitats to accommodate in the spring. This is a fact that the old hunter is quick to point out.

A second guide drops byt he blind to chat, and as the old hunter continues talking there is this snatch of conversation from the two guides:

"That steel shot ain't worth a shoot, I know that!" said one.

"For sure," replied the other. "I shot me a goose twice and he kep (sic) on goin'. I got lead (shot) in my gun now."

Across the water, a boatload of hunters is being moved from one blind to another. Three geese fly high in their vicinity.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Like a war zone. Two geese drop from the sky like stones, flap in the water briefly, then float, dead. The other gets away. All this even though it is illegal to shoot geese from the boat.

"People are crazy," says the old hunter, watching. "You'll get onew sho drink in the blinds, who are ruoe, who hog shots, who just og wild and will do anything. It's so damn dangerous, you never know what they're going to do. Not for me, pal. Not for me."

So he hunts alone with only a guide or a close friend, never allowing himself to be placed in a blind with strangers. For the old hunter, there is enough thrill in getting a good clean shot - even if he has to wati all day for just one. If he kills his limit of three geese in one day, he'll spend the rest of the day shooting photos of the beautiful birds. They fascinate him. He is a student of their peculiar psychology.

Geese, he explains, have an overwhelming desire to congregate with other geese. It is their weakness, their fatal flaw. Indeed, the geese do seem to squawk like old biddies at a tea party as they cross the sky.

It is upon this weakness that the hunter depends. He looks for a single bird, or a pair, or a small group breaking apart. Then, totally concealed in the camouflaged blind , he hopes that the goose call will attract these lonely birds to the decoys bobbing lifelike in formation before the blind.

"Look up there," says the old hunter. "It's always the kids, the children, who break off from the formation. I've seen it happen time after time. It's the last two or three on the end of the formation who break off. Mom and Pop at the head of the formation, they've been down here before, they know what hunters are. Pop's saying, 'Don't you go down there, it's dangerous.' And the kids, they've never been down here from Canada before, and they see our nice decoys, and they say, 'Screw off, Pop, we're going down for a look.' And they do, and that's it, pal."

In the sky, two birds broke from a formation and headed toward the blinds, losing altitude. The guide talked at them with his honker - blowing ever more coaxingly, slowly, almost sensuously now . . .

The birds came on, nearing the water, feet down now, wings out wide - magnificent creatures landing with all the majesty of a Concorde jetliner.

They landed in the water just outside the outer ring of decoys. They died there.