YOU MUST imagine the cold dark inside of a Jeep bumping through the empty January night sometime before dawn, with three shotguns neatly stowed in a rack, the three people all staring ahead to the track splashed with headlights, and all wishing the heater would work.

You must imagine a heavy smell of rubber rising from three pairs of waders, rising and joining the rich and cozy smell of a nearby Labrador bitch, and the bitter whiff of a burnt-out pipe.

Tom, the leader of the duck hunt, is at the wheel, his brother Read beside him; I am in the back with the dog. Charbo. We are heading steadily from the smooth tar road to the bumpy dirt and oyster-shell path that leads to the banks of the Edisto River south of Charleston, S.C.

It is the last week of the duck season. Orion and the great Dog Star of the winter sky are raging on the black horizon and Tom, as if sensible of the moment and the coming dawn, says uncharacteristically: "Today, I am demanding nothing less than total commitment to sport."

This stunning speech brings murmurs. We have driven 600 miles to get there - yesterday it was directly from the road to the field with no stop after the 13-hour trip - and yet the bag was poor and our leader, in one of the longest speeches he has ever made, is chiding us.

Today will be different. We are heading, after all, for one of the best wildfowl areas in the east, a flooded rice field island on the Edisto, an island first diked and cultivated in the earliest slavery times with incredible effort, a place soggy with history and ghostly whispers now in ruins, cropless, but still carefully diked and watched over as a hunting preserve.

How many hundreds of thousands of ducks have whistled their wings into its 300 acres in a century? An uncountable number - tallwinged Mallards, zipping teal, fast-diving ringnecks, caroling widgeon, determined canvasbacks - all the grand strong fowls of the eastern flyway.

Tom and Read, men of Savannah, have known these fields and ducks since childhood. The rice cultivation stopped after the Civil War. In those days the ducks were so thick that they darkened the sky, and still in 1977 you ocasionally see ducks in flights so thick and heavy they actually seem to lift and wave the horizon.

The ruined rice fields provide one of the most ideal of all duck habitats. Edible weeds abound and straggly stands of gun trees, many scarcely larger than bushes, dot the falt surface. The water in these fields can be closely controlled by wooden drains, called trunks, and the level of the Edisto, which changes about seven feet each tide, continually supplies fresh water.

We launch the aluminum boat and motor across the rippling Edisto, lit by stars, feeling the icy stream of air we are moving through, the dog snuffing and a low dike island suddenly looming immense and black as a wet whale.

We leave the boat at a rough dock and in a shed perched on the dike we light a fire to wait for the dawn. There is only a silvering of ice at the edges of the water.

A canoe is launched and loaded to cross the interior canal that rings the submerged rice land. This canal is deep and tobacco colored, and many a time has proved invisible to those who strode across the firm, ankle deep bottom too close to the canal, only to fall off the edge of the earth with a gasp, filling their waders, dropping their guns and spending the rest of the day with the impossible condition of "fat leg," which literally means swimming inside slowly freezing waders. As Tom warned in another long speech, "There is no return from the canal."

The canal is by no means the only water hazard. There are many deep spots and a giant invisible X-shaped ditch in the middle of the island. This ditch can be crossed in chest-high waders, but only in places. In others there is only a feeling of bottomless, dreadful sinking, of icy water pouring in, of a scream that will not scream.

Soon we are in position, each choosing a gum bush that will confuse a human silhouette, each wiggling his toes with that wonderfully righteous and lucky feeling that comes from waterproof waders in thigh-deep water.

Charbo is tethered with Tom, swining like a wind vane, her wild eyes to the sky. But the ducks fly sporadically. Dawn has come and gone with a mist and bright sunlight after.

Then, silently, quickly, they start to come.I'm stupidly filling my pipe when I hear Tom's duck call qwanking. Trying to be as inconspicuous and frozen still as possible, I put matches and pipe away, grab my gun and try to squirrel around to see them. Four or five big ducks - white flashes, immensely long necks, needle tails - pintails. They wheel at speed, they must see us in the bright sunlight. But no, they cup wings to come lower, shoot past and wheel again. Tom is gripping his gun, still calling, his face low and to the side - they must be right over him.

The call drops to its string, he uncurls and the barrels are pointed and swinging. The shot hits a pintail before I hear the blast - down and dead. Tom shoots again and the flight, strongly climbing on gleaming wings, strains out of range. Then one duck stops everything, its wings still outspread, and falls gently as a leaf or kite, a slow strange fall.

Charbo collects the pair with eclat and pleasure.

Meanwhile, ducks are rising distant from the nearby shore, where rice fields much larger than this island lie. They rise in strings of black yarn and positive clouds. There must be a thousand in the air at once, a spectacle.

There are lots more shots and more arrivals, but the ducks, for reasons of their own, favor an open pool amid the flooded rushes and cattails near Tom, and he carefully works toward his limit of five.

Read is also doing well, moving away from the tree into a thicket of cettails, calling, crouching, shooting through the sparkling morning. I get a pintail hen and a shoveler, and the brothers with grand generosity, switch me into the best position. Everything stops and midday basks us in sunlight.

You must imagine the dreamy aspects of this fresh scene, filed with bright water and stark naked trees, rustling reeds, the spatter of a hundred black coots that ferry importantly about nearby, ducking and flapping.

It was the calm peace of it that made me take out that damned pipe and, simultaneous with the lighting, make the ducks come.

Charbo's ears flip up and Read's duck call sounds quietly. I crane about, eyes focused far away when two enormous ducks tear by, as near as stoplight. Dropping everything. I snatch for the gun and almost fall.

I glimpse them behind, turning fast, their wings sizzling. Up with my gun. Safety? Which trigger? How much lead? I fired and one falls; the other, so near, is climbing with giant air-strides, his brilliant green neck announcing mallard, one of the fine prizes.

Past and away he goes, I swing violently through him and fire my last barrel and down the drake tumbles - my first double on mallards.

Charbo can hardly restrain herself; she's dancing on a string. She charges after the pair and crashes into the deep water of the central ditch like a black boulder. She brings back the hen and sets off again in a fever, but this time jumps gaily around with the beautiful drake on the far side of the ditch and, to my horror, calmy puts him down and begins to devour him greedily.

Rushing to the edge of the ditch, I sink deeper and deeper, howling warnings and threats to the black dog. She merely looks up curiously, tearing mouthfuls of feathers.

Suddenly it's too late. My arms go out, the sinking endlessly begins, the water pours over the top of the rubber under my armpits, streaming and icy Howls turns to gasps as Read, who knows a crossing, pulls the mallard, not too badly damaged, from Charbo. To her, he delivers a short and sharp lecture, unrepeatable.

You must imagine the slow and inexorable wetting that comes from filing one's waders - how one longs to be hung upside down; how one tries to keep the circulation going by wigglings and stampings; how the drowning chill creeps upward past the knees, how the body curls heating, even how one's companions could derive some amusement from the spectacle that cannot be concealed.

All got their limit that day on the Edisto. It is the kind of shooting rare enough further north, and rare enough to travel many miles to find. Strangely, the shooting in the salt water marshes, many miles of which are open to the public and easily accessible by boat, can be just as good. Particularly during a cold winter like this one when the ducks must use the salt water on their daily flightings.

The rice field froze solid that night, and the hunt next day centered on snipe and coots. We left the place near noon to drive home to Washington, well content; Charbo was curled in the back close to a cardboard carton filled with game, doubtless dreaming bright dreams of her own.