All through the night the marshes echoed with the demented cackling of the rail birds, universally known as marsh hens on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

"They're laughing because they know it's not making enough tide for hunting them," said Randy Lewis, who had taken a day off from running the Wachapreague Hotel to show a visitor how the gawky-looking but tasty birds are pursued.

"A spring tide, with a good north-eastern behind it, is what you really need," Lewis said. "It covers the short grass, so you can pole the boat fast, and it concentrates the birds around the tumps (the high places in the marshes between the Delmarva mainland and the seaward barrier islands)."

"And ," he grunted was he levered the gunning boat through the grass with a springy 12-foot oak pole, "a good stiff wind behind you will make the boat drift fast enough to catch up with the little devils. They may look awkward, but they swim and run pretty fast.

"People say the kind of nasty weather that comes with a northeaster makes them flush better, but I'm not so sure that it just isn't that the wind moves the boat faster."

Poling a tippy eight-foot skiff and keeping it upright when the gunner in the bow is swinging on a rising bird is an art. Lewis, who learned it from his waterman father, doesn't know many people he'll trust not to dump him, so he generally stays in the stern and watches others shoot.

"To tell you the truth, I enjoy just being out here," he said. "I've tried the land (as a building contractor) and the blue water (as a deep-sea clammer) and I don't really like either one. What I like is the in-between, the marsh. There's nothing in the world like marsh."

If the requirements of tide and wind and rig are narrow, the bag limits are generous. Virginia hunters are permitted to kill 15 king and clamper rails and 25 Virginia and sora rails per day (10 and 25 in Maryland).

"That's kind of a joke," Lewis said. "In the first place, you aren't going to put 40 birds on a tide, and anyway it's a little difficult to tell the species apart. Fifteen birds is plenty for me, and for anybody I'd care to go out with."

He has no qualms about the birds being overshot - "They're about the most common bird in the marsh" - just a sense of proportion about what it is reasonable for a hunter to take on a given day.

"You probably think I'm telling you stories about how many of the little devils are out here," he said after a couple of laborious and fruitless passages through likely-looking patches of grass.

"They're just swimming and walking away from us because we're going so slow and there's so much shallows here.Look there: there's one of the little devils swimming." He flailed the water with the pole and the bird dived.

"Why don't you get out and splash around," he said. "If it doesn't gethim up it'll give him a good laugh." The submerged bird didn't show, but another one flushed behind the gunner, who slipped on the oozing mud as he swung around and threw two wild shots into the sparkling sky.

"If we don't get out of here that fool that dived will drown himself," Lewis said. "They just won't come up. Sometimes if the water's clear enough to see them you can just reach down and pick them up."

Lewis worked himself into a lather on the ebbing tide and put up six more rails before poling became impossible. Two got away. He also put up clouds of herons and egrets, plus one great bird that turned out to be a pelican. "Might as well not tell anybody," he said. "They never come north of Hatteras. It's in the book."

The following day. on a worse tide and with the wind blowing strong and dead wrong, Lewis put up no rails except while running upwind with the motor (shooting birds while under power or sail is illegal).

One of the rails hovered for a moment before flapping off.

"See you come spring tide," Lewis said.