Big Henry was flabbergasted. "Nothing's the same," he said. "I don't recognize a thing."

The shock came 25 miles north of here, where the high rises of Virginia Beach pierce the winter sky and shade the white sand beaches where he used to work as a lifeguard in the '50s, when things were simpler.

Change is verywhere, and it's not pretty. Virginia Beach is one of the fastest-growing cities on the East Coast, with new people coming in by the thousands every year.

The newcomers aren't of the same mold as the folks they replace.

"Hardly anybody runs the water for a living anymore," says Otto Halstead, manager of Pocahontas waterfowl hunting area in the freshwater marshes 25 miles south in Back Bay.

That might not matter much, except that Halstead needs people who know the water if he's going to keep his hunting program afloat. "We may have to close this place down before long," he said. "We can't find anyone to carry the parties out to the blinds."

That would be a pity indeed, because the state-run Pocahontas and its two nearby sister areas offer classic waterfowl hunting at rates even the impoverished can afford.

Pocanontas, here at Creeds, is the class of the three. "We have the best public blinds in the state," Halstead said. A day in one bore out his claim.

Pocahontas offers guided hunting for three gunners at $40 a day, a total that includes transportation to and from the blind in a fast aluminum boat, decoys, a guide to call the ducks and geese in, a retriever to fetch downed birds, and a clubhouse with a roaring fire to come back to.

Of course there's a waiting list. Parties are assigned days by a lottery at the beginning of the hunting season. They apply for three dates and if they are lucky they are drawn for one of them.

We got lucky in the drawing in October, which is how we came to be gawking at the Virginia Beach sky-scrapers at night and marveling at dawn over the undisturbed marsh.

The guide, Bernie Hayes, had good news after the morning drawing. "You drew No. 2 blind," he said. "Eighteen ducks killed out of that blind yesterday."

Then, with pink splashing through the banked clouds, we roared off with the other four parties onto the dark Back Bay.

We found blind No. 2 before the sun poked over the water and while we settled in and loaded the guns Hayes set out 30 duck decoys and a half-dozen plastic Canada geese. We had 10-knot southwest winds that would build to 30 knots by midmorning. The temperature was a crisp 30 degrees.

We had kicked up one huge flock as we motored into the cove where our blind was. Two ducks fluttered overhead, trying to come back in. They were in easy range but we passed them up; we couldn't identify the species.

Those turned out to be the best shots of the day, but we took others and left at 2, quitting time, with a mixed bag of waterfowl.

A flock of gadwalls passed periously close an hour after we settled in and we knocked one down. A merganser swam into the decoys but we let it pass unaccosted since these ducks are almost inedible.

Henry knocked down a pintail and the guide killed two more. I shot a pair of greenwig teal, which are tiny but unsurpassable table fare. The locals call them hummingbirds.

Gerry shot a drake mallard that drifted by with its hen. A coot and a ruddy duck also fell.

We never got any ducks to flare to the decoys. All our successful shots were at passing birds; thousands of others passed out of range.

Halstead confirmed that after a week or so of hunting pressure, there is little chance of ducks decoying here unless there's stormy weather.

"They get smart all right," he said. "They get hammered every day, they figure out where the blinds are pretty quick."

None of us was disappointed in the bag, though it was only half what had been taken the day before. No hunt made in beautiful and strange surroundings on a wild and windy December day can be a failure, even if a shot is never fired.

A bag of game for the table is a bonus, pure and simple.

Pocahontas is booked up for this hunting season, as are the other Back Bay public areas, Barbour's Hill and Trojan.It's still possible to hunt at the latter two on a first-come, first-served basis.

Pocahontas requires the $40 fee up front, and parties have been showing up with 100 per cent regularity. But at Trojan the rate is $5 a day for use of blinds only, and there are no-shows on 90 percent of the weekday mornings. Trojan offers no decoys, guides or transportation. Hunters must bring their own boats and gear.

A Barbour's Hill, just south of Creeds in Sandbridge, there are no-shows about half the time on weekdays, officials said. Barbour's Hill charges $10 a day total for two hunters and offers decoys, transportation to the blinds, but no guides.

To use the blinds without reservations, hunters must show up at headquarters by 6 a.m. on the day of the hunt and take their chances on getting a spot. That's a little iffy for a place 3 1/2 hours from Washington by car but anyone in the Virginia Beach area for any other reason would do well to set a weekday aside for a hunt.

In any case, there's always next year. Applications are available on request from the Game Division, Box 11104, Richmond, Va. 23230.

Officials said they will accept requests for applications for 1979 now, but would much rather hunters waited until September to send them in. The applications won't be mailed until next fall, in any event.