-- It was, the vistors from the north agreed, clearly deep heaven in the Carolina coastal plain.

"Oh, you boys will have buck fever before tomorrow's done," said Blanche Long, their host for the night. And they did.

Much of the sandy flatland hereabouts has been tamed by farming. The corn is in and the soybeans are drying on green vines. Combines work the peanut fields under azure, cloudless skies.

But a lot of the land is wild, as well. This combination of rich farms, ripe with agricultural leftovers, and deep forest and swamp for covers has created a whitetail Valhalla 40 miles from civilized Wilmington.

There are deer in the woods, deer in the fields, deer in the swamps, and deer long the banks of the dark, slow Cape Fear River. Deer munch on corn the farmers leave behind and on soybeans they have yet to harvest, and often they make the farmers angry.

State game officials say there is an overpopulation of whitetail here in Bladen County, and this year in an effort to stem that trend they set at 79-day deer season, a limit of four deer per licensed hunter (two per day and a 10-day doe season.

The northerners found themselves slightly giddy with these liberal standards, and this was opening day.

Much has been said and written about the southern custom of hunting deer with dogs, most of it unflattering. The northerners bore no grudge either way, but had elected to try their own system on foreign turf. They had access to several hundered farm acres and planned to still-hunt mornings and evenings, the technique they used at home.

An offer came early, through, from a hospitable group of Carolinians -- the Carvers Creek Gun Club. The visitors were welcomed to join the first-day hunt over hounds.

The sun had barely risen, hot and gold over long rows of cornfield stubble. The baying of the hounds at first was an indistinguishable howling in the thickets to the east.

The nose grew and the Washingtonian clutched his shotgun, knowing the dogs were in pursuit of deer, knowing the noise was drawing his way, knowing the explosion of deer from the oaks and pines would be sudden and startling.

The lone deer burst into the open field in a bound, haunches flexing under dark brown coat, and scrambled along the corn row toward the woods to the west.

It was a doe, unmistakably, and doe season would not begin until December. He lowered the gun and watched her bob and leap into the distance. Shortly came a long-legged brown dog in conscientious pursuit. Soon the doe would be at the river, unharmed, and the dog would lose the scent and give up.

Charles Hobbs, the unofficial master of the hunt, keeps a dozen Walker hounds all year so he can hunt them for deer in the fall. But the dogs aren't the only ones that penetrate the thickets, briars, swamps and brambles to drive deer into huntable territory.

Hobbs, a heavy-set man of middle years, follows along, baying at them in their language, calling them to him and pushing them through the woods.

Does it get thick in there?

"Many's the time," he says, "I've had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl through the greenbriars."

Twenty Carvers Creek shooters turned out for the opener, about half the membership of the club. Opening day is no special deal when the season is as long as it is here, and most hunters favor cooler weather later on, when the leaves are down and the visibility is better.

The club was formed in 1961 in an effort to hold down what had been a footloose approach to the deer hunt. For generations, unorganized local people had ignored state regulations against shooting does, and the deer population had dwindled, Hobbs said.

His club and others laid down a law that female deer would not be shot out of season, and attached a fine and disbarment to members who violated the clause. The strategy worked. Some say too well.

State officials maintain that part of the deer overpopulation problem in Bladen County results from unwillingness of local residents to shoot doe, even when in season.

A southern-style deer hunt with dogs is not without its drawbacks, two in particular -- CB radios and roads.

Occasionally during a hunt, as happened today, a hunter will spy a buck in a woods lot along a roadside. If the hunt is slow that day, he may notify the others by radio. They, in turn, can elect to cover the lot by standing hunters on roads on either side of it. Then a driver pushes dogs through and the standing hunters shoot if the buck leaps out. Today, happily, none did.

It's no sport and no pleasure to share in.

But in the woods the hunt is another matter.

No deer were shot in the morning hunt and, in the afternoon, Hobbs chose a stretch of swampy land on the banks of the Cape Fear. "We know there's plenty of deer in there," he said.

He was right.

The northerners spread out in damp bottom land, where the trunks of tall poplars expand at the base like elephants's feet. Ray Health, a young man, was to drive his dogs through that piece, and before the trip from the north had settled in they heard the cry of the hounds.

The Washingtonian saw the deer 30 yards away, gray ghosts between the tree trunks. One. two. three. four. They made no sound and moved thoughtfully, showing no sign of panic. The river was only a short run away.

He watched them pass. No antlers in sight. All does, he guessed, and a lovely vision. They were heading toward the Virginian, he thought.

At him, in fact.

"They almost ran me over," the Virginian said later. "I'm still shaking."