It was 11 a.m. when the duck hunter turned from his sky watch to count the birds.

"Hey," he said to his partner, "If we don't watch out, we're gonna go over our limit. Wouldn't that be something? Spend all day complaining and go home with a limit of ducks."

It wouldn't be the first time.

These two hunters, in fact, had come to another part of this same Back Bay near Virginia Beach a year before and had done the same thing.

They'd bellyached about the location of the blind, about the weather, about the ambience, about all the rules and regulations, about the other people hunting nearby. Yet when they went home they carried along nearly a limit of gadwells, pintails, teal and mallards.

Now they were back, with a cold duck-hunting wind fresh in their faces, with ducks scattered on the water as far as the eye could see in any direction, and they were bellyaching again.

The blind lacked adequate camouflage. They hadn't been permitted to start early enough to set the decoys for the first (and always the best) flight. There was no cover for the boat, which sat out shiny green in the marsh. There weren't enough good decoys.

Back Bay is Virginia's modest-sized piece of the huge freshwater and brackish sound that lies behind the Outer Banks. A few miles south it becomes North Carolina's Currituck Sound, then Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

Here in the northern end it is fantastic waterfowl habitat. The water is uniformly shallow and almost 100 percentfresh. It supports a choking growth of aquatic grasses on which wintering waterfowl feed to survive the winter.

There is public access to Back Bay through three state hunting programs. The Pocohantas hunting area offers a guided hunt for three gunners at $40 complete, including guide, decoys, boat and retriever.

At Barbours Hill, two hunters can gun a blind for $10, which includes use of decoys, a boat and the blind, but no guide. At Trojan it costs $5 for use of a blind. You bring your own boat and decoys.

Anyone in his right mind would recognize these as great bargains. But right-minded people don't generally go duck hunting.

The wake-up call at the motel came at 3:30 a.m., but the hunters were already half-awake. By 4 they were on the road to Sandbridge, where the pavement gives way to sand beach and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Leo met them there. He's the state's man, and he hurried them into the back of his four-wheel drive truck along with two hunters from Richmond.

They bounced along the cold beach for 20 minutes in the blackness before dawn, guessing at the wind speed and likely weather developments. "Boy, I hope it's rotten weather," said one of the Richmonders. "That makes the birds fly better."

By 6 a.m. they had signed in at Leo's humble cottage in the dunes, picked their blinds for the day and were back in the truck for the ride through the marsh.

Sun-up was at 7.Legal shooting time was 6:30.

They didn't make it. At 6:30 they were still bailing out the boat, which was loaded with rainwater. Ducks flew over in great hurrying flocks -- black shifting shapes against a gray dawn sky.

The hunters said nasty words.

To hunt ducks is not so much sport as it is art. "A wild duck is wonderful to eat," one hunter explained. "But it is only a certain value. You can measure it. This," he said, gesturing at the sky and the marsh grasses and the sulfurous muck underfoot, "you can't measure. This is what I come for."

Like any art, it's no good unless it's perfect. Segovia can play Bach to perfection but if his D string is flat by a 50th of a tone, it stinks.

So it is with Back Bay's public hunting areas. They are wonderful places to see ducks and shoot at ducks and get a glimpse of what hunting is about. But in the end they make you hunger for the real thing -- to be alone in a silent marsh in a picture you have painted, with the wind whistling over the wings of a pair of mallards circling the spot you found and the blind you built there with your own hands.

The public blinds in Back Bay are booked for this duck season. Applications become available every September from the Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries, and dates are granted in a drawing shortly before season opens.

Otto Halstead, who runs the program, said there have been no-shows every day so far at Barbours Hill and Trojan. The no-shows' blinds go to whoever is waiting standby each morning.

Last week the Richmonders and the Washingtonians were the only hunters to show up for their appointment at Barbours Hill. The three other blinds went unused that day.