There is a popular myth that snow geese are big, dumb, helpless birds so easily tricked that there's no challenge in hunting them.

That theory probably arose during the long span when hunting these white invaders from the far north was banned. The Fish and Wildlife Service was watching out for small wintering snow goose populations, but then they got big. Four years ago hunting was reopened and some thought it would wreak havoc on snows.

We've had 'em down here so thick and tame you could kill them with a baseball bat," said a North Carolina duck hunter.

But suddenly snow geese aren't dumb.

Joel Arrington, who works for the state travel and tourism department and is an avid hunter and fisherman, said the idea four years ago was to reduce the snow goose population by about 10 percent a year.

We had some problems with crop depredation in the winter wheat fields up north," he said. "They wanted to bring the population down by a tenth. It's been four seasons now, and they haven't succeeded yet."

Snow geese, it turns out, are only dumb and helpless-looking when no one pursues them. They get cagy in a hurry.

They have withstood hunting pressure so well, in fact, that this year North Carolina officials lengthened the season and doubled the daily bag limit to four snows.

This is a lot of geese for the average waterfowl hunter. Snows weigh six pounds and up. A limit of them would tax even a big fellow. But after two days of pursuing them in the salt marshes near Oregon Inlet I'd guess that problem doesn't come up too often.

"My gosh, you'd think they'd be all over us in conditions like this," said Arrington. A sharp northeast wind was building over the ocean two miles away pushing before it a huge wall of heavy-bottomed storm clouds.

The goose blind was nestled on a lee shore and surrounded by big snowy decoys, looking deceptively like a quiet refuge for weatherbeaten snows.

They were pouring south all right, riding the leading edge of the storm winds to warmer wintering grounds. They arrived on the horizon in great vees, and even great vees inside of great vees.

Snow geese appear incredibly white from a distance. When the wind catches them their wings tip askew and the low winter sun reflects brightly off their pristine undersides.

But they weren't stopping. We'd hear their cires, like a Canada's but an octave higher and scratchier, and try to lure them in with snow goose calls of our own. They never slowed down.

The morning before we'd had better luck.

The geese were following the line of the Outer Banks Highway -- Route 158, which cuts south down the sand dunes. Here at Oregon Inlet there's a tall, graceful bridge. The birds were flying east of it.

Our first morning we were in a blind east of the highway, and just after dawn we heard the grating cries heading our way.

Before we had time to answer the geese were on us, circling the blind in the early light, cupping their wings for a descent.

"Now," Arrington shouted. We were a bit early, but his final shot tumbled a big snow.

For the second day we were joined by two men from Raleigh. We'd flipped for choice of blind and they'd won. They picked the blind east of the bridge and we were stuck to the west, where the geese weren't abounding.

"Good gracious, look at that," said Arrington. We peered under the bridge supports and watched a flock of low-flying snows pitching into yesterday's blind, saw the hunters rise up and watched the birds flare in surprise. The sound of the shots took seconds to reach us; before we heard it another snow goose was folding up and tumbling.

But that was the morning, and new birds arriving with the cold front. By afternoon they were wiser and they no longer ventured near the deepy sets.

Around the Chesapeake Bay if you say goose you mean Canada goose. In North Carolina goose means snow goose. We watched only two small flocks of Canadas on our two-day vigil, but saw snow geese numbering in the thousands.

In Carolina snow goose season is open until Jan. 31, and Arrington said peak populations will be many times what we saw. "There hasn't been the weather to drive them south yet," he said.

Nor has there been weather to drive the ducks south. We were hunting in borrowed blinds with the help of Arvin Midgett, a professional duck hunting guide in Manteo.

During an afternoon lull when the geese quit flying, Midgett took us out to his open-water duck blinds.

The ducks didn't make a show, but the blinds were a show in their own right. Carolinians still use sink-boxes, concrete squares sunk in the shallows in the middle of the bay. They have adjustable waterproof upper shells, which can be raised and lowered to correspond with the water level.

Hunters perched in such a blind thus are eye-level with the water, practically invisible, and surrounded by 100 or more decoys.

It makes for devastating duck shooting, it there are ducks to hunt.

The snow goose blinds are much more traditional, simple brushed-over stilt blinds in the marshes.The geese favor the marshes because they feed heavily on marsh grass roots in the water.

Legend has it that this diet makes the snow goose acceptable but less than thrilling table fare. Arrington says it depends, and that snow geese that have been feeding in winter wheat fields are considered excellent to eat.

I brought one snow goose home and will explore this issue further, but in deference to those who belittle the snow goose I don't intend to make it the Christmas goose.

Not this year, anyway.