If anyone has doubts about the significance of goose hunting to the economy of Maryland's Eastern Shore, he should have dropped by J.P.'s coffee house about 5 a.m. Friday to count the assembly-line breakfasts whizzing off the counter at $4 a pop.

The place looked like Fort Dix on boot-camp arrival day. You're talking wall-to-wall camouflage here and plenty of excitement, as garrulous waterfowlers cursed the dark and awaited dawn of opening day.

Into this crowd waded your obedient servant in search of his guide, one David Price. A wiry, dark-haired fellow of 27, Price was nibbling at a plate of grits. He leaned over and whispered the magic words:

"We've got a hot blind today."

So began another season in the best goose-hunting place in the world. Three and a half hours later we stood outside the flimsy structure Price had built on the edge of the Miles River and counted the trophies: Twelve geese to pluck and eat; images that might last a lifetime.

For $100 a person, Price had taken three of us to one of the 27 farms he leases for hunting on the Upper Eastern Shore. He had tooted on his goose call like a man possessed. The geese had come until all limits were filled, and afterward he called them some more, just to see the beautiful and timeless tableau one last time.

The larger flocks you can't do much with. They pass in great vees, barely glancing down. But when three or four or five pass, see the spread of floating decoys and hear Price's insistent har-RONKS, they often respond.

Around and around they fly, over the blind, up the river, out past the trees on the other side and back again until their minds are set, and then there's no stopping them. They lock their wings and point their beaks upwind and they fall into you, fragile and exposed like autumn leaves tumbling. This is what you remember.

For at least 30 years, Maryland's Eastern Shore has been host to the largest concentration of Canada geese in the Atlantic flyway, about 1 million birds. It's probably the biggest wintering concentration in the world. The Shore has everything -- food in the form of spillage from corn and soybean fields, water that rarely freezes, sanctuaries on private and public land.

The goose phenomenon is so firmly entrenched that, in the minds of many, the Shore always has been and always will be host to hordes of Canadas. But it has not always been so, and in his offices over on the Wye River, where he makes a business of counting and tracking geese, Larry Hindman is not sure it always will be.

Hindman, head of the state waterfowl program, says that back in the 1940s the Carolinas, not Maryland, were the focal point for migrating Canadas. In those days, geese traveled as far south as Florida and Georgia for the winter.

Changing farm practices, notably development of automatic harvesters that leave much waste on the ground, plus the creation of government waterfowl sanctuaries in Maryland made the Eastern Shore increasingly inviting.

Since the mid-1950s, the Shore has harbored about half the wintering geese in the Atlantic flyway. That hasn't changed. What worries Hindman is what's happened farther south.

South Carolina has so few Canadas now it's closed hunting, and with only 18,000 birds wintering in North Carolina, "they probably should have closed the season there, too," he said. No geese winter in Georgia and Florida any more, and those states actually have to truck in nuisance geese from up north and clip their wings in an effort to keep some semblance of a Canada goose presence.

Meantime, wintering flocks get bigger in Pennsylvania, New York, New England and even Ontario, said Hindman.

Suddenly, Maryland, which used to be in the heart of the wintering grounds, is the southern limit. Already, there are signs of diminishing flocks in the lower Eastern Shore counties, particularly in Dorchester, "which is going downhill fairly rapidly," said Hindman, and in Talbot. Hindman is among many who wonder if the northward trend will continue, eventually at Maryland's expense.

Through the 1970s, Canada populations here increased. Now they have stabilized. "Populations naturally are going to stabilize before they begin to decrease," said Hindman.

These are dark thoughts for a state that estimates waterfowl hunting pumps about $40 million a year into the economy, the bulk of it for goose hunting on the Eastern Shore.

The good news is that nothing yet has changed. The skies still grow dark with geese at dawn and dusk in Worton and Chestertown and Centreville, and the cash registers still ring a happy tune at places like J.P.'s. Hindman wants to make sure it stays that way, and said he won't balk at recommending shortened hunting seasons and other restrictions if he thinks it will prolong the good times.

"We'll always have geese because we have ideal habitat," he said. "We'll have the most geese until someone creates something better to the north.

"But that," said Hindman, "may already be occurring."