Do yourself a favor and don't ask Rep. Arlan Stangeland (R-Minn.), about the federal debt. The federal debt just cost him a goose.

Stangeland hunted last week on a day that seemed forged in heaven. It was windy and wild when he left Washington on Thursday evening with lobbyist Dave Henderson, and the farther east they went, the better it got.

By the time they hit English's Restaurant in Annapolis for a tub of chicken, it was blowing half a gale. Wind buffeted Henderson's car as they crossed the Bay Bridge and was gusting away when they turned up the gravel lane to the old farmhouse Henderson's hunt club rents in Church Hill.

Anyone who has been waterfowling knows that a nasty east wind is the next best thing to spitting snow. It gets birds moving and keeps them low, out of the worst of the breeze and closer to the guns of autumn.

"We've got a hunting day," said Henderson with a grin.

There was one potential hitch. Stangeland passed the word early that he had to call Washington about 10 a.m. Friday to make sure the House wasn't about to vote on an extension of the federal debt limit, which, if you haven't heard, needs to be increased to about $2 trillion for the government to keep operating.

"I don't think we'll vote," said Stangeland as he sipped coffee and the wind swirled around the farmhouse, "but if we do, I'll have to go back."

When everything looks as right as it did that night, it's hard to sleep. Henderson and Stangeland waited up for me to arrive, and we were up past 11 chattering about our prospects. When we rolled out the sleeping bags, it was only five hours till we were due back up again.

At 2 a.m. I awoke to the "whump, whump, whump" of the wind beating on the sides of the house. Outside, the soybean fields were alternately bathed in light and shrouded in dark as clouds scudded across the sky, racing beneath a three-quarter moon. Stangeland said he saw much the same thing when he got up at 3.

At 5, the wind was still powering across the flat fields, and at 5:30 in Buzz's Restaurant in Chestertown, the plate-glass windows flexed slightly in the gusts while a crowd of hunters gobbled grits and scrapple from the hot buffet.

In the cornfield a half-hour later, Henderson declined to use his biggest silhouette decoys for fear they would blow away. He did hand up a couple of hundred standard-sized silhouettes and full-bodies, and no more than five minutes after the last one was planted in the dirt, you could hear the geese honking on the ponds, preparing to vacate.

It was a picture that couldn't have looked better if you'd painted it yourself.

But geese never quite do what you expect. We agreed they would come to cornfields to feed, what with a storm brewing, the barometer plunging and the prospect of four or five days of bad weather ahead.

They went to grass fields and other ponds instead, from what we could tell. You'd see a big flock lift off in the distance, and Henderson would toot on his call until his face was red and his dog was hopped up beyond controlling. But not a goose gave us a tumble.

Stangeland, who had been skunked opening day as well, was philosophical. "I'm no meat hunter," he said. Before long, he was taking a snooze.

At 10:10, he checked his watch and yawned. Time to call.

Henderson popped out of the pit and started piling gear on the ground. He unloaded his gun. Stangeland shucked the shells out of his. They packed up the thermos and the day packs. The dog bounded around in the decoys. Stangeland climbed into the daylight.

And when all was done that needed to be done, the two men looked up one last time to record the perfect scene in their minds -- the gray sky, the scudding clouds, the hint of cold winter coming.

Which is when they saw the goose descending, feet down, neck outstretched, 15 feet above the decoys and 20 yards out from the blind.

It turned out that the House was planning a vote, after all. Presumably, Stangeland regained his composure by the time he checked in.

"We laughed," said Henderson, "all the way to Washington."