When the great moment finally arrived, I was off in town negotiating with an injured oysterman for four dozen cherrystones and a bushel of salt oysters.

"How'd you break the ribs?" I asked.

"Got drunk and fell on a clam cage," he said, matter-of-factly. "I had a prime rib dinner in one hand and a Seagram's and ginger in the other. Never spilled either one. I'm on my way to the doctor now to find out why they ain't healing. I've broken ribs before, but these are staying broke."

It was about this time that the brant soared into the decoys in Black Point Drain, where Luther Carter hid alone.

"There must have been 20 or so in the flock," Carter, a Washington science writer, said later. "It was quite a sight. I was watching one bunch that flew on up the channel. I looked up and here came another flock, 70 yards out and headed straight in."

This is the magical moment in waterfowling that makes all sacrifice seem worth it, when the birds have made the commitment to come and there is only the 35-yard wait to endure, when you try to stay calm because this may be the only chance you get.

Carter jumped up when the first birds put down and took his limit with three shots, which is as good as shooting gets. It was also the only real action any of us saw during two exhausting, frustrating days. When I returned a half-hour later and Carter held up two fistfuls of brant, I could have strangled him.

So went the cruel climax of a rough story that started weeks earlier, when hunting guide Andy Linton took me on a memorable brant and duck hunt in his fast Chincoteague scow.

"This looks easy," Linton said as he roared through the marsh in the dark before dawn, "but it's not something to try yourself. This is a hard place to get around in."

But it did seem easy, and Carter, who owns a house in Chincoteague, and Manuel Munoz-Carrasco said they were game to try. We towed the 17-footer from Washington and launched in Assateague Channel just after lunch on a cold, clear day.

Our destination was the wild, uninhabited north point of Chincoteague. We never got close. Afternoon found us ramming shoals and sucking mud into the outboard intakes; dusk found us high and dry on a sandbar, pushing and prying to break the boat free. Only a rising tide got us home, where we puzzled over the nautical charts that had led to foul waters.

"Those charts are all wrong," said David Birch, an outboard mechanic who grew up here. "They may have been right when they drew 'em, but the channels change. If you want to go to the north point, don't follow the charts. You go to the Z-brick house north of the Assateague Island bridge and aim across to where the high woods end on the refuge. There's plenty of deep water there."

So informed, we set out in the dark before dawn and ran hard aground. Lurching across a sandy shoal at sunrise, we approached a spot Birch said was good for hunting, but a powerful local skiff roared past and dumped a boatload of gunners in our spot.

So we put the Z-brick house off our stern and headed in fits and starts for the north point, only to find a commercial guide there, tossing out decoys in the spot we'd picked.

We went south again, bump, bump, bump.

At Black Point Drain, Carter spied a flock of feeding brant that flew up in a noisy squadron when we ran aground. There was an old blind nearby -- a place to hunt! We dragged the boat to shore and hauled the decoys out.

The setup looked good -- 40 duck decoys and seven geese bobbing in the chop, the kayak close by to fetch downed birds and the 17-footer anchored 150 yards away, not to alarm the birds. We settled in.

Soon the 17-footer looked to be riding high in the water. Her red waterline got wider and wider. She'd been left in two feet of water, but the tide was running out.

Good Lord, aground again?

I raced out and with frantic intensity heaved away until she was afloat. It was a clear shot from there to town. The birds hadn't been flying. Frustrations were mounting. Oysters sounded mighty appealing.

So I took a little ride.

MORALS: Anchor deep when the tide is ebbing. Steer clear of clam cages while drinking. Never hunt with a science writer.