PRINCE FREDERICK, MD. -- Ebbie Smith said when the fellows in the hunt club turned up for opening day of dove season here, there were so many birds in the field "it was like shooing chickens out of a chicken yard."

Doves scattered everywhere as the gunners drove down the farm lane, and as soon as everyone was seated around the edge of the wheat field the birds started returning, which made for quite an afternoon's shooting.

But what did I care about opening day? I've not risen high enough on the invitation list to rate an opening-day welcome, which is understandable. As well as Smith and I get along, you don't just prance into most-favored status overnight, and few things are more prized in a place like this than a good spot in a dove field on opening day.

So how about right now, a week and a half later, when my chance finally rolled around? Any likelihood we'd see a dove or two, get a few shots off?

"Oh," mused Smith, stirring a bowl of thick vegetable soup at the Surrey Inn on Rte. 4, "there might be a few left around. You might see one or two today close enough for a passing shot, you know. It all depends . . . "

He tried to keep a straight face but the eyes betrayed him. He was pulling my leg, and before his pickup rolled out for the 10-minute run to the farm, he'd conceded that as long as threatening rainstorms held off, we'd likely warm our gun barrels before this day was through.

When he turned off the hard road onto the dirt track past the tobacco barn, I could see what he meant. Doves were scattered through a cleared tobacco field and a bunch more fed in a neighboring wheat field the farmer had bushhogged the week before. Most took off at our approach.

"Did you see a few doves there, or were those just blackbirds?" Smith said with a laugh.

It was rapidly dawning on me that I was in the magical place called "guaranteed," a place I'd not been before, where even an oaf could expect his limit of 12 doves.

"There's plenty of food for the birds here," agreed our host, Shockie Wood, when he showed up in his pickup a few minutes later.

Wood said the tobacco field had just been seeded in wheat for a winter cover crop, and the bushhogged wheat field next to it was littered with grain that would reseed itself for the coming cold season.

Basically, what we had was a 10-acre bird feeder to hunt over, and it was all perfectly legal, "all within the normal farming practices the man would follow," said Smith, who farmed these parts for years before taking a job as a prison corrections officer.

So we stood there alongside the red tobacco barn, waiting for Rick Hardesty, who would round out our party. Huge thunderheads loomed over the trees that ringed the fields and a cool breeze blew in off the Patuxent River. You could hear the workboats out on the water, and the smell of fresh tobacco drying in the barn made a heady, intoxicating brew.

It seemed a long way out for a place a little over an hour's drive from Washington.

The doves we'd spooked from the fields came back, flitting into the fields with incredible grace.

Moments like this stay with you: The sharp, conflicting smells, the cool hint of autumn, the feel of the gunstock solid in hand, the slick mud underfoot, the birds, the anticipation; a new season dawning.

Smith sent Hardesty across the field to a spot where a point of trees made out into the clearing, which proved a very good spot. He sent me to the middle of the wheat field, and he took a stand at the opposite end in the shadow of tall timber.

The birds came with classic unpredictability, zooming from every direction, out of the trees, over the barn, flying high, flying low, shifting course wildly in midflight for no evident reason. We boom-boomed at them mercilessly.

The shouted instructions were comical: "To your left, Rick, over the barn! Coming at you; watch now, behind you! Rick! Rick! Whooooo!"

Boom! Boom! Boom!

"Oh, my Lawd! How'd you miss that one? Good gracious!

"Coming at you, now. See what you can do this time. Right side. Right side!"

Each of us had moments when nothing seemed capable of sending a pellet anywhere near a bird. But so plentiful were the doves that even the worst shots among us eventually found the range.

I had my limit by 5 p.m., the first time I've ever pulled that stunt off. Others took longer, I'm delighted to say.

About 6, we reconvened at the barn. The birds were still flying, but now, with no one to bother them, they were putting in to feed. Nothing much had changed but the light, which was softer in the evening, and our noise, which had abated.

We stood and watched. When the odd bird zoomed close, Smith hollered with delight. "Get him boys, get him! Oh, my Lawd!"

But the urge to shoot had passed. We'd had our fill.

"What you saw today," Smith said proudly, "is old fashioned dove-shooting, Calvert County style."