When Utah hunters go into the marshes Saturday for the opening of the 1988 waterfowl season, they will see something they haven't for many years - dry ground. Lots of it. Miles and miles.

In fact, finding dry ground from which to hunt won't be a problem; finding cover to hide behind in the exposed areas will be.The receding Great Salt Lake, down by nearly five feet from its peak level, has exposed miles of banks and dikes and open flats that were for so many years flooded. Unfortunately, before pulling back, the salty water destroyed almost all of the vegetation that once provided feed and protection for passing ducks, and cover for hunters.

Of concern, too, is the duck population. Obviously, it will determine the type of hunt sportsmen will have. Along the Pacific Flyway, duck numbers are way down, by nearly 60 percent from recorded highs.

After aerial flights taken earlier this week, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources waterfowl biologists say that in Utah numbers are down only slightly from last year.

Hunters, they predict, with some reservations, will have a fair opener. Which means most hunters will end the day with one or two ducks, a few will have limits, four ducks, and more hunters than ever will have a goose to cook. Duck numbers are down, yes, but goose counts are way up. The goose hunt is expected to be one of the best in memorable history.

The hunt for ducks, geese and swans will open at noon on Saturday. From then on the hunts will open and close at sunrise and sunset, respectively, which is something hunters are going to have to pay attention to. Because of the drop in duck numbers, states lowered limits, reduced hunting days, and shortened hunting hours. In years past, hunters could begin hunting one-half hour before sunrise, and quit one-half hour after sunset.

Asked two years ago to be selective about what they shoot, hunters this year will have to be even more so. First, instead of the five ducks allowed last year, the limit is four this year. Second, in that limit there can be no more than three mallards, only one can be a hen, only one pintail, no more than two redheads, and no canvasbacks at all.

The limit on geese is five, but only two of those can be of the plentiful Canadian species. The DWR also reports that there are still swan permits available at their Salt Lake City office.

The predicted weather forecast is for warm, sunny weather, which may be nice for football fans but not for duck hunters. Foul weather encourages waterfowl to move about.

Hunters need also remember that only steel shot is allowed while hunting in Box Elder, Cache, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. Or, any hunting around the shores of the Great Salt Lake or Utah Lake.

In flight checks taken earlier in the week along the shorelines of the Great Salt Lake, Tom Aldrich, waterfowl program coordinator for the DWR, made two overall observations: 1. Duck numbers are down slightly, and 2. there exists now, between the lake and the old high-water mark, large open mud flats.

Looking at specific areas, he said there were large flocks of ducks resting on the Salt Lake marshes where most of the private clubs are. Predominant ducks were gadwall, green-wing teal and pintail.

At Farmington Bay, dikes are starting to show and hunters can now get to where the old headquarters were. On Farmington, there were scattered clusters of ducks, mostly gadwall.

On the Layton and Kaysville marshes, there are a fair number of birds in the southeastern areas, mostly pintail, green-wing teal, divers and gadwall. There is a fair number of birds on Howard Slough but very little cover there for hunters.

Ogden Bay is showing some of the most improved conditions. Management controls there have resulted in encouraging revegetation and improved water conditions. Restoration work, reports area supervisor Val Bachman, has already begun.

According to Bachman, the receding water pulled back about 21/2 miles. Along the fringes, areas first left dry, new vegetation is growing "much faster than we expected," he said. Within a few years, and with continued drying out of the area and siphoning off of the salt, "we should have one of the finest marshes in the area. The potential is here."

Duck counts, he added, have been fluctuating the past few weeks. Some days, he said, there are a lot of ducks on the marsh, other days very few. Earlier this week, birds there were scattered. On the new unit, on the eastern section of the bay, the most numerous ducks were green-wing teal, pintail, shovelers and redheads. There is a large concentration of geese on the marsh there.

Near Plain City, there is a fair number of green-wing and shovelers to the south of the tracks. There is still some water on the Bear River Bird Refuge. Hunters will be able to hunt on lands outside the main dike. Areas inside the dike are closed.

There is a fair number of birds on the Box Elder, Public Shooting and Salt Creek marshes.

Hunting will be slower around the shores of Utah Lake. DWR officers figure about 8,000 birds died there from an outbreak of botulism.

Serious drought conditions in Canada and northern areas of the U.S. in recent years have hurt ducks. Some of the world's best waterfowl biologists and managers report they've never seen ducks in such straits.

Areas once used for nesting were dry the summer, forcing many ducks to move even further north, into Alaska, to nest. Studies have shown that when ducks are forced to move that far north, nesting success is reduced greatly. Some figures, in fact, show that only one in four nesting pairs of ducks will produce hatched chicks.

Back in the mid-1940s, it was estimated that about 150 million ducks made the fall flight south. Last year it was estimated the number was down to 62 million. Hardest hit has been the pintail. Breeding numbers of pintail dropped from around 5.4 million in the early 1980s to about 2.8 million this past spring.

Hunters will need a combination or small-game license, a Utah duck stamp and a federal duck stamp to hunt waterfowl. The duck hunt will close Dec. 4, while goose and swan hunting will continue until Jan. 1.