Within an hour or two of Washington (or New York or just about any other major city) there are hundreds of square miles of cropland, abandoned fields and cut-over timberland that are lightly hunted if at all.

Much of it supports far higher game populations than the public hunting areas of the national or state forests, which are relatively sterile habitat.

Most of this land is posted and perhaps a majority of the owners are hostile to hunting, or to hunters (which is not the same thing), or have leased the hunting rights on their property.

That still leaves plenty of prime hunting land, if you can get in touch with the owner and get his permission. This takes time, energy and tact, and if you are lacking in any of these, forget it. And don't wait until the afternoon before opening day. Start now.

Sometimes it is a simple as driving around until you see a likely field and then stopping at the farm house. Country people are friendly and generous, as a rule. But the disappearance of the family farm has made it increasingly unlikely that the owner (or anyone) lives on the property.

You can save a lot of time by deciding on a county or general area that seems promising and getting large-scale topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey (1200 S. Eads St., Arlington). Most of the East has been mapped in 7 1/2-minute quadrants that show even minor terrain features and virtually every fire road and dwelling. It is possible, by careful study of such a map, to deduce where major game trails run in a place you have never seen.

Pick your spots, go to the area, and ask around until you find the owners. If there are no houses nearby, and there are likely not to be, try the nearest crossroads store.

But don't go barging in. Buy some gas. Have a Coke and a moon pie. Pet the dog (if you're in the right sort of store there will be one lying around). If the proprietor or other locals feel conversational, converse. Such stores are the intelligence centers of the community, and the people there know what you want to know. They will tell you as much as they are inclined to tell you, and how much that might be largely depends upon whether they perceive you as (a) an investigator for some agency foreign or domestic (doesn't matter which); (b) some jerk from the city who thinks they're quaint, or (c) a nice-enough stranger who's looking for a place to hunt.

What you are trying to do is to hook up with the first link in a chain of people who will pass you on if and only if they are satisfied with you. If Billy behind the counter tells you to go see Frank down at the hardware store, he has given you a limited but valuable endorsement.

If the response is grudging, don't press. Try somewhere else, and while you're on the way there, get your act together, you probably came on like a supercilious dude. Other primary links (that is to say, communications centers) in small communities are weekly newspapers, sheriffs' offices, game and fire wardens, town halls (if they're small enough), volunteer fire departments, mom-and-pop motels and livestock feed wholesalers.

A few hours of laid-back asking around should get you face-to-face with a man who owns some land you'd like to hunt. Take it easy. When you pull up in his yard, stay in the car until somebody comes out. Pet his dog (after he has commanded the beast not to eat you). Admire his place. Admire his children. Admire his stock (but don't pretend you know a Holstein from a Hereford if you don't). Tell him you wish you owned such a place (if you don't, you're in the wrong place).

Don't try to put him on. Any man who can make a living farming these days, or has found a way to pay the taxes on timberland or any other rural smallholding, is not to be trifled with; he'll send you packing.

He may send you packing anyway, because he's been sweet-talked by hunters before, and then they've shot his cows or trampled his standing crops or shot holes in his pickup.

But if he's the kind of man who has stayed on the land because he loves it, he's probably a hunter himself and he sympathizes with you.

So he sez OK. Make sure he knows when you plan to hunt. Make sure you know where he wants you to hunt, and what he doesn't want you to do. Check in with him when you arrive (or the night before, in the unlikely event you'll be up and out before him). Bring an empty trash bag and take it away full, not only with your own lunch litter but with the beer cans and shotgun shells others have discarded.

Take your game bag by the house and offer it to his wife (birds drawn and plucked, rabbits and squirrels skinned, deer quartered). Insist until she takes them or you're sure she really doesn't want them. Go out to the barn and lend a hand mucking out. Send a note of thanks.

If it sounds like too much trouble, it is.