There is no surer way to ruin a dinner party of otherwise convivial folks than to bring up hunting, especially deer hunting.

Nice people who don't hunt find if hard to believe that there are nice people who do. Antihunters and even openminded nonhunters tend to think of those who go into field and forest to kill animals as macho slobs or secret sadists.

It is partly the Bambi syndrome, and there is little point in trying to bridge the gulf between the anthropomorphizers and those who regard deer as animals with no more - or less - "right" to live than cows, pigs, and chickens.

Of course cows, pigs and chickens can be bought already dead and cut into covenient pieces at the store, so far downstream from the people who killed them that it is easy to forget they once were living animals. A chicken cannot reasonably be described as either less beautiful or less "intelligent" than a whitetail deer.

All of which begs the question of why an otherwise mild and gentle town dweller will go to great trouble and expense to try to kill a deer. Left to their own devices the herds would multiply themselves into starvation, but that is no excuse; people could be hired to slaughter the excess deer and butcher them for market.

The fact is that for the serious hunter deer season is very like playing a war game. The quarry is not armed, of course, but there are sufficient jerks waving guns in the woods to add that spice of danger without which the male if not the human psyche goes stale.

The only bad part of a successful hunt is the killing, because at that point the game - and the life of the "game" animal - stops. The responsibility one normally sluffs off onto Armour & Co. must be accepted: I personally killed this animal. That it is only one of the thousands of animals that die to feed oneself, one's children and one's pets makes it no less sad.

Fortunately it is possible to hunt deer for years without killing one, because the rules of the game are tough. A poacher can kill deer by the dozens if he likes, because they are almost as predictable as the sunrise; hunting them at night with a light is as easy as picking apples. But part of the fun of hunting is playing by the rules.

First comes the selection of hardware. Choosing and sighting in a deer rifle is a delightful exercise in ballistics and probabilities. The hunter, in deciding on this caliber or that, one weight and shape of bullet over another, high, low or medium muzzle velocity, is constructing the very embodiment of his anticipation of the coming encounter with a deer.

It is part of the strategy of the hunt, since the weapon must suit the ground - long range or short, brushy or open - and the ground must suit the deer. One scouts, gathers intelligence, selects the theater of action.

Clothing, food and shelter - the service of supply - are no less critical. A typical deer hunt involves a lot of hard, hot hiking between long frosty hours of sitting still, and the wrong outfit can be as ruinous as misfire.

Tactics come into play only near the end. Luck will lead to deer from time to time, but the hunter who consitently sees them within reasonable range is one who studies the signs and the ground and fits himself into the pattern of the wildlife around him.

Having taken a post that is appropriate to the lay of the land, wind patterns, signs of browse and trails, the hunter must discipline himself to be not only quiet but savagely alert. If he is doing it right he will see dozens of animals that don't see him, or at least don't recognize him as a predator. Squirrels will frolic all around him, birds will perch within arm's length. To see how the life of the woods is lived when he isn't there is will more than justify a "fruitless" hunt.

But the pattern is completed when the hunter's craft is proven by the appearance of deer close enough to the time and place he predicted to make a certain and humane shot possible.

My most successful hunt was last week. After studying the ground I took a stand near the head of a draw, anticipating deer to the left in the early hours and deer to the right after the sun had risen enough to warm the slope and shift the wind.

After several hours the quieting of the birds and suirrels warned me of the approach of deer, and when they came in sight I was in position to shoot from a stable and unstrained position. They were three does and two fawns, and they passed within 30 yards, moving with the ungainly grace the whitetail shares with giraffe. After they passed my scent alarmed and turned them but did not send them flying, and I was able to watch for 10 minutes. The boss doe directed the whole operation, sniffing and shuffling as she sought to locate me; the other does stood right and left waiting for orders while the fawns stood as unmoving as lawn ornaments. I was able to center each in the crosshairs without spooking them.

No buck followed them, but while I was waiting in hopes one would, I saw a turkey approaching, the second one I had ever seen more than a glimpse of in the wild. My fluorescent-orange vest and cap notwithstanding (turkeys have keen color vision), he crossed the slope 25 yards below me, stopping now and then to scratch up acorns.

When he passed behind a tree I raised the rifle and when he came in sight again I aimed at his head, not expecting to hit such a small moving target but unwilling to risk destroying him with a body shot. I missed.

Half an hour passed before the thrumming of my nerves quieted. It was as much hunting as I wanted that day, and that week. Best of all, perhaps, nothing had died.

To paraphrase Lee's remark to Longstreet at Gettysburg, it is well that hunting is so hard, lest we grow too fond of it.