Many Americans today are afraid to tackle game cookery for a couple of reasons. Some cooks have been put off by a hunter's "bag" fresh from the field and the tasks of skinning and plucking and butchering. Also it is not uncommon to be served tough, stringy and improperly treated game in restaurants, making us wonder about the value of the trouble and the expense.

If you are in the former category and would like to dispense with the drudgery of wild game preparation, your local butcher may be willing to dress and cut up your game for you. For those without access to a hunter or a butcher, there are a few places in the Washington area that sell several types of game. It is fresh, or more often, frozen and is presented as pristinely as a packaged chicken.

Game intended for commerce in the United States must be raised on "fenced" farms. It is illegal to sell or buy game that has been shot in the open. While there is a general assumption among game fanciers that this law is not always followed strictly, game bought from a market should have been federally inspected to ensure wholesomeness.

It is important to dispel the belief that game has to be overwhelmingly gamy in flavor. There has been a swing away from the traditional practice of hanging a freshly-shot bird until it is ripe or "high." To many modern hunters and gourmands, this results in meat that is foul-tasting.

Jim Heywood, chef-instructor of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., is a wild game expert.

"I don't care for many of the classical recipes for game," Heywood discloses, "because the strong flavors often overpower the taste of the meat." He is meticulous about dressing and chilling his game as soon as possible so it doesn't spoil or turn rancid. The result is game that has a milder taste that we've been led to believe and if prepared simply, is distinct and flavorful.

Three factors determine the quality of game: the age of the animal, its diet and the care it was given in the field. Roy Wall, a life-long hunter who has published a thin and cogent volume on "Game and Fish From Field to Table" (Naylor Company, San Antonio, TX), rails against the vast waste he has seen because potentially good game is spoiled or ruined through sloppy field handling.

The food eaten by an animal has a great deal to do with its taste. For example, it is easy to tell if an animal has been eating fish or evergreen berries even after is is cooked. If a winter is lean and harsh and animals must forage far and wide for very little food, their flesh will be sinewy and coarse. This fact points up another advantage to buying commercially-raised game, which is fed well and exercised little, resulting in plump and tasty meat.

Of course, it is difficult to determine some of these factors in commercial game, but you can generally assume these animals will be young, well-fed and ready-to-cook. Have a chat with your butcher, if you like, and examine fresh meat to make sure it is moist (not wet), springy to the touch, of good color and with a fresh, clean smell.

There is no more mystery to cooking game than in preparing any other king of meat. If you can boil a beefsteak, for example, or fry a chicken or prepare a stew there is no reason to be frightened of accomplishing the same feats with venison, squab or rabbit. There are a few things to keep in mind about the genre:

Obviously, a young animal is tender and an old one is tough, and sometimes strong or acrid in flavor. If you know a hunter who is out for a wall trophy, you might remember that the finer the head, the tougher the meat.

Use dry heat for tender cuts and moist heat for less tender meat.

If you want to marinate older or tougher game to make it tender or impart flavor, keep in mind that marinating up to 24 hours will diminish any gamy flavor and for 48 hours will accentuate gaminess. Use a stainless-steel or a non-metal dish in which to marinate because of the acid in the marinade.

Game is leaner than other meats, so before roasting game birds and game animals they should be larded (interlaced with fat by using a larding needle) or barded (covered with fatback, blanched bacon or other fat) or both. Another way to overcome dryness is to baste frequently. "If you don't baste, you waste," recommends Gerald M. Stein, president of New York's Iron Gate Products, a prominent purveyor of fancy game.

Perhaps the most important rule to follow in ensuring moist game is not to overcook it by doing one of several things: Use thyme during cooking, soak in buttermilk for two hours before cooking, stuff birds with apple and celery and freeze for several days (assuming your game has never been frozen), marinate it.

Small game birds should be cut in half in the kitchen before serving, suggests James Beard. This is mose easily done with kitchen shears.

Elizabeth David, England's first lady of the kitchen prefers to serve steak knives with serrated edges which are more practical for cutting game then standard dinner knives.

"Cook game by sight, not by a book," stresses Dominique D'Ermo of Dominique Restaurant, where unusual game offerings often are featured. Each animal will be a little different than the last and D'Ermo points out that one cooking method may not apply to all birds even those of the same feather.

Should you wish some general written directions, you might consult "The Doubleday Cookbook" by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna, "Larousse Gastronomique" (Crown Publishers), or James Beard's new "Fowl and Game Bird Cookery" (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich).

If you are at a loss as to what to do with a large amount of game meat, or if you find yourself with quite a few raw scraps, think of making pate, which is elegant and exotic and keeps well.

Here is a rundown of particular types of game:

Venison refers to the meat of deer and other antlered animals and is the choicest of large game. Cuts are much like those of beef or lamb.

If the animal or cut is unusually bony, allow 3/4 to 1 pound per person, otherwise 1/3 to 1/2 pound. Venison should not be cooked beyond medium rare.

Some aficionados claim venison is the only meat to use in a proper chili.

Rabbit is the most widely-eaten game animal in the U.S. Young rabbits can be substituted for chicken in many recipes. Older rabbit or hare, which is in the rabbit family, can be marinated in cider or wine to make it more palatable. A young rabbit weighs about 3 pounds.

Wild goose is best represented by the Canada Goose, which can weigh from 5 to 9 pounds. Young birds have tender, lean dark meat.

We are fortunate in Washington to be near the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is world-famous for hosting a magnificent flyway for geese. To quote Lafe Turlock, one of James Michener's watermen in "Chesapeake: "I can eat it roasted, or chopped with onions and peppers, or sliced thin with mushrooms. A goose tastes so good because it's so danged hard to shoot." w

In Germany goose is traditionally roasted with apples and served with braised red cabbage on Christmas day.

Render goose fat for pie crusts and biscuits.

Wild duck -- the best are mallards and canvasbacks, which weigh 3 to 5 pounds; Muscovy ducks are a bit smaller.

Wild ducks are leaner that the familiar Long Island variety and require at least barding.

Pheasant was first brought to this country by Benjamin Franklin's son-in-law, an Englishman. His project failed miserably. Eventually, however, pheasants were successfully transplanted to America.

The birds can weigh up to 2 1/2 pounds and their white meat is thought of as an epicurean delight amonggame birds.

Quail are tiny and average 6 ounces apiece. The bobwhite is the bestknown type, its white meat praised for delicious and delicate flavor.

Quail can be simply broiled on an open grill or roasted with a baste of lemon juice and butter. However it is cooked, quail should be barded well and served rare.

Quail sometimes is called partridge in the south.

Partridge -- Chukar (a native of India) and Grey varieties are available here. This bird is smaller than pheasant (about 1 pound apiece) but with a bigger breast and lighter meat. It tends to be tough.

Squab is a young pigeon which has never flown and thus is very tender. One bird weighs about a pound and can be coked in recipes calling for Cornish game hens.

Pan-roasted in the Italian method, as translated by Marcella Hazen in "The Classic Italian Cookbook" (Knopf), is a delicious way to eat this and other small game birds. You can plan on 1 pound of small game animals and game birds to feed one person.

Following are some places where you can buy game in the Washington area. Other specialty markets that have their own butcher may also carry game:

Arrow Live Poultry, 919 5th St. NW (638-8792). All poultry here is live and is killed and eviscerated when you order it. Although prices vary from week to week, here are some guidelines: Quail, $2.25 apiece; pheasant, $7 apiece; squab, $2 apiece; mallard duck, $1.39 per pound; geese, $1.19 per pound.

Georgetown Boucherie, in the Georgetown Market at 3206 Grace St. NW (333-3206). Francois brings fresh venison from Pennsylvania and sells the loins for about $7.50 per pound. He also sells venison ribs, cutlets, shoulder. Fresh rabbits cost $3.10 per pound. It's a good idea to call 3 or 4 days in advance to check on availablity and prices.

Burrow's Poultry (337-6393) is the next stall over from the Georgetown Boucherie in the Georgetown Market. Although game birds here are frozen, there is always a supply of pheasant at $12.50 apiece; squab, $4 apiece; rabbits, $1.95 per pound and mallard ducks, $1.50 per pound.

Washington Beef has recently opened a retail store at 1240 Fourth St. NE (547-8271). All game here comes from Iron Gate Products, an offshoot of the 21 Club. It is vacuum-packed and frozen. Quail are $1.79 each; partridge, $7.89 apiece; mallard ducks, $3.49 per pound; baby pheasant (1 pound), $4.49 per pound; geese, $2.59 per pound and boneless venison cutlets, $5.79 per pound. This shop also stocks authentic wild rice in 5-pound cans at $11 per pound.

Market Poultry, 400 East Capital St. (in the Eastern Market), 543-7470.Game here comes from L & L Pheasantry in Pennsylvania, one of the largest game farms in the country. Quail is $6 for 4; squab, $2.60 apiece; pheasant, $3.25 per pound; geese, $1.79 per pound; muscovy ducks, $1.75 per pound. Call ahead of time to find out whether game is fresh or frozen.

The booth across the way houses the Union Meat Co., which sells fresh wild rabbits at $1.69 per pound.

You can buy frozen game through the mail from several suppliers including Maison Glass, 52 E. 58th St., New York, N.Y. 10022, (212-755-3316). This gourmet emporium stocks an astounding array of all types of game: wild boar, buffalo, venison, wild goat, hare, chukar partridge, guinea hens, mallard and muscovy ducks, pheasant, wild turkey, Canadian and Minnesota geese, quail and woodcock en plumage (with the feathers on). Prices change often, so write or call for current information.