The prediction business is risky at best, which may be why state game officials usually soft-pedal the hunting outlook. Who can blame them?

Every time that Maryland wildlife experts, for example, have said that Canada goose-hunting will be terrific, hunting has been dismal -- and then last year's upper-Eastern Shore goose-shooting far exceeded predictions. It simply isn't possible to say what will happen when the waterfowl migration swings into full gear some 900 miles to the north.

Still, one thing everyone agrees on is that deer-hunting is not about to see a strong downward slide. The whitetail deer herds, adept at coping with mankind and all its trappings, are still on the increase. Deer-hunters from Pennsylvania to southern Virginia should again see good numbers of adult bucks, but the success rate will be up to sharp eyes and accurate aiming. The last few years have been record- breakers in mid-Atlantic states. It will be difficult to set higher marks, but it could happen if heavy rains and strong winds take a holiday.

Gray squirrels, a staple for tens of thousands of area hunters, are in good supply in most surrounding jurisdictions. If the summer drought has affected the winter food supply for the tasty little rodents, it hasn't shown up yet.

One of the surprises of the year, in no small part caused by the lack of rain, will be the dove-shooting. Some farmers have simply abandoned their cornfields or turned them over. Bad for the landowners; good for the doves. Thus far, food is plentiful. The speedy birds should stay around until late in the year. Top areas again include Virginia's Northern Neck and adjacent southern Maryland.

While mourning doves should be plentiful, don't expect the same with ducks. Maryland tidewater areas especially will offer only meagre numbers of migrating black, mallard, pintail and teal species. The only bright spot here will be a fair population of local Virginia and Maryland river ducks, with slight increases noted in the wood duck family. Be warned, however, that black ducks cannot be hunted in Virginia during the general November 23-to-December 3 season. Special steel-shot shells are not required anywhere in Virginia this year.

Only medium-quality pheasant-hunting can be expected in the farm belts that stretch from lime-rich Pennsylvania to northern Maryland. Forget Virginia altogether in the pheasant department -- the state's limit of two birds per hunter per year is ample proof that pheasant broods aren't abundant. Look for increased chances for quail in all the surrounding states, especially in the Northern Neck and piedmont sectors of Virginia.

Cottontail rabbits, always a favorite with rural residents, are in excellent supply almost everywhere, but it's early yet. Cottontails suffer high losses in late summer from predators, disease and sudden weather changes, and their number could drop sharply by November when the season rolls around.

Wild-turkey-hunters in the know will stay away from western Maryland. The turkey fan who has little time to spare but wants a delicious oven-roasted tom would be wiser to head into the high country of Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania where the wily birds outnumber the camouflaged hunters. The reverse is true in Maryland.

As far as the black bear is concerned, here's hoping that eventually the nearby states that still permit its pursuit will declare a moratorium on such hunting. It's my opinion that Virginia, for one, simply doesn't have enough bears to warrant a nearly two-month-long hunt -- unless, of course, the state knows something I don't. Leave them alone for a while, then re-start bear hunting after careful counting and evaluation.

Grouse-hunters should fare well in West Virginia and parts of Virginia's Blue Ridge. Only fair grouse-shooting is likely in western Maryland, where the hunters are far more numerous than the swift woodland drummers.

The best bets in the four states covered in our hunting seasons chart: Deer, squirrels, doves and rabbits. For waterfowlers, Maryland's Eastern Shore counties close to the Atlantic will see better snow-goose-hunting, but we'll have to wait and see what will happen with the top shore game, the Canada goose. Early indications from northern breeding areas are that it should be fair. FOR INFORMATION VIRGINIA COMMISSION OF GAME AND INLAND FISHERIES -- Box 11104, Richmond 23230; 804/257-1000. MARYLAND WILDLIFE ADMINISTRATION -- Tawes State Office Building, Annapolis 21401; 301/269-2752; TTY for hearing-impaired, 301/269-2609. WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES -- Charleston 25305; 304/348-3381. PENNSYLVANIA GAME COMMISSION -- Box 1567, Harrisburg 17120; 717/787-3745.