By Hank Burchard

THE LAST TIME Nimrod had hunted on public land he'd felt like a straggler in a war zone. From before first light until past dark the sound of guns was so incessant it seemed there could be scarcely a deer or a deerhunter left alive in Virginia; he fled to the farmlots of the lowlands, vowing to shun the hills in hunting season. But here was a fellow who swore there was a whole mountain of public land near Lexington that was full of deer and all but empty of hunters.

"Four out of the five years I've hunted it, I've taken a deer off that ridge," the man said. "And even though it's a state wildlife management area and is only about four hours west of Washington, I hardly ever see more than two or three other hunters there."

The next question was why, having found such a rare place as a semiprivate piece of public hunting ground, he would tell anyone else about it.

"Well," the Informant said, "last time I got an eight-point buck that dressed out at over 140 pounds, and it took me all day to drag him up the ridge and back to camp. I had to keep telling myself how much fun I was having, and made up my mind to share it with somebody next time." A dressed weight of 10 stone means upwards of 200 pounds on the hoof, which is a very big deer for Virginia. The only remaining question was who would bring the beans and who the bacon.

Several weeks before opening day they scouted "their" section of the ridge, a three- mile stretch of lichen-covered granite and gnarled oaks that rises to just over 3,000 feet. They found plenty of promising signs: tracks, droppings, saplings freshly scarred by rubbing antlers and "scrapes" pawed out on the ground by studs announcing their availability. Best of all, they surprised several sizable bucks on the trail.

They were confident that the opening-day surge of hunters into the surrounding Shenandoah Valley would drive even more deer onto their arms; the most likely ambush spots were marked on a contour map that circulated among what grew to a party of five.

Camping gear, blaze-orange clothing and too much food and drink were assembled. On the eve of opening day Nimrod, the Informant, two jolly undertakers and a physicist made camp in a muddy glade from which, during lulls in the freezing rain and blowing fog, they could see the lights of the people all snug in their homes in the valley below.

A Virginia Beach man and his grown son were already established in the clearing, and another party of three pulled in, leaving no more room to park a camper or pitch a tent; there was just enough space left for a series of disappointed latecomers to turn around in. The Informant was asked several times how he'd managed to find such a secluded spot.

During the night the rain let up, husbanding its strength against the dawn, when it fell in torrents on Nimrod, the Informant and the physicist as they slipped and sloshed along the ridge in search of deer that had the sense to stay hunkered down. The undertakers, acutely conscious of human frailty, elected to tarry until it faired off; then one of them ambled half a mile from camp and missed a humongous buck, twice, at 70 yards.

Sitting hunched on the flank of a steep draw at midday, Nimrod couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. He took stock: wet, yes; muddy, yes; cold, yes; hungry, yes; runny nose, yes; chafed neck, yes; calf cramps, yes; sore toe, yes; delighted to be there, yes. And then it came to him: There'd been hardly a dozen shots all morning, the quietest opening day he'd ever known.

And yet the mountain and valley were swarming with hunters, which was easy to see because nearly all were wearing blaze-orange caps and/or coats, visible for miles. The last time he'd been deerhunting in the mountains, hardly half the hunters wore blaze orange; the other half spent most of their time crackling through the underbrush trying to get shot.

But now the safety color plainly has caught on; the Virginia Game Commission has given away 30,000 blaze-orange vests in the past two years, many of them picked up by women concerned for their husbands and sons. (None of the six men killed in Virginia hunting accidents so far this year was wearing blaze orange; one of them had his free vest neatly folded in his pocket.)

Also missing from the mountain, Nimrod noted, were the drunks in camp, rowdies cruising the roads, jerks scattering trash and the other sorts of slobs who for years have been turning nonhunters into antihunters. Hunters approaching his stand quietly turned aside as soon as they saw him, usually with a friendly wave. Can it be that the cities are getting meaner because the gentlemen have taken to the woods?

But Nimrod found that one thing hadn't changed: At dawn on the second day he rounded a curve in the trail to find himself twenty paces from the biggest buck he'd ever seen. The deer stood quietly for half a minute, its white throat rose-washed in the the early light. The man stood transfixed and trembling, staring over his rifle. Then the buck turned and trotted off, tautly balancing the broad antlers that will gleam always in the memory and never grow dull and dusty on the wall.

THE BUCKS STOP HERE AND THERE -- Deerhunting with firearms is now in season throughout the Washington region. In eastern Virginia the season runs through January 5; west of the Blue Ridge the season closes this Friday but reopens for muzzle-loaders only from December 17 through January 5. Maryland's season closes this Saturday, followed by a muzzleloader season from December 10 through 17. West Virginia's season closes this Saturday, followed by a special muzzleloader day December 15. Pennsylvania's season runs through next Saturday, plus a muzzleloader season December 26 through 29. Check state regulations for details.