I WILL NEVER badmouth turkey hunting again. I will never badmouth turkey hunting again. I will never badmouth turkey hunting again. There ; turkey hunters please stop sending letters.

A few weeks ago, after hunting turkeys for several days and seeing everything else but, I went down to the general store to see some good ol' boys who were reputed to have about a thousand years of turkey hunting experience among them.

What was I doing wrong? I asked them. Nothing, they said, except you been hunting turkeys. Turkeys hunters never find turkeys; only deer hunters and hikers and birdwatchers ever stumble across a turkey, bacause the bird is so dumb it never does anything right. It's so stupid it can't remember what it did the day before and so there is no way to track or stalk or ambush one.

"Boy," said Billy, the senior among them, pausing to inspect a chunk of wood he was considering for the already toodamnbot stove, "you are young enough yet to be saved. What you see here before you is five brokendown old fellers who wasted their lives hunting turkeys.

"Sam, there - You Sam! Wake up so this boy can see what's left of your eyes! - Well, Sam, he went blind looking for turkeys. And never saw a one, man or boy, in season or out, except once when he dropped his shotgun in Taylor's Branch and had took hit apart to get the mud out.

"He was looking around for a switch to poke through the barrel and he seen this turkey settin' on the bank not five feet away. And he looked around and he seen some more. He seen a whole drove of them, standing around lookin' at him and scratching and peckin'. What happened then, Sam?"

"Aw," Sam said. "I got me a stick and got the barrel clear, them turks just standing there awatchin, and me actin' like I never had seen them and moving real slow, and them driftin' over to get a better look and I got me out a dry shell and poked her in there and I looked up and there never was a turkey to be seen nowhere."

"What'd you do then, Sam?" somebody said. "Aw," said Sam.

"Throwed the shotgun back in the branch is what," Billy cackled. "Throwed some more away, one time and another over the years, so I've heard. Throwed an empty one at a turkey that took three loads of No. 2s and walked away."

"Aw," said Sam.

Billy turned serious and turned to me.

"Son," he said, indicating the circle of sitters and spitters, "mend your ways, or you'll be settin' here yourself one of these days, thinkin' about turkeys, talking about turkeys, cryin' about turkeys.

"I want you to understand . Here are five men who hunted turkeys from season to season and certain other times sence they was boys and we're here to tell you that not one of us ever brought one home." Each member of the circle bobbed his head in assent, except Sam, who had nodded off again.

I went away chastened and instructed, and wrote a foolish column intended to save others. Not only do turkey hunters never bag turkeys, it said, if a hunter should happen to be nearby when a turkey fell out of a tree or was stepped on by a deer and thus come into the possession of one of the birds, it is though and tastes awful. This last detail I also got from Billy, who said his mother's aunt's second cousin's sister once served a turkey that had flown through the open barn door and beat itself to death trying to fly out through the wall.

"I chawed on that old bird till it ruint my teeth, and then I give it to my best dog and it ruint hisn," Billy said.

Then came the letters.

I can see that you are very naive for being a person who writes about turkey hunting and turkey hunters , said Gary Nelson Muntjoy, a 19-year-old student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburgh.

The reason I say this is because the first law of turkey hunting is never to tell the truth to another hunter, especially a greenhorn. So those fellows who told you that they had been hunting for a decade without shooting a turkey probably have shot more long-bearded gobblers than you can shake a stick at .

Shaken by this dressing-down from a mere youth who asserted he had shot a turkey while turkey-hunting , I went back to see Billy. My timing was bad, and I interrupted his Sunday dinner. Turkey dinner, in fact. Wild turkey dinner. I shook a stick at him, but Billy just laughed and burped. A man at the hardware store told me Billy has wild turkey for dinner every Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as plenty other times, and credits his considerable longevity to this custom.

Robert C. Jones of New Canton, Va., addressed himself to my comment that a wild turkey is so dumb one was observed trying to mate with an unpainted plaster lawn-ornament turkey behind a curio shop in Sperryville, Va. (as, alas, Billy had told me).

The turkey is the smartest, has the keenest sight and the best hearing of any game animal or bird which we hunt in Virginia , Jones said. Sure, in mating season, the male turkey does some dumb things, but put yourself in the turkey gobbler's shoes. You are a middle-aged or older male and you have a harem of 15 or 20 ladies which you have to take care of each day for two months. Do you suppose you would so some dumb things?

But the crusher was supplied by a gentleman of Vienna, who called to say that he was in the process of preparing a turkey he had bagged with quail shot a few days before, and would I like a taste?

"Quail shot?" I said.

"What you do is shoot them in the head," he said. "Come on over and have a taste."

Friends, I am here to tell you this morning that I have eaten some good fowl, including one or two decent domestic turkeys, but I have never in mylife set tooth to such a succulent, flavorful, tender, lean and lovely bird as that one. The breast meat was only slightly off-white, and could not have been improved on in texture and taste. The dark meat, including the drumsticks, was not the least tough or gamey.

The light-boned, soft-tendoned structure suggested that the breeders at Beltsville went seriouly wrong somewhere, because not only was the taste of the wild bird a whole order of magnitude better than that of the domestic, there was more meat; half the 14-pound (dressed) bird was sufficient to stuff eight of us.

It more than made up for being sandbagged by Billy into having to eat crow.