THE DOVE HUNTER who lives in the Washington area but doesn't have a friend with a 50-acre cornfield has a problem. He can go cruising around looking for likely fields owned by generous farmers, which by all reports are rare and getting rarer. Or he can go to one of the five suburban Maryland public hunting areas, where there are other problems.

"Man, I tell you, it gets worse every year," said Leo Helms, 43, of poolesville as he looked out over the corn and sorghum stands on the Cherrington Cooperative Dove Management Area adjoining the Dickerson power station. "Time coming, there won't be a place for a sensible man to hunt."

Helms made the observation Saturday after three separate sets of suicidal hunters had placed themselves squarely in front of the shooting position Helms and neighbor Chester Harper had taken up an hour before.

The first pair of hunters hadn't bothered to look around before setting up on rising ground 50 feet from where Helms stood at the edge of a wood. They jumped like rabbits when spoken to, and scurried away nearly as fast.

The second group of three men had approached so quietly through the cornstalks that Helms and Harper didn't know they were there until the three jumped up to shoot at a pair of incoming birds that Helms and Harper were sighting on.

"I could have had me a triple," Harper said. "Two doves and one of them turkeys." The three "turkeys," each having missed three times, moved on when the hunter to Helms 'right asked if their life insurance was paid up.

The two friends and a first-time Cherrington visitor who had tagged along with them still were discussing the idiocies of the interlopers when a bald man and his 4-year-old son came along and plopped themselves down 30 feet in front of the Poolesville men.

"Sir," the bald man was asked, "is your son trained to duck when we shoot, or are you going to issue him a helmet?" The man led the boy away, commenting loudly about the rudeness of "the kind of people you find in a place like this."

It was not as though Cherrington were crowded. While there may have been 100 gunners out, there was room for at least twice as many more along the perimeter of the field, which is the right-of-way for the Dickerson power lines. It juse seemed that few were willing to walk more than 100 yards from the parking lot in the muggy hear, and most favored the shaded western edge of the field, which was why Helms and Harper had come early to set up there.

"These people don't know anything about dove shooting," Helms said. "They just come out here and think the doves are going to fall down for them. I mean, never mind how they set up in front of us, they've got all the rest of it wrong too. That man with the boy, now, he was a real case. First off, he's white man with a bald head, and he didn't even have a shirt on. Nothing wrong with that, nobody's perfect, but a dove is going to see him a mile away and sheer off.

"Then he sets up his shiny folding chair and his shiny cooler and his shiny gun and his bright blond son right out in the field. He's going to wait a long time for a blind bird to come along, which is the only kind he's going to see before it sees him. Your dove is not the brightest bird in the world, but he ain't no fool. I've seen a first-class skeet and trap shooter blow off four or five boxes of shells (25 to a box) and never bring down a feather.

"Now, you see how we're backed under the edge of the woods here, with the cooler and the lunch bag tucked out of sight. The idea is to see the doves before they see us. You give up some of the birds that come over from behind, but you never see them soon enough anyway. It gives us a fair chance at head-on and passing shots, or it would if these people would stick to the edges instead of camping right out in the field and driving everybody's birds away.

"Mostly we hunt private fields to get away from this kind of nonsense. It isn't the number of hunters that's a problem, because if the other guys use a little common sense they help you; real dove hunters will call incoming birds for his neighbors and the sound of guns on the other side of the field lets you know when birds are in the area."

There are and always have been more doves than even 3 million hunters in 33 states are ever likely to seriously affect, as even the National Audubon Society recently affirmed. Fall populations run upwards of 500 million, of which hunters take about 12 per cent. About 75 per cent will die each year whether they are hunted or not, according to Grits Gresham of Sports Afield.

Doves are the avian equivalent of grass, with hawks, snakes, foxes and other predators being those that "graze" upon them.

The minor role of man as a harvester of doves was made clear during the day's shooting. Most of the buff birds that flew in the gray skies over the field (and they were relatively few and far (between) darted and dipped unscathed past battery after battery of hunters. At a rough estimate there were a dozen shots for each dove downed. The bird's flight is not only erratic but much faster than it seems; it holds a course about as long as a shooter takes to start his swing and then zips off in another direction just as the trigger is pulled.

It is well that dove shooting ends at sundown, because that gives the hunter enough time to go by the market on the way home to pick up something for supper. Helms and Harper, for instance, both excellent shots at reasonable targets, spent six hours popping caps Saturday to bag four doves. Following the majority rule, they gave the birds to their new acquaintance, who had somehow downed six (and retrieved four).

"When you've had a little more experience you won't hit so many," Helms told him.

They told him not to feel so bad about the lost birds, one of which had disappeared in the corn stubble. The other nonretrieval was particularly sad because he had downed it while rolling on his back after tripping over his feet. It fell in the woods.

Most of the hunters packes it in early. Those who stayed to sundown were treated to the sight of scores of doves wheeling above them in the parking lot as they dressed the few birds they had downed.

"See you Wednesday," one of the men muttered into the sky.