"A lot of times when I'm hunting it dawns on me that I'm completely out of steps with the rhythm and the pace of wildlife," Art Cone mused.

He was ambling through a field of bleached, dry soybean plants, a lanky angular figure working his way easily toward forested edge, hoping the dogs would point up a covey of quail.

"These birds are living in another world. They don't have jobs or appointments to keep. Here they are, out here some place. It's warm, they don't have a thing to worry about. Here's soybeans and there's the woods. If they're hungry they come out and eat and if they're tired they rest. I think they're all taking a siesta."

The quail apparently were taking siestas as small game season opened last week in Virginia. The bureaucracy that decides when and where game animals may be hunted had followed its charts and predictions and come up with Nov. 14 as a reasonable starting date.

But wildlife owes no obedience to calendars or charts and the delicious, prized bobwhites were marching to a different drummer.

Why do we hunt in the fall? There are a couple of good reasons.

First, migratory birds that nest in cold northern climes are working their way south now, and this is sensible time for us to take our shots. Some will die over the winter and it may as well be for the benefit of someone. It would be pointless to shoot them on their way back north in the spring, when in only a few months time the surviving birds will be resupplying the flocks with new chicks.

For resident birds such as the quail, fall signals a time to move, too.

Birds are warm-blooded animals and as the temperature drops they need more fuel to keep their internal fires going. The need to feed puts them on the move, from the dark hollows of the forest into the fields and pastures for weeds and seeds that are plentiful.

The colder it gets the less quail like to fly, and that's food for the hunter who has a good bird dog. The dog will find the covey, then the hunter moves in. When the sun is beaming down and the thermometer is cresting 70, as it was early last week, wary quail will take off at the first hint of danger. It makes a great picture, but a lousy shot.

When the wind shifts north and carries winter's chill the birds will hold ground until the last second, sacrificing safety for precious body heat. It's then that the hunter gets his shots.

Cone is reminded of that happy consummation every time he sits down at the desk in his comfortable Williamsburg home. On the wall is a spectacularly honest reproduction of the revered watercolor, "The Covey and the Cabin."

It is of two hunters at the edge of a South Carolina corn field. In the distance a sharecropper's cabin is rotting away; the sky is brilliant blue, laced with scuddling fair-weather clouds. Spanish moss hangs from the bare branches of ancient oaks.

The dogs are on point and the guns are shouldered; a magnificent covey of two dozen quail is in various stages of liftoff and distressful flight.

It is exactly what quail hunting should be, with all the passion, excitement and unforgettable beauty.

In the 20 years of pursuing quail Cone has never matched it, never come close.