Waterfowl hunters who are using 10-, 16- or 20-gauge, shotguns to bypass federal steel shot regulations have another year of grace before they must fall in line.

The government's draft proposal on 1978-79 steel shot laws requires only 12-gauge shooters to use steel in no-lead areas next year. All others may continue to use lead.

That's how the law reads this year, too. But Bob Smith, the Fish and Wildlife Service's steel shot project manager, said the gauge amendments expire after 1978-79 and he expects all hunters to be required to use steel in the special zones after that.

One reason for the 12-gauge-only stipulation is ammunition manufacturers' claim that they are unable to mass-produce steel shot for all gauges immediately.

If it seems odd to you that big arms manufacturers Winchester-Western Remington and Federal are unable to meet the need for steel shot, you're not alone.

Part of the federal government's decision to provide more time has to be attributed o the overall go-softly policy on implementation of steel shot laws.

"There's such a tremendous fear of steel shot," said Smith, "and most of it is unfounded. We're going slowly to allow the hunter to figure it out and get the facts.

"We're talking about a five-year plan," he added. "If we can achieve our objectives by 1982 I'll consider it a success."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is mandating steel shot in popular waterfowl hunting areas because it has evidence that lead shot settles to the bottom of ponds and streams, is ingested by waterfowl and can settle in their gizzards and poison and kill them.

Studies undertaken for the government indicate that 1.6 to 2.4 million ducks die every year from lead poisoning, out of an average fall flight of 100 million ducks.

Lead shot zones were established in te Atlantic Flyway in 1976 and expanded to include the Mississippi flyway in 1977. Next year the program expands to portions of the Central and Pacific flyways, but no additional areas will come under steel shot regulations in Maryland or Virginia.

That doesn't necessarily mean that more hunters won't be switching to steel. Two Washington-area hunters recently spent a weekend shooting out Sound near Norfolk.They were shocked by their guides, shooting 12-gauge guns, who pulled out lead shot and used it.

They were shocked further because the guides urged the guest hunters to throw their steel away and shoot lead, too.

It was a steel shot zone and the law was simply being ignored. Stricter enforcement may put an end to that next year.

Hunters oppose steel on grounds it can damage gun barrels, has less mass and therefore less killing power and, many pro-steel people believe, simply because they don't like to be told what to shoot.

Ignoring the law is something the Fish and Wildlife Service gritted its teeth and tolerated, but Smith said the government has cracked down and will crack down more.

"Last year (1976) we had many reports of areas where the regulations were being ignored. Noncompliance was running about 20 or 30 per cent of hunters, and in some areas close to 100 per cent," he said.

"But this year there were almost none (reports of noncompliance). This (the Currituck incident) is only the second I've heard of all year.

"I would hope that we'd have stiff enforcement this year. In most places where we have federal officers I am under the understanding that they are taking a hard line. And state officers are, too."

The 1978-79 regulations were issued last month and are open to public comment until Dec. 31. The rules are available by writing to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior Department, Washington, D.C.

One of the key areas in compliance next year is going to be California, where the law will go into effect for the first time and opposition to steel is organized and strong.

"If we show weakness there," said Smith, "we're going to be in big trouble."