Certain hunters believe the wild turkey is the smartest, cagiest, most challenging game bird of all.

One turkey specialist says the big birds can see 10 times better than a human and hear the slightest sound in the woods a mile away.

"If they could smell no one would shoot on," he says.

Except in Pennsylvania, where this fall as usual 6,000 or 7,000 or 8,000 dumb and helpless lumps of flesh dressed up as wild turkeys will be planted in the forests as "gun fodder," in the words of one game commission official.

The Keystone State, like many others at the time, established a game farm to raise turkeys for hunting back in the 1930s. Wild turkey population had almost been wiped out by a variety of factors, principally loss of habitat to lumbers and small farms.

Most eastern states were trying to reestablish flocks and the game farm idea was a quick and dirty solution. But it never really worked.

The tame birds proved to be great targets for fall hunters, but the ones that survived the guns of autumn rarely were able to survive harsh winters in the wild. According to game specialists, pen-reared turkeys almost never did what the states had hoped they would do -- revert to the wild and establish viable flocks.

Land uses changed over the years and the forest fell back to second-growth hardwood. Game laws were established and policed. The natural wild turkey staged a comeback and wild flocks began to develop on their own.

One by one, the states dropped the turkey farms. Now, according to game specialists, the only state left that continues to raise and release tame turkeys is Pennsylvania.

Not without dissenting voices.

For the last two years the Pennsylvania Wild Turkey Federation and some enlightened game biologists have been pushing the game commission to get into the 20th century by abolishing the $250,000-a-year turkey farm.

Both years motions to that effect were placed before the commission and both years they were rejected, largely because of the lobbying efforts of the 200,000-member state Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

There are a number of reasons why game-farm turkeys ought to be eliminated. There is a threat that they may spread disease among native wild turkeys and that by inbreeding they may weaken the stock of the natural birds.

There is also a simple factor of economics. Game farm birds cost $30 to $40 apiece to raise. No one knows exactly how many are shot by hunters in the fall, but certainly not all of them are. Frank Piper, one of the Pennsylvania game farm opponents, guesses that a pen-reared turkey in the game bag of a hunter may be a $130 bird.

These are good reasons. Here's another. Hunting these turkeys is an insult to the sport.

Last fall I was enjoying a scenic ride through the central Pennsylvania mountains with a friend. It was hunting season. We saw men in red-checkered jackets along the roadside.

On a macadam road high in a mountain range we saw something else -- two turkeys chewing on acorns 15 feet from the roadway.

"Geez," said my host, "I wish I had my shotgun."

"Why?" I asked. "You open the car door and those turkeys are gone."

"No chance," he said. And he climbed out of the car and saustered toward them. They ambled off, always in easy gun range.

Stupid, pen-reared birds.

Wayne Bailey, a North Carolina game biologist who specializes in turkeys says these animals, like other gallinaceous (chickenlike) beasts, "imprint" on humans when they are raised in captivity.

That means they accept humans as parent figures, and always will.

So pen-reared birds never learn to fear people, even if those people are wearing orange hats and walking around with magnum 12-gauges under their arms.

The 10,000 members of the Pennsylvania Wild Turkey Foundation love turkey hunting for its great challenge. Wild turkeys are as wary a beast as there is, and the delight in hunting them is to learn to think like a turkey, watch their habits, to duplicate their calls and make sacrifices just for the chance at a shot.

The sportsmanship of the Pennsylvania hunter is rotting away under the game-farm mentality.

The state already rears close to a quarter of a million pheasants a year to satisfy its hunters.

It raises ducks. For the last several years there has been tremendous pressure to start a rabbit farm, because rabbits aren't as plentiful as they once were. People have talked about a grouse farm and even (heaven help us) a bear farm.

This is patchwork idiocy.

If Pennsylvanians want to spend money to improve hunting, they ought to spend it on improving game habitat, and with it the habitat for all wild creatures, whether people can shoot at them or not.

Following the logic of game farms, hunters would have no objection to paving the whole state with asphalt and plunking down farm-reared game for a two-week shooting spree.

There is an alternative game-management technique for turkeys that has worked remarkably well: trap and transfer. Wild birds are trapped and transplanted in unused range that transplanted in unused range that never rebounded from the near-obliteration of the species early in the century.

It works. Less than a decade ago Vermont planted a couple dozen wild turkeys in its forests and now there is an estimated population of 10,000 there.

This summer the Pennsylvania Game Commission bent a little to the will of serious turkey hunters. The commissioners agreed to upgrade the trap and transfer program, and when and if it takes hold to downgrade the game farm accordingly.

And maybe someday phase it out altogether.

One hopes it comes quickly. If the state wants to run a game farm, I say fine. But instead of masquerading the products as wild turkeys it ought to go the extra step. It ought to pluck those birds, wrap them up in freezer bangs and give one away on Thanksgiving eve to every hunter who has a big-game stamp.

Why fool around?