It didn't feel a whole lot like deer season. Hank Gaerke perched on a packing crate by a shed on the old farm in West Virginia. The tin roof shielded him from a summerlike sun.

"Did you get your deer?" asked a shirtsleeved hunter who ventured by.

A wide grin lit Gaerke's broad farmer's face.

"Took me awhile this year," he said. "I'm used to getting one the first day. Yesterday I saw nothing but does.

"I couldn't really tell if this one was a buck or not at first. I was in my tree stand. I saw five deer coming out in the clearing just after dawn.

"One of them was an albino -- an all-white deer. Have you ever seen one like that?

"I put the scope on her and I was praying I could find some horns. You know that would really be something, to take a white deer.

"But she didn't show horns. I figured it was all females. When they moved through the tall grass I scanned them anyway. You couldn't see much, but then this one stepped out from the woods and stopped a minute. His head was up over the grass. I could just make out these little spike horns.

"He isn't much. Smallest one ever killed. But I'll tell you that don't mean much to me I'm glad to get him. He'll make some fine eating."

Gaerke gestured at two five-gallon plastic gypsum buckets at his feet. Each was brim-full of fresh-butchered venison, cooling in water he'd fetched from the river. To his left lay the head and pelt of the young buck, the two finger-tall horns protruding. the

"He's legal, isn't he?" Gaerke asked. They say those horns have to be three inches, but I don't know where to start measuring from. It's a 3 1/2 from the base right here, so I guess he must be okay.

"I'll tell you one thing. It sure feels good to have that deer, however small he is. It takes the pressure off. My partners are still up the mountain. Been there all day. And they won't be down till they get their buck or it gets dark, either one."

Gaerke's corn and soybean farm is near Dayton, Ohio. There are deer where he lives, too, but every year for the last nine he has driven the 450 miles to northeastern West Virginia to cash in on West Virginia's buck bonanza. He usually succeeds.

And he's far from alone.

There were about 150,000 deer hunters in the woods for the opening of firearms season in West Virginia last week. Before the season expires (gun season ends Saturday) state officials expect some 50,000 deer to be skinned and ready for the table.

That's exactly 50 times the number of deer that were thought to exist in West Virginia shortly after the turn of the century.

In his 1909-1910 report, the Forest, Game and Fish Warden of West Virginia made recommendations on conserving deer. The recommendations were based on his uncertain assumption "that we have 1,000 deer yet remaining . . ."

Today Bob Miles, chief of the state division of wildlife resources, figures the statewide herd at 350,000 deer and says it gets bigger every year.

The biggest concentrations of whitetails are in the northeastern section of the state, where Gaerke had his success. But deer are burgeoning almost everywhere.

It doesn't stop at state lines. In 1924, Virginia registered a statewide deer kill of 267 whitetails. Last yeart hunters killed 75,545 out of a herd estimated at 400,000 animals.

In Maryland the deer "harvest," as wildlife managers like to call it, increased from 889 in 1950 to 11,615 last year.

Deer hunters are afield today in all four of the states closet to Washington. The season is open for 200 miles in any direction.

Never in this century have hunters had a better likelihood of success. And yet in the early 1900s there was serious concern about the possible extinction of whitetail deer.

How did the turnabout occur?

"Its just like oil," Jack Gwynn, Virginia's supervisiong game biologist. "At one time we thought we had a supply that could never run out. But then we found out it could, and it just took a long time to build it back up. $"Deer are a little bit different than oil in that respect," he said. "It's a renewable resource and you can rebuild. We're not making too much oil anymore."

Most wildlife managers credit the booming return of deer to the mid-Atlantic states to two factors --institution of stiff laws limiting the number of female deer that can be taken and the demise of small farms.

They say that when hunters shoot only male deer, as the law required them to do after the near annihilation of the species, it has no negative impact on whitetail populations. A singe buck can mate with multitudes of does, and the chain goes on.

"There's no way to control deer populations except through the harvest of females," according to Gwynn. Today so many counties in Virginia have reached carrying capacity for deer that only eight still have closed seasons on does.

The reversion of farmland to second-growth timber is the second half of the the equation. The bulk of white-tails' food is browse -- the buds and shoots of young, head-high trees.

As long as forests are used for lumbering there is a fresh supply of browse for deer every year.

he result is 2,000 acresof farm and woods in northeastern West Virginia where Hank Gaerke can go every year and expect to find his deer.

Gaerke's grandfather might have walked these same hills for a decade and never even seen a deer.