Hunters take themselves too seriously.

When rough-and-ready Ruff Fant got his first chance at spring turkey hunting he had to put up with a long diatribe from his cohorts before he could go out and get on with it.

The lessons were preached before dawn in hushed and reverent tones. "Turkeys can see eight times better than humans," he was told. "If you see one, he's not only seen you, he probably knows your social security number.

"He can hear you scratch your chin in the next county. He knows what you're thinking before you do. If turkeys could smell, no one would ever shoot one."

They told Fant the absolute best he could hope for in his ignorant state was the off chance that he might catch a distant glimpse of a fleeing turkey. That would be a great accomplishment, they said.

Fant sat through it all in appropriately awed silence and then got up and headed off with his little turkey call bulging out of his hind pocket. Just before he disappeared in the darkness he turned on his heel and hailed his companions.

"Hey," he said. "I forget. After I shoot him, do I grab him by the feet or by the neck?"

That's the right attitude. Hunters ought to relax. After all, this is recreation.

Perry and Randy Hollins are duck-hunting brothers from Charles County, Md. "The greatest thing in the world is to hunt with your brother," says Randy. But their favorite hunting story, which they insist is true, has to do with buddies, not brothers.

The three buddies were hunting partners in Louisiana who had enjoyed opening day of duck season together since they were kids. Time had caught up with at least one, who had been advised by his doctor to give up duck hunting.

"Doctor told him all that beating and banging would kill him, sure enough," said Perry Hollins. "But when it came opening day he felt like he just couldn't give it up. His wife hollered at him but he went anyway.

"Along about noon one of his partners looked over and the old-timer was slumped against the side of the blind. He'd passed on to another world."

The problem was that no one had a limit of ducks yet and there was an evening flight of birds still to come. The truck was miles away across flooded wild rice fields. The two remaining partners looked at each other and made up their minds without thinking twice. They weren't walking out on opening day.

"The guys said they felt a little funny at first," Perry Hollins said, "but they propped him up comfortable in the corner and they got used to it before long. They carried him out after dark. You know the first question I asked 'em? Did the old guy shoot any ducks? I know that sounds funny, but that's what I wanted to know."

Hunting doesn't have to be solemn. It's fun to play a little trick now and then. Jim Crumley likes to teach people about deer hunting and one of the things he shows them is how to recognize deer sign.

There are several kinds of sign. Crumley points out deer scrapes, where bucks have pawed at the earth; rubs, where they've scraped their antlers against trees; trails through the woods, flat places where deer have lain and browse lines where they have fed on buds at the tips of low tree branches.

And droppings. Deer droppings are pellets. Crumley carries chocolate candies with him that look just like deer sign. When he sees fresh sign he points it out, then elaborately reaches down, pulls a quick switch and comes up with a few morsels.

"Mmmm," says Crumley, chewing reflectively, "that's got to be a big buck."

The simple truth about hunting is that it's largely time spent waiting around. Goose guides on Maryland's Eastern Shore have to think of something to talk about with their high-class customers from New York.

One guide stood up on a hot day in a pit blind and announced he was going to demonstrate how to make a foolproof duck call out of a pop top off a soda can.

The clients hovered around as he bent and twisted the metal tab, held it up to the light and inspected it, shook his head disapprovingly and then set to work rebending and retesting. "You're not going to believe this," he told them.

The guide twisted the metal some more until he had it just right. He lifted it to his lips and beckoned the customers closer. "Now listen carefully," he said.

He stood up, cupped his hand around the gadget and called to a distant flock.

"Here, ducks."