City people make too big a deal of hunting, my country cousin was hinting. When he wants to get away from work or the house he puts his old dog Jonah ("he earned the name") in the station wagon, drives 20 minutes outside town and pursues quail on one quiet farm or another for a few hours.

My hunting trips are a little different. They involve organizational meetings, frantic supply runs to retail store the night before the hunt, a clock radio backed by two alarm clocks and set for about when most people go to sleep, wake-up calls to all colleagues, predawn meetings at all-night convenience stores, thermoses, bags of food, all-terrain vehicles, boats, hired guides, long johns, borrowed dogs, contour maps and expectations far in excess of reason.

My country cousin got me wondering if there wasn't some simple, relaxing hunting a city fellow could do. I got out a book about the various North American game animals and went for a walk around the block, perusing the list. a

When i stopped for traffic under an oak tree something bonked me on the head. A half-chewed acorn. I looked up to see a family of squirrels feasting in an oak tree. Squirrels! Tasty, abundant, uncomplicated squirrels.

"Oh yes, this will be simple," said Manolo, my personal source of hunting information. "The squirrels are everywhere I will call steve."

Steve, it developed, is an 18-year-old who is a superb squirrel hunter. He has permission to hunt a fine farm in Prince George's County. He said he'd be delighted to take us out, along with his friend Tom from Cheverly.

"Great, Manolo," said I, "then I'll just fetch you Thursday morning and we'll drive out in my car. Pick you up around 8?"

"Oh, my friend," he chuckled, "I see you are not a squirrel hunter. These guys, they say that we must be in the woods before it is light. Steve has killed more than 50 squirrels himself. If he comes into the woods in the light the squirrels will see him and go back to the nests and you will never even see a squirrel. No, my friend. You must be here to pick me up at 4:30."

"Four-thirty? But Manolo, it's only Prince George's, and it doesn't even get light now until after 6."

"I know this, but the farm is a long way out in the county. And we must load my canoe and the decoys because there might be some ducks in the beaver pond, and then we must meet Tom at his house and transfer everything to his truck because we may need to four-wheel drive."

"Boat? Four-wheel drive? Decoys? This is supposed to be simple."

"Correct. And don't forget to bring something to eat . . ."

So out came the battery of alarm clocks; we set the timer on the coffeemaker for 3:45 and packed the lunch and I raced to the store Wednesday night to get some No. 6 shells because Manolo said eights would never do. I called him at 4:10 to make sure he was up and we loaded the gear in the cold darkness and met Tom at his house before 5 to transfer the gear.

There was the mandatory stop at Seven-11, this time so Tom could get two packs of chewing tobacco ("haven't had a chew for two days," he sighed with relief, spitting into the filthiest coffee can in America).

There was a bitter frost on the corn stalks in the stubblefield and geese were harronking on the beaver pond. Manolo and Tom carried the canoe off in the darkness to try to sneak up on the geese. Steve and I walked across the lumpy, frozen ground to his favorite stand of hickory and oak trees, where the squirrels were supposed to quickly emerge in numbers.

First light came. Then dawn. Then daylight. Woodpeckers whirred into the trees and began the first tentative taps of their day. A red-tailed hawk lit in a tall oak, surveyed the cornfield and soared off with a blood-curdling shriek.

No squirrel was seen.

About 8 o'clock Steve came to fetch me. "Hard to believe," he said, the words forming a cloud in the cold. "I've never been skunked on squirrels."

We walked the field edges and found places where squirrels had come out of the woods and dragged corn cobs back to their lairs. Steve heard one scratching around and sneaked up to a den tree, walking almost noiselessly in the dry leaves. A squirrel popped out for a second. Steve put the gun to his shoulder but it misfired. It was as close as any of us came to a shot. t

"I'm glad I wasn't a squirrel or a duck today, the hurting we put on 'em," Tom chuckled on the way home.

We dropped Steve off first. Manolo phoned his wife while we were sorting out the gear.

"Do you have your knife?" he asked once we were back on the road.

"Yup."

"Good. I have a little job for you. Something to clean. My wife was a little late for work. She didn't look before she backed the car up. Neither did the squirrel. She left it for us -- in the freezer."

It is humbling to get skunked squirrel hunting. Despite that, the trek around winter farm fields was a splendid change from the routine of office drudgery and since no shots were fired it cost not a nickel. It seems safe to say squirrel hunting is one thing no one will ever have the cheek to try to charge money for.

Good squirrel hunting territory is common around Washington yet there are no hordes of squirrel hunters. Bushytails favor stands of hardwood and are particularly fond of river bottoms. There are plenty of both close to the capital city, including a number of public hunting areas.

Squirrel hunting is the most popular gun sport in the nation, according to government studies. I used to think it was because it was so easy.