Virginia hunting season opened at noon Saturday, when dove shooting became legal, and I shot the first legal dove in the state.

Normally, I'm no clock-watcher, but circumstances conspired to make me one. I was in the field 15 minutes early, perched on a makeshift seat at the edge of a cut-over cornfield 15 miles from Fredericksburg. Nothing was flying.

From 50 yards down the tree line Gene Armstrong hollered that he had no wristwatch. "Let me know when we can start," he said.

At 11:52 I told him there were eight minutes to go, at 11:57 I shouted three minutes. Then I got lost in something of a reverie, thinking about past hunting seasons, turning fond memories over in my mind the way you might remember first ears, old loves, the sting of hot cider, junk like that.

I have a $29 watch that gives the date, day, number of hours until your stepmother's anniversary and a few other things. In honor of hunting season I'd set it precisely that morning by the telephone time recording.

When I looked down again it said 11:59.52, and I watched the final eight seconds tick off. When 11:59.59 slipped into 12:00.00 I smiled, looked up to relay the news to Armstrong and found a mourning dove flying straight at me, 50 feet away. I stood up, shot perfectly and what surely must have been the first legal game of Virginia's 1981 season fell at my feet.

Stories like that, even when true, ought not to be told. They make hunting sound like something it isn't -- easy.

That illusion, fostered by hunting writers who only report successes, induces people who probably lack the patience for it to take up the sport. And it solidifies the prejudices of folks who have preformed a negative judgement on hunting.

Hunting very rarely is easy. It only occasionally is productive.A lot of times it's hard, uncomfortable, boring and frustrating, all at once. The little saga at noon was one of two highlights in a long, grey day. If I had shot well I might have wound up with a half-dozen doves, which when picked and cleaned would make a respectable meal for one.

But I am not a perfect shot and wound up instead with three, which went into the freezer to be joined by whatever others I'm lucky enough to harvest should I be lucky enough to be invited on another dove hunt this season.

"Harvest," snorted Earl McFarland, who took over Armstrong's spot in the afternoon. "I'm sick of that word. Why don't they just call it what it is. Murder."

Hunters are forever on the defensive, using silly words like "harvest" to disguise what they do so they won't offend anyone.

Getzels, my ex-neighbor, said he wanted to try some "game" so I invited him over for a dove dinner a couple of years ago. These are extraordinarily wonderful table birds, moist and dark with a rich flavor unmatched by any store-bought meat. I was sure he'd be properly impressed.

He barely tried them. He thought they looked sad and pathetic on the plate, with their little legs stuck up in the air. "How can you eat them?" he said.

"This is as close as you'll ever come to what meat really is," I told him. But he preferred burgers from steroid-laden steers, cooked over chemically- enhanced charcoal briquets. Fun meat.

I'm not a particularly good hunter, being a late arrival. As in any sport, most good hunters grew up with it, learning the skills before they were smart enough to think about what they were doing.

But learning to hunt with mature eyes and ears and hands and feet has its rewards.

I had been looking at cornfields all my life but it wasn't until my first hunting trip, after geese on the Eastern Shore, that I actually walked across a cut cornfield.

It looked flat but the cornrows in fact were crusted, frozen-over, muddy, irrefular, foot-high lumps. It made for a hard, stumbling 300-yard hike in the dark, toting a bag of decoys, a shotgun, two boxes of shells and lunch. "So that's a cornfield," I thought to myself.

Your feet learn things by hunting. So do your ears, which become attuned to new sounds -- the screech of a hawk, the coo of doves, quail whistling at dusk, wood ducks peeping in fright as they take flight, the unbelievably loud snorting of deer, squirrels rustling in dry autumn leaves.

Vision expands. The hardest thing for me on opening day was concentrating visually -- taking in the expanse of horizon, trees and cornfield and simply relaxing and waiting for something to move. Instead, in my citified way, I was fooling with the gun, fixing up a pocket flap, retying my shoes, staring at my watch or performing some other meaningless function when a dove zipped by, in range.

Hunting now is open in Maryland and Virginia. The seasons will unfold like pages in a picture book, each with its peculiarities. The more you hunt the less mysterious it becomes; the harder it gets to imagine why the idea of hunting appalls some people.

You saw the doves last year, you heard the shots across the cornfield, you saw the birds fall, felt them in your hand and some appeared later on your dinner plate. Now they are back again, as many as ever.

In the evening the birds quit flying.You drive home on the superhighway. In the clatter and crash of the real world, the image of the cornfield and the timeless grey horizon etches itself for good in your mind.