With the early duck season only a few weeks away, I've been getting my river hunting gear in order. To camouflage it properly I've painted the canoe bright red and slathered "Duck Killer Outfitters" on the side.

This plan came to me the other week when I was fishing on one of the more popular wood duck rivers in our area. The bass fishing was great, but when I switched to a fly rod I had trouble because I kept snagging wood ducks on the back casts.

"How come these birds are so unwary?" I asked my fishing partner, Goose Kowalski, who has a cabin on the river.

Goose said there was a number of canoe rental liveries on the river. Because the stretch that ran by his cabin was free of raging whitewater, the outfitters recommended to their legions of customers that they paddle that stretch.

"What it means," Kowalski said, "is that I don't even come up here on weekends because the river looks like K Street in rush hour. The tourists love the ducks. They feed them popcorn. These ducks think of a canoe like your kids think of the Good Humor man."

The ducks don't seem to mind that the tranquility of the river is broken, dawn to dusk, by the thunk of paddles on bruised gunwales and the shouts of Cub Scout Packs 68, 739, 12 and 41 as they try to determine how wide a line of canoes can run a rapid without scraping the banks.

"Let's see how close we can get to these birds," I suggested to Goose. "I'd like to take some pictures."

I hunkered down in the bow and fitted my long, 200-millimeter lens. "Stay low," I told Goose. "Be sneaky."

He humored me. I got a couple of distant shots of the rear ends of frightened ducks, then the flock was gone.

"What did I do wrong?"

"You were acting suspicious," he said. "That makes them nervous. They figured you were up to no good. Look, they're settling in a little further downstream. We'll try 'em again. But this time sit up straight and act like a man."

We rounded the bend and found the ducks milling around a pile of boulders. Goose flicked his portable radio to a country station and turned it up loud. He began singing "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Post of Life" about a quarter-tone off-key. He lit a cigar, popped open a beer, stuck his feet on the gunwales and let the canoe swing with the current so we were drifting sideways toward the ducks.

I just barely got the flock in the telephoto when the focus fuzzed up. We were getting too close. When I refocused I realized why. The ducks were swimming. But they weren't swimming away. They were swimming at us.

When we didn't have any food for them it looked briefly as if they would attack, but Goose sent his dog overboard and that scared them off.

In Virginia, where this little vignette is set, the early duck season this year runs from Oct. 7-10. The season is principally designed for upland hunters to get a chance at the resident wood ducks, which generally migrate south before the regular duck season opens in November.

As a special inducement during this extra season Virginia officials double the daily limit of wood ducks to four. Wood ducks are among the finest eating waterfowl there are, and as soon as I got home I told the wife to mark Oct. 7 on the calendar. "Heat up the grease early," I said. "I'll be home by noon with my limit."

But there was one last thing to check. One of my old hunting partners had told me before about this river, and I knew he hunted it during the early season every year. Of course, the likelihood that he went to the same little stretch was practically nil. Even if he did, there'd be room aplenty. Right?

"Wrong," he said.

"But I already painted my canoe," I whined, "and ordered some fake plastic popcorn to decoy them in with, and got a garish orange life vest and some country music tapes and a P.A. system."

"Tough," he said, "because we're putting in at quarter to five with four boats and eight people, not counting women and children."

And I'm staying home.

The good news is that for the first time ever Maryland's early duck season coincides with Virginia's, running Oct. 8-10, and another old hunting pal has lined up some terrific deserted beaver ponds where the wood ducks and teal should be stacked like starlings.

I didn't even have to repaint the canoe. Just added a word: "Swamp Duck Killer Outfitters."