The best place to hunt is where nobody else does. The farther you get from the people of the world, the better off you are.

Trouble is, it's pleasant to hunt with someone, so you show a friend your spot. Then he shows some friend of his, and that friend shows a couple he knows. Pretty soon there's a 7-Eleven on the corner and the only game around is the lottery.

The ideal circumstance fo a hunter is to find a parcel of unused, unposted land that's crawling with wild game and talk the owner into giving permission to hunt it. Then you devise a way to keep it to yourself and a few clos friends. Like this:

After a couple of weeks you go back to the owner and say, "We've been doing well and just to show our gratitude, here's a few birds we shot for you and your family." You produce a dozen picked, perfectly prepared quail on a bed of wild rice in a silver chafing dish. Then you look troubled and say:

"There is one small problem we felt you should be aware of. The other day a bunch of nude motorcyclists were in there knocking down fences, draining crankcase oil into the pond and shooting at your cows with some submachine guns. Just as a matter of protection for you, we thought we'd offer to go around the boundaries and post some 'No Trespassing, No Hunting' signs to keep the riffraff out."

If he buys it, you have the working-class hunter's dream: posted land that's off-limits to everyone but you.

I've never succeeded in pulling off a deal like that, but some of my friends have and they (poor fools) have been kind enough to invite me in on their hallowed ground.

In return, when I found something nice I always figured to share it with them. Last week I thought I had a bead on a terrific place, so I called three of my best hunting pals and invited them along for an exploratory trip.

It was a waterfowling area and, although it was public, I had a notion it was underused. Plus it was so close to home we could run up there for a morning or afternoon and not even miss a day's work.

But the best way to scope it out, I divined, was to go up there at a time when there would certainly be no one else around. My colleagues agreed after some harrumphing to meet at the put-in a few mils above Great Falls just before 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

If you've ever driven around Washington at 5 o'clock Thanksgiving morning you'd know there are so few cars they turn off the stoplights. At Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring's busiest intersection, the only thing moving was a shooting star somewhere between Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper.

"We've got it made," I told Alan. "We'll have the river to ourselves."

As we drove along a vacant Beltway I told him about scouting the river the day before from the bank. I had met only one hunter -- a helpful guy named Tom who spent his days poling a canoe and searching the tree limbs for fox squirrels.

"He said he'd been hunting all fall. He doesn't go after ducks but he said he jumps them every time he goes out; he once poled right up into a flock of 200 Canada geese; he goes up and down the river all the time and so far this year he's seen exactly two duck hunters."

There was no traffic on River Road and there was no traffice on the little dead end that led to the river. However, the end of the little dead end looked like the staging area for the Bay of Ducks invasion.

"You won't believe it," said Manuel, who was waiting for us. "I've been here a half-hour. This is just the end of it. They came in threes, fours, twos, one at a time. There must be 20 people on the river already. Great place you brought us."

We drove down a ramp to put the canoes in and dodged the rumbling trucks and trailers backing up to drop off camouflage-painted motorboats and camouflaged gunners.

Jack, a flashy guy, showed up in his 280Z sports car and was flabbergasted to find another 280Z in the parking lot, a duck-hunting first.

Out on the river we plugged along silently, breaking skim ice in the dark before dawn. Jack and I found a nice island and set out our decoys, but 15 minutes later a couple of bearded guys arrived in a motorboat and said it was their registered blind site, so we got out.

We paddled upstream to another island. Jack tossed a couple of decoys out and a voice came from nowhere. "You guys can't hunt here. Too close to us." We hadn't seen the blind on the next island.

Fortunately no ducks were flying, or we'd have been truly disgusted. That came later, when we'd finally found a spot of our own in some rapids where the powerboats couldn't go.

A mallard came zooming downriver, off to our left and way too high to shoot. The duck went directly over a blind downstream and everybody in the blind shot at it. It winged off in another direction and eight more shots missed.The duck did a big circle, dodging blasts like a MiG in the flak zone. Finally it went back upriver and disappeared.

We watched four or five more artillery assaults on lone, wayward ducks and packed it in about 10 a.m. We figured the odds, based on what we'd seen, at about six hunters per duck. In our house the Thanksgiving turkey had a better chance.

The thing that worries me is that my pals seems to be losing the will to hunt. I told them at the take-out I had a couple more great places to try, but they just waved and went home. I hope they're not going soft.