Ray Arnett has hunted on foot and horseback in mountains and marshes over a few continents as well as most of North America. He has bagged moose, mule deer, elk and antelope -- animals big enough to make even a man as large as Arnett seem small.

So when he goes hunting for birds that are less than a foot long and weigh just four ounces, you expect him to use a slingshot instead of a shotgun.

Arnett, 58, spent Saturday afternoon in a Virginia farm field, not too far from where he was born, shooting at doves. At times it sounded as though he were surrounded by a full battalion of hunters. From noon, when Virginia's dove hunting season officially opened, until sunset, hills and valleys from Danville to Fairfax County thundered with the blam of birdshot.

Most of that shot hit nothing but sky. And there were far more expectations killed than birds.

Dove hunting seems like it would be easier than it actually is. No other game bird is as plentiful as the dove, which can be found in every state but Alaska. There are an estimated half-billion doves in this country and it is almost impossible to walk through a farm field without seeing some.

But finding them is the easy part. Doves cruise at 35 mph and can reach a top speed of 60. And they don't always fly in straight lines. By the time you've raised your gun to track one, it may have changed altitude, speed, direction or all three. You can stand for an hour watching an empty sky, then suddenly hear a whistle of wings behind you. By the time you turn, they're gone.

"I've seen a dove fly from one end of a field to the other while 15 hunters fired at it one after the other," said Kyle Parker, a 17-year-old senior at Langley High School in Fairfax. "They all missed. And those were good shooters."

Because doves are the first game of the fall hunting season, they attract a large number of hunters. Approximately three million turn out every year in the 33 states where dove hunting is legal. The combination of dove speed and hunter inaction gives the doves an early advantage.

But even when the shooting is aimless, dove hunting is easy to enjoy. The weather is usually warm and because doves feed in the afternoon, there is no reason for bleary-eyed, early morning drives to find them. And since the guns are almost always aimed toward the sky, there is little chance of being wounded by other hunters.

The one drawback that dove hunters will mention is the reaction they get from nonhunting friends to their pursuit of small, cooing quarry. Gunning down the family parakeet would sound no worse.

"It's so damn emotional, they say you're shooting the dove of peace," says Arnett, assistant secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks who hunted his first doves as a boy growing up in Quantico, Va. Actually, doves are a coveted game bird because they are such good eating.

Saturday Arnett was in a hunting party of 14 men, the aforementioned teen-ager, one 9-year-old girl and two black Labrador retrievers. Included in that group was the head of the Government Printing Office, the chief of U.S. Customs, lawyers, lobbyists and a few past and present Interior Department employes. From their conversation, you would have no idea what kind of work any of them did. Most of the stories were about guns, hunting or dogs. And the chief storyteller among them was Arnett.

"He's like a modern-day Paul Bunyan," said Stephen Boynton, an Arlington attorney. "And he can lie just as well."

"The camaraderie is what I enjoy the most," said Dave Henderson, a Washington attorney, standing in the wooded corner of an open pasture. There were cows and horses in the field, a red barn and a white frame house beyond it and an incredible parade of fluffy clouds passing across the blue, blue sky above. For an hour there had been no doves to shoot at, but with that panorama, complaining would have been sacrilege.

Tulip was not as content. Henderson's 2 1/2-year-old retriever was whining and watching the sky attentively. When a shot would sound in another part of the field, her ears pointed up and her nose began to twitch.

"We'll get some for you, baby," said Henderson. "Once you get the smell of powder in your nose you'll be all right."

When the doves started flying and the shooting began, it was like some giant, open air video game. The birds flew in fast and unexpected. The guns swung after them. More often than not the birds maneuvered their way up and out of range.

While Tulip retrieved Henderson's birds, Alexandra Von Raab fetched for her father. The 9-year-old girl, wearing a khaki vest that would be stained with blood before the day was over, raced across the field looking for downed doves like a kid on an Easter egg hunt.

At the other end of the pasture, Boynton was dropping doves for his 15-month old retriever Sweet Pea, the daughter of Tulip. There weren't as many doves as Boynton or his dog would have liked, but the end of the day Boynton said a valuable lesson had been learned.

"She knows now," Boynton said with a laugh, "that every time I shoot she doesn't have to go out and retrieve something."