The best hunter in Page County is a comfortably round, red-faced man who carries a revolver instead of a rifle and almost never fires a shot.

By day, he hunts river banks, farm fields and forests. At night, he stalks dark places setting traps. During the last 21 years, Bob Inskeep has bagged so many poachers in so many different ways, local outlaws swear he is psychic.

"I had a squirrel hunter run away from me in the woods once," said Inskeep, a 49-year-old Virginia game warden who is as friendly as the Chamber of Commerce, skilled with a story and notoriously tenacious in the pursuit of game-law violators.

"I was waiting for him when he got home," Inskeep said.

During the seven-week deer-hunting season that began this month in Virginia, an estimated 400,000 hunters will roam the state's woodlands and farm fields in search of an estimated 500,000 deer.

The great majority will have proper licenses and shoot what the law allows. Inskeep and the state's 146 other game wardens will be hunting the ones that don't.

Their catch would surprise you.

"Some of the finest people, who wouldn't think of breaking any other law, wouldn't drive over 55 miles an hour, come out in hunting season, shoot more than their limit and brag about it," said Inskeep gently. "Sooner or later I hear about it," he added, smiling.

Because poaching is a year-round pursuit, the hunting season for Inskeep and his colleagues never ends. And this year game officials from Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia report that illegal hunting and trapping seem to have reached record proportions.

A West Virginia conservation officer, Howard McCullough, said earlier this month that 700 deer-related arrests had already been made in just one 10-county area of the state this year, representing a 30 percent increase over last year. And that was two weeks before the state's deer season had opened.

"These people without jobs have more and more time and they don't know what to do with it so they go out and kill deer," said McCullough.

Hard times have made an already dangerous job more dangerous. A study conducted a few years ago by the Wyoming Conservation Department concluded that the nation's approximately 6,000 federal and state game wardens were eight times as likely to be assaulted with guns as other law enforcement officers. During one five-year period, from 1971 to 1976, six game wardens were killed while on duty.

Three years ago in Fauquier County, a state game warden was shot while trying to arrest a man who allegedly was hunting illegally. The suspect was killed in the shootout.

Fred Hottle, a 67-year-old Virginia game warden with 34 years experience, told me two years ago that he was always wary on the job. "When you're out there in a field, you meet all classes of people and you know they all got guns. They got a high-powered rifle and all you got is a revolver."

Page County, which is best known for its Luray Caverns, is a hunter's dream and a poacher's paradise. Apple orchards, corn fields and the Shenandoah River provide rich feed for bear and deer. The wooded ridges of the Massanutten and Blue Ridge Mountains provide shelter.

There are 35,000 acres of national forest in Page County in which hunting is legal and 25,000 acres of Shenandoah National Park land where it is not. In recent years, parts of Skyline Drive, which runs through the park, have been closed at night because of illegal hunting.

Inskeep has the impossible job of upholding the game laws in this wild and wooded county. It is often a thankless job of questioning the honesty of armed hunters, some of them neighbors. Inskeep has had to ram his cruiser into fleeing cars but has never shot a poacher or been shot at by one. Friends have.

"You think about it but don't dwell on it," he said as we forded a shallow spot on the Shenandoah in a pickup truck on our way to check a deer-hunting camp.

There are poachers in Page County who are said to be a match for Inskeep. Natives who know hollows even the mountains have forgotten, they are descended from men and women who hunted deer and bear before game laws and bag limits were invented. The most clever are never caught. Ones who are show disappointment but little remorse.

"I think it's a game with some of them. It's in their blood," said Inskeep, who grew up in Culpeper, Va., when that was a small, rural town. "I don't hold any grudges."

Inskeep does not see his job as a game, but he has learned to play by poachers' rules. As he drives past parked cars and trucks, he constantly checking back bumpers for signs of dried blood. He looks at his county the way a poacher would, then waits in likely places for poachers to appear.

"He knows all the tricks of the trade," said Clint Horton, a 23-year-old game supervisor whose respect for Inskeep approaches reverence. "You can't find a much better warden than he is."