At noon, exactly on schedule, State Sen. Frederick C. Malkus roared up the driveway to his beautiful old house overlooking the Dorchester marsh to give out assignments for the evening hunt.

Dr. Ralph John, retired president of Western Maryland College, was out in the yard skinning and cutting up four deer. John and his wife, Dot, had bagged three of the deer over the previous few days on Malkus' 400-acre farm adjoining Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The 72-year-old senator swung the car close, leaned out the window into the cold and consulted with John.

"You know that bait we put out by Maggie's blind? Have the deer eaten it yet?" he asked.

"Haven't touched it," said John.

"Okay. Well, if you're hunting the soybean field tonight, then I'll put this fellow over in Maggie's blind next to that corn. It ought to be good over there."

All this was happening fast, Malkus being in a hurry to get to Salisbury, where he was due for a 2 p.m. television taping. But it wasn't happening so fast that mention of bait next to a place I was supposed to hunt didn't put my senses on Red Alert. Deer hunting over bait? That didn't sound right.

"Hell, there's nothing illegal about it," said Malkus. "You want to know how I found out about it? One of the rangers over at Blackwater asked me if he could hunt the farm one year, and then he came over here carrying a sack of corn to put out next to his stand. I'd never heard of anything like it, but I checked it out. You don't think a ranger would do something like that if it was illegal, do you?"

Malkus, former head of the Committee on Judicial Proceedings and a lawyer by trade, ought to know. Just to be sure, however, I rechecked with John after the senator hurried off, and he concurred that no strictures against baiting deer exist in Maryland law.

Personally, he said he didn't think bait did much good, since there is so much food lying around Eastern Shore farm fields a deer needn't go out of its way to find more. But he didn't think it did any harm, either.

Legal or not, I felt strange following John to a corner of a clover field, then down a deer trail in the woods to a little natural clearing where a half-bushel of yellow corn had been piled neatly into two cones.

"And there," said John, pointing to a camouflaged tree stand overlooking the bait, "is your blind."

Well, you learn to expect the unexpected in a place like Dorchester, where hunting laws and customs seem attuned to simpler times, when game was plentiful, people scarce and conservation laws liberal.

In Dorchester, deer are considered such a nuisance to corn and soybean farmers that these days a hunter using all his archery, muzzleloader and firearms permits may bag 15 per season. Dorchester farmers with special crop-damage permits are allowed to spotlight deer at night, shining lights to immobilize the animals before they shoot, a tactic not allowed anywhere else in the state.

And in Dorchester deer hunters may use high-powered rifles, while in flat counties on the Western and upper Eastern shores the law permits only shotguns. (Shotgun charges are spent in much shorter distances, and thus are considered safer in flat country.)

Despite these liberal laws, the deer population continues to burgeon around Dorchester's rich farm fields. Between 1980 and 1984, the number taken by hunters in the county increased from 1,600 to 2,240, a jump of more than 35 percent that reflects a major increase in the size of the herd, according to state deer specialist Robert Miller.

After having spent two freezing days in unsuccessful pursuit of a deer in Charles County, I was not about to turn up my nose at the offer to hunt in deer-rich Dorchester, bait or no bait, so I climbed the stand and said a silent prayer that if deer came, it would not be to munch on the twin piles.

As it happened, the two does that skipped into the clearing three hours later showed no particular interest in the cones of corn, and never went anywhere near them. These deer were traveling the woods' edge, no doubt waiting for darkness before venturing out into the field of tender, green clover.

When the larger one presented a perfect shot, I took it. It was a good shot, clean and true.

And fair. I think.

According to Miller, baiting for deer is rare because few people know it's legal and there is considerable question over whether it works. For his part, Malkus is absolutely convinced it works.

Miller said the Department of Natural Resources uses corn and apples to lure deer for trap-and-transplant programs late in the winter.

But he said there probably is too much natural food around during the fall and early winter hunting seasons to attract deer to bait. However, he said baiting might be a successful tactic for bow hunters to try late in the season, when food is scarcer and the deer hungrier.

Should baiting prove successful and proliferate as a hunting tactic, he said DNR would keep a close eye to make sure that deer stocks didn't suffer as a result. Right now, he said, in many counties, including Dorchester, DNR is seeking ways to increase the deer kill.

Is baiting ethical? It all depends on your perspective, of course. If you're a beleaguered farmer trying to protect crops from depredation, just about anything seems ethical.

The point of hunting for sport, by contrast, is to expose oneself to life in the wild and to learn by that exposure. By that standard, shooting over bait doesn't add up to sport.