Two years ago, he stood in these woods and listened to the acorns and hickories hitting the dry ground with a sound like popcorn popping.

That was the fall of 1985, a great year for production of wild nuts. The woods were full of fat deer and squirrels then, and still are with the offspring of those productive times.

But he took no deer with his bow and arrow that year. None strayed close enough for a shot, and the next season he had no chance to hunt with a bow.

Now he was back, perched 20 feet up on a small square of metal and wood made fast to a beech tree.

Before him lay 30 yards of natural clearing, where native grass and scrub grew, perfect forage for deer and clear enough to shoot through. He'd sunk sticks in the ground to mark the ranges -- 10 yards, 20 yards, 30 and 40. Beyond that was too far to shoot.

It was quiet now -- no acorns falling, no hickories. From the boom of '85 had come the bust of '87. He wondered how the game would fare this winter with so little food.

To his right he heard a rustle. He tensed and silently prepared, lest it be deer. But the head that poked from the bushes was of a predator, not prey.

"Red fox," he said to himself, and watched the creature move swiftly through the grass and back into the trees.

A half-hour later a shadow crossed the clearing. A red-tailed hawk soared by and lit in a tree.

The man watched the hawk, assuming it also saw him, and was surprised when it lifted off and headed directly toward his tree stand.

When the bird was 10 yards away, the hunter nervously raised his bow. The bird flared and lit in another tree.

"Was he planning to land on my head?" the man wondered. As if in answer, the hawk lifted and came at him again, head-high, its cold, yellow eyes gleaming. The man hissed, "Shoo!" and the hawk flew off.

"Must be a good spot," the hunter thought, smiling. "All the locals want to hunt here."

But no deer came that night, though he waited until bitter dark, long after there was no light to shoot by, just to see what might happen.

He walked out of the woods by flashlight and hiked the half-mile to camp along the banks of the Potomac. His partner came in a little later and asked for help collecting gear from his tree stand further downriver, so they put the canoe in and paddled down.

A slender, crescent moon was rising over the Virginia shore. The air was still warm and the stars seemed extra bright.

He listened to the soothing slap of the river against the aluminum hull and thought how lucky he was to be on the big river tonight, and how successful the day had been.

I see by the letters to the editor that the annual debate is raging between those steadfastly in favor of hunting and those vigorously opposed. Both sides confess they've never hunted and never intend to, but that doesn't stop them from waxing opinionated.

What a colorful war! Hunters are all either depraved sadists leering in the forest while animals writhe in their death throes, or valiant public servants thinning out herds to spare the wilderness starvation and disease.

If there is a common thread, it's a picture of the hunter as one who makes up his mind to go a-hunting, marches off and starts gleefully killing stuff.

What I want to know is, where do these people hunt? I must be in the wrong place.

I took up deer hunting in 1976 and didn't get a shot for five years. When I finally got one, it was at a huge buck that so unnerved me I missed by a mile.

In my eighth year afield, I finally killed a buck, which put me way ahead of my turkey hunting prowess. I've been at that 10 years and have yet to fire a shot.

Nor do I think that's particularly unusual. I have a theory that people on both sides of this silly hunting/antihunting debate are getting their information from magazines like Sports Afield, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.

In these publications, hunters always get their quarry, and for a very good reason. "My editors don't want to hear about the days I got skunked," a writer once told me. "They don't buy that kind of story. It doesn't sell magazines."

So a myth takes shape -- hunting equals killing -- and pedagogues behind comfortable desks take it as gospel.

People who take hunting seriously know it's not that simple. Hunting is like learning a language. You go to the woods, marsh or fields to immerse yourself, and every day you learn a little.

If you are diligent and lucky, eventually you grow fluent and capable of success, though it is never assured.

To many hunters, that's as far as they care to go. Val Van Meter, who lives in Front Royal, Va., with a mountain in her backyard, said her husband got so good at deer hunting the sport lost its appeal.

"There was no challenge anymore," she said. So he put up his rifle and quit.

But that's a long way to travel, and most of us never get that far.

Most of us will take a clear, October day in the deer woods, a fox and a hawk to entertain us, and the outside chance that if we pick our spot well and wait silently enough, a deer might happen by.

Nice thought, but don't count on it.