CHINCOTEAGUE, VA. -- Quail hunting is surely our most elegant gun sport -- challenging, rich in tradition and pure visual pleasure on a crisp winter day.

But like the trolley car, the wicker picnic basket, the pristine mountain trout stream and other sentiments of the past, it's vanishing fast.

"Quail are just one of the things we're forgoing to manage highly efficient, productive and hopefully solvent farm operations," said Peter Jayne, chief of the small game program in Maryland, where quail hunters took 250,000 birds in 1975-'76, but only 80,000 in 1988-'89.

If those numbers sound arresting, they're not isolated. Quail populations are in a tailspin all over the Southeast. Here in Virginia, the hunting take dropped six-fold in 20 years, from almost 1.2 million birds in 1968-'69 to just 188,000 in 1989-'90.

State wildlife biologist Mike Fies says urbanization, "clean farming," pesticides and herbicides apparently are to blame. Today, he said, some old farms where quail once thrived are housing projects. Others are "monocultures" -- huge biological deserts attuned strictly to maximum production of corn, soybeans or wheat, with no room for stowaways.

"We can't blame the farmers," said Fies. "These are hard times. They're trying to squeeze everything they can from their fields just to make a living."

Caught in the crush are quail -- nervous, flighty little creatures that roost in a circle. You find where they've been by locating a saucer-sized pod of their tiny, white droppings surrounded by a perfect ring of patted-down weeds. They'll sit for hours that way, tails together and heads pointed out in search of danger from any direction. When trouble nears, the covey erupts in wild, noisy flight.

Once my son and I took a shortcut through the woods behind our house and he practically stepped on a covey of 15 quail. He froze in terror, mouth agape, when they blasted off around him.

"Quail!" I shouted happily. But we don't see them there anymore.

To tell the truth, you can hardly find a covey if you spend all day searching prime quail country with a good bird dog.

Last week, Luther Carter and I roamed farm fields here on the lower Eastern Shore with his English setter, Gus. In eight hours of hard hunting, we unearthed just two single birds and one small covey of seven or eight. I fired the gun once on the covey rise by instinct, and was glad I missed.

It was a worse showing -- but not by much -- than on opening day two months earlier, when Chris Clarke, Jim Farmer and I hunted nearby Maryland farm fields all day over three fine dogs and finally flushed two coveys just before dusk.

Days like that are enough to make all but a few bird hunters move on to something else, which is just what's happening. Fies said in the last 20 years, the number of Virginia quail hunters has slid from 135,000 to 28,000.

Those left are diehards who keep the best dogs and have access to the best cover. Yet with little competition and the best ground to choose from, the average success of even those diehards continues to fall. In 1978-'79, Virginia hunters reported flushing .43 coveys per hour; in '88-'89 it was down to .28 coveys per hour.

So what's going on?

"The problem is," said Farmer, a founder of Maryland's Quail Unlimited chapter, "that nobody knows what the problem is."

But biologists such as Fies and Jayne have strong ideas, and mostly they center on farming practices.

Years ago, said Jayne, farmers had smaller fields and rotated their crops, leaving some fields fallow for two or three years at a stretch to regenerate. These small, fallow fields were prime quail nesting and roosting cover, full of bugs and seeds to eat, with weeds tall enough to hide from predators, but sparse enough to get around in.

Today, said Jayne, no one can afford to leave a field fallow. Many farmers even double-crop their fields, planting corn or soybeans in summer and wheat in winter to make ends meet.

Meantime, use of pesticides and herbicides has more than doubled, drastically reducing the number of seeds and bugs, and financial pressures have forced farmers to plow under their hedgerows and push into the woods edges, places where quail historically sheltered.

The resulting huge, unbroken fields show barely a sign of life other than the desired crop. Walk across a 300-acre harvested Eastern Shore corn or soybean field in winter and you'll see no sign of a bug, a worm, a bird, a rodent or a weed -- just a flat expanse of grey, sticky mud waiting for the next application of wonder chemicals.

Is there hope? Not much.

Jayne and Fies are having some success encouraging farmers to plant marginal and "set-aside" land -- land the government pays to keep out of production for conservation reasons -- in cover conducive to quail and other small wildlife.

Likewise, Quail Unlimited chapters offer free seed and advice to farmers willing to plant patches for birds.

But since the best quail cover is and always has been on private farmland, success depends on the voluntary interest and willingness of farmers to participate. And these days, they have a lot else on their minds.

Meantime, the quail-spin continues. "It's a quiet crisis," said Jayne. "People are a lot more vocal about some other species. They're relatively quiet about quail. I guess a lot of hunters just drift off to something else, like deer hunting. There are a lot of deer out there now."