So much abuse has been heaped on public hunting lands, I was about to give up on them. You hear horror stories of nimrods shooting slugs over your head, slobs slurping beer with one hand while swinging a shotgun with the other or folks setting decoys practically on top of you in a duck marsh.

I figured, why risk safety on a public tract where you don't know who's next to you if you can find private land to hunt, even if it costs money? But when Maryland dove season opened Wednesday, things worked out differently than expected. I wound up greeting the fall gunning season on a breezy day in a crowded public dove field at Millington Wildlife Management Area on the Eastern Shore.

Surprise, surprise, it wasn't half-bad. Downright enjoyable, in fact, though not terribly productive. Whose fault was that? "All we can do is put you where the birds are," said Bill Harvey, a state Department of Natural Resources employee who was next to me in the field. "We can't hit them for you."

Hmmmm.

Doves are notoriously fast and evasive flyers, and they were doing their thing very effectively that day with a boost from the remnants of Hurricane Dennis. The ones that came over the tree line where I sat looked like F-14s breaking the sound barrier. By the time I got the gun up, they were overhead and going away, none the worse for their noisy brush with me.

But there were plenty of them. The manager at 3,800-acre Millington, Bill Martin, tailors three fields there for dove hunting. He plants sunflowers, winter wheat and buckwheat to attract the birds and working the soil in strips to provide patches of bare ground for them to feed and pick up the grit they need for digestion.

Millington is one of 20 WMAs in Maryland with designated dove fields. All have special regulations to keep from getting overshot. Most are open to hunting only two or three days a week and all close at 5 p.m. to give the birds a chance to get in before dusk to feed.

When the crowd left Millington after an afternoon punctuated by hundreds of shots and scores of downed birds, about 500 doves soared in and perched on the power lines, ready to fly down and get dinner, said Paul Peditto, another state DNR man who stuck around in the parking lot to finish off the remains of a picnic he'd brought.

A half-dozen DNR employees made the pilgrimage to Millington, including the chief of the Wildlife Division, Mike Slattery. They let me tag along when I whined about having no place to go. Slattery said he'd turned down an invitation to a private VIP shoot on the lower Eastern Shore to take his chances with the public at large, a commendable choice for a public servant.

Peditto, who organized the group, heads up a similar mission every year. He contacts managers at all the dove hunting areas early in the week, narrows the choices based on where doves are abundant and makes the call the night before opening day. Everyone gathers the following morning to descend en masse, hopefully early enough to claim prime shooting spots.

Dove shoots by law don't start till noon, but when hunting public land it pays to arrive early or you end up with no good place to set up. Peditto had us on site a little after 10 a.m. and the field already was half-full. Happily, the corner he liked was still open and we arrayed ourselves there, then settled down to fried chicken, cigars and Nerf football-tossing till the appointed hour. Doves buzzed around, whetting our appetites.

But after a brief flurry of activity right at noon as gunners in fields around us set the birds in motion, things got slow. "It's always this way," said Harvey. "It's quiet till about 2 or 3 p.m., then they start to fly.

He was right. The action got warm around 2 and hot around 3. Sadly, the corner where we'd set up was poorly placed in relation to the whistling tailwinds of the hurricane. Birds coming our way whizzed downwind over the trees at warp speed, while folks on the far side of the field had them coming in against the wind, which made for far more reasonable shots.

I'm ashamed to admit how poorly I shot. All I can say is, as President Clinton would put it, "We can do better."

On the positive side, the behavior of the dozens of gunners who crowded the eight-acre field was beyond reproach. When birds buzzed low across the sunflowers, folks hollered "low bird" and everyone dutifully held his fire. I didn't see a lot of long-range "sky-busting," and folks who didn't know each other by name simply sang out, "Mark!" to let neighbors know a bird was heading their way.

I got spattered a few times by spent shot raining down from on high, but that's standard for dove shoots. Peditto had warned me that if one corner of a public field is hot, folks in cold corners might move in and set up on top of the ones who chose more wisely, but I saw no sign of that, either. Of course, we weren't in the hot spot.

I have a hunting buddy, Mark Hoke, who prefers hunting public land for deer. He likes the challenge of succeeding in a competitive environment and reckons if you can do well in a public area, it proves you've really done your homework.

I always thought Hoke was a little odd in that reasoning, but I understand now. The dove hunters who did well at Millington on opening day were either very lucky or very clever. They read the wind, knew the lay of the land and set up in wise places.

They have more reason to take pride in their success than some well-heeled swell who wanders into a VIP, invitation-only hunt and bangs away till his shoulder is sore to get his limit, or someone who shells out up to $200 to join a commercial hunt and simply goes where he's told.

The real pleasure of hunting lies in the what you learn and how you use it to make decisions. On public lands, those decisions are more important than ever.

Both Maryland and Virginia have extensive public hunting lands where folks can hunt deer, doves, woodcock and grouse, waterfowl, squirrels and a variety of other game. Basic information on Maryland's 150,000 acres of WMAs is available in the guide that accompanies every hunting license. Or you can tap into the Web site at www.dnr.state.md.us, where extensive profiles of public lands are available.

Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers a free pamphlet with maps and information on 29 public WMAs; call 804-367-9369 or write VDGIF, P.O. Box. 11104, Richmond, Va. 23230 and request "A Guide to Virginia's Wildlife Management Areas." Information is also available on the Web site (www.dgif.state.va.us).

CAPTION: Bill Harvey, who works for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, keeps an eye out for doves at the Millington Wildlife Management Area.