You know what they say about trying to catch a falling knife? That's exactly what I envision when I think about picking up shares of a land driller today.

Take a look at Patterson-UTI's (NASDAQ:PTEN) last few monthly rig count reports:

Month

Rigs Operating

Monthly Change (%)

October 2008

283

n/a

November 2008

261

(7.8)

December 2008

213

(18.4)

January 2009

162

(23.9)

Data from company press releases.

Not only are business conditions deteriorating -- the pace of decay is accelerating. For the engineers out there, you have to look out to the second derivative to see any sign for optimism.

On the bright side, this rig laydown luau cannot go on for too much longer. Today's oil and gas prices are at sub-economic levels for the industry as a whole, but there are pockets of resilience out there. Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK), speaking recently of a "significant bifurcation" in the natural gas market, would have you believe that shale plays like the Haynesville and the Marcellus are the only stars still shining. Folks like Ultra Petroleum (NYSE:UPL) and Questar (NYSE:STR) would disagree with that broad generalization, however.

As noted a few weeks back, the U.S. rig count will probably drop somewhere on the order of 1,000 from peak to trough. We're already down to 1,472 from 2,031 -- so we're about halfway there.

If you step in and buy a driller today -- even a quality one like Helmerich & Payne (NYSE:HP) or Precision Drilling Trust (NYSE:PDS), I imagine you'll get burned in the near term. At the same time, the long-term outlook for onshore drilling is very attractive, and these contractors will have their day in the sun once more. So long as you aren't bothered by sitting on a paper loss for three months, two years, or however long it takes for the cycle to turn up again, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong to start gradually building a position in one of these businesses today. If you're a daily portfolio peeker, this is probably not the place for you.

Precision Drilling is a Global Gains selection. Chesapeake Energy is an Inside Value pick. Drill down on any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.