When the nights are crisp and black, when a man needs a powerful light to shine his way into dark mountains, and when his coonhound runs nose to the ground with a good howl on track that changes to a hard, loud chop to tell him that the quarry is treed -- this is the elixir that brings the men out of their pickups and into the woods of country Virginia.

"It's just a good, relaxed feeling," said Homer Yowell, 60, a longtime coonhunter and an engineer at the National Coal Association Building in the District. "It gets you away from the hustle-bustle." His one regret is that he can't keep a mule at his Alexandria home, for raccoon hunting aboard a mule is fine sport, indeed.

"Ain't nothing no better than to get out there and listen to those hounds hunt," said Doug Gray, 36, a landscape gardener from Marshall, Va., whose grandfather introduced him to coonhunting. "When there's a moon and bright stars -- oh, man, you can't describe it."

Coonhunting is big in Virginia, from the tiny town of Fancy Gap in the far southwestern tip, where men in overalls at a Gulf station complain about how today's coonhounds have "too much yap" in them, to metropolitan Washington, where raccoons compete with superhighways and ranch homes, but wild woods still beckon not far from the Capital Beltway.

State officials have no estimate of how many coonhunters there are; the licenses do not distinguish raccoons from other types of game. But Tom Bradley, a Stafford coonhound kennel owner and president of the United Eastern Virginia Coonhunters' Association, estimates that the sport has between 10,000 and 15,000 devotees here.

"It's not dying out in any way," said Tom's wife, Debbi, a staff member for Fairfax County Supervisor Joseph Alexander (D-Lee). "There's lots of families that coonhunt."

On a recent Saturday, it was pure coonhunting spirit that brought Yowell, Gray, Bradley and about 20 other men an hour south of Washington to a rain-soaked field in rural Fauquier County, where the autumn air filled with the smell of barbecued ribs, and rang with the yelps of the coondogs.

The official occasion was a match sponsored by the local Sumerduck Coonhunters' Association to pick the best looking, best barking, and best coontracking and treeing dogs there, from an assortment of the six breeds of coonhounds, including Blueticks, Redbones and Walkers.

But the unstated purpose was camaraderie, for nobody understands a Virginia coonhunter like a Virginia coonhunter.

When Walter Loving Jr., 42, told the group he had hunted in the rain until 1 a.m. that morning, only to rise four hours later to get to his job as a bank maintenance worker -- well, the boys couldn't see anything weird about that. Many of them are also out four or five nights a week, dressed in heavy duck overalls and miners' headlamps, "pouring the coal on a coon."

Some coonhunters kill the treed raccoons, sell the pelts to fur buyers and sometimes eat the meat. It's best barbecued, they say.

But Virginia's coonhunting associations frown on "hide-hunting," except when necessary to break a puppy to a raccoon's scent. Their competition rules forbid the killing or molesting of animals, and at their meets they raise thousands of dollars for charity.

For them, there is no payoff, except the pleasure of watching a sturdy dog work the open woods.

The smell of the trees at night, the feel of heavy boots, and the deep and faraway howl of a dog chasing a raccoon on the next ridge are what they dream of.

For many, it's a tradition they've grown up with.

"My dad, he started me when I was 6 years old," said Bradley. "He'd carry me on his back. He reminded me of a big old oak tree. Even at 60 years old, he was so powerful. I used to cry if I couldn't go -- even though I'd only be awake enough to hear him tree the first one."

"I've been coonhunting all my life," said John Benson, a 44-year-old security guard from Manassas, who was there with a Redbone hound, Queenie. "I used to take rabbit dogs and try and make coondogs out of them."

The men called each other "Jimmy" and "Johnny." They reminisced about old hunts, and knew most of the dogs well enough to predict with some dismay that James Jenkins' dog, Music, would win the treeing contest, where the dogs are turned loose to bark their brains out at an old hide hauled up the limb of an oak tree.

"She's just a powerful treein' baby," Jenkins, a Centreville arborist, said. And, the men, who had seen Music in action many times before -- her paws anchored to the tree, and her long ears thrown back, barking 57 times in 30 seconds like a coondog deluxe -- had to agree. "That's one good dog," they sighed.

The conversation in the field that afternoon, over hot coffee and steaming ribs, and between mouthfuls of dark tobacco, touched on favorite and familiar topics. They spoke of "belly-rubbers" -- the dogs that hug a tree where a raccoon is treed, and "big boar coons," of "broke coondogs" and dogs that "give a lot of mouth," or bark a lot.

They complained about "trashy dogs," or ones that will run game other than racoon (the term is also applied to wandering husbands), debated the merits of different coonhound breeds ("Tom had Blueticks in his head when I met and married him," said Debbi Bradley), and spoke at length of their own dog preferences.

"I like a dog that goes hunting -- a dog you don't see, a wide-huntin' dog," John Metzger, a 35-year-old air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanic from Lorton, was saying.

"And I like a real hard tree dog. There's dogs that go boo-hoo on a tree, and I don't like 'em.

"Now, my coondog Cadillac, she's a wide hunter, and she's a pretty good tree dog," he added. "But she goes off on a fox. Most people wouldn't admit to that, but I'm honest. Cadillac will run a fox. But I wouldn't get rid of her for love or money. She'll be with me the rest of my life."

Always they circled back to the same topic -- a dog's voice, for coonhounds don't just bark; they "bawl," "squall" and "chop." A man who knows his dog can tell, just from the racket, whether the hound is following a fresh or an old track, if he's running, is in a hole, is swimming, is in dry leaves, or has treed a raccoon.

A coondog living in Arlington might drive the neighbors crazy with all its bawling and squalling, but when a man like Elden Fletcher of Brinceville, Va., reminisces about how his coonhound, Lady, once sang 72 times in 30 seconds, the memory is achingly sweet. It reminds him of the night mountains, of still nights when raccoons criss-cross the woods, of dogs barking at the base of trees. He can't stop smiling.

"You ask Johnnie Benson," he says, dreamily. "Johnnie witnessed it."