Bruce Lecrone crouched in the bushes and waited, sipping coffee from a thermos and checking his walkie-talkie.

A few yards away, a buck with a large rack of antlers stood in a field of weeds. Lecrone, a sergeant in the county's sheriff's office, watched the deer as its eyes flashed, and its ears stood up, as though it sensed danger.

It looked like a hunter's dream, but Lecrone knew better. This deer was a phony, and Lecrone, head of the county's deer patrol, was watching for an illegal roadside hunter to take a shot at it.

"Those poachers can be very sneaky people," said Lecrone who works his stakeout with another officer in a waiting patrol car. "We really, as legitimate hunters, feel quite irate."

The foam decoy is the latest weapon in the county's war on poachers. Deputies have put it in fields and thickets across the county to attract rogue hunters who illegally shoot deer at night. It's the first time a decoy has been used in the state at night.

There are no exact figures on the number of people who poach deer, but police estimate that one deer is killed illegally for every deer taken legally by a hunter. Loudoun has led the metropolitan area for a decade in the number of deer registered with state game officials. Last year, hunters in the county registered 3,371 deer killed, a state research biologist said.

Night poachers have long known that bright light will freeze a deer in its tracks, making it as easy to shoot as a paper target. Less-affluent poachers kill deer for meat. Others shoot them for sport. Some just want the antlers.

But as Loudoun changes from a rural expanse of farms and forests to a populated part of the metropolitan area, the practice has become increasingly more dangerous. The county population has jumped from about 57,400 in 1980 to about 90,000 this year, according to federal and local estimates, and houses occupy land that was open a few years ago.

Sheriff John Isom said there is a much greater chance now that a bullet will end up in someone's living room wall instead of a hillside or tree. Dogs and cats get shot every year, he said, and the number of complaints about nighttime shooting has climbed sharply in the last five years.

Besides, he said, poachers don't follow the rules and ethics that make hunting safe. It gives the sport a bad name, said Isom, who bought the deer for about $100 and had it rigged with real antlers and shiny disks for eyes.

"It's only a miracle we haven't had some human killed," Isom said. "They're drinking and they're shooting high-powered rifles. There is no more dangerous combination that we know . . . . It just drives me insane."

Lt. Randall Quesenberry said he believes some legal hunters throughout the metropolitan area have turned to poaching because the amount of land available for hunting is shrinking.

An owner's permission is required to hunt on private land, he said. But much of that land is now owned by developers and is closed to hunters, which has helped cause the explosion of the deer population in the county, he said.

With more than 15,000 deer, Loudoun leads the state in the highest average number of deer on each square mile of huntable land, a state biologist said.

"I think there's a lot of frustrated hunters," Quesenberry said. "They look out their {car} window and they see these big, beautiful bucks."

Since the rifle season for deer hunting began Nov. 19, the foam decoy has helped deputies catch at least 15 poachers. Most face misdemeanor charges for things such as hunting while intoxicated, spotlighting deer or firing a weapon within 100 yards of a state road. All had their rifles confiscated and one man could be penalized for hunting from his truck by losing it. The cases go to court in January.

It's not as good a take as the deputies had hoped, but they still have more than two weeks before the season ends Jan. 5. Next year, Lecrone said, they might motorize the deer to make it look more enticing.

The deer patrol routine is a lot like fishing. At least two deputies, and often a state game warden, go to a spot known for poaching. With more than 500 square miles in the county, and deer everywhere from the suburban streets of Sterling to the mountains west of Purcellville, there are plenty of easy poaching spots to choose.

Usually, the deputies put the decoy in high weeds or in thick undergrowth, sometimes near a bend in a road where a cruising poacher would flash headlights. One man hides in a patrol car down the road. Another, dressed in camouflage and armed with binoculars and a walkie-talkie, sits in a sleeping bag nearby, out of the line of fire of the ersatz critter.

Often they wait for hours with little success. But several times, their scheme has worked better than they planned. The first time they put the decoy out, for example, they laughed at the idea of an experienced hunter taking it for the real thing. But a minute after they adjusted it near a road in Leesburg, a man pulled up, took aim and fired.

The deputies had to dive for cover and the man got away.

"We were really wondering if it was going to work," Lecrone said. "He shot him three times between the eyes. He's good. Real good."