The chattering of Canada geese wafted on a soft night breeze across the tidal bay. A house dog barked in the distance.

Holly and Ranger, coon dogs scoured the turf, their noses pushed low to the ground. Tails wagged wildly and the dogs obviously scented coons, but the tracks were old.

Ranger howled and almost immediately the head "cooner" with the miner's light strapped to his forehead feared the worst.

"On a deer," he said quietly. "Holly's not following him."

Ranger was on a test run before he would be purchased by the cooner, and trailing a deer didn't bode well for his sale potential. A coon dog is supposed to track coons and nothing else.

But Holly's pretty voice soon broke through the random night noises. "She's on one," the cooner said with a trace of excitement.

The Walker hound bayed loudly, her music echoing eerily in the soft winter air.

A young hunter might have rushed after the dog, bursting through the thick undergrowth, losing his bearings as he stumbled after the hound. Not so this cooner. He knew the trail was hot; he knew the raccoon would be treed, and he knew that if it was not a den tree the coon would be found by the piercing beam of his miner's light.

The cooners took off after the trailing dog. They stopped and listened, savouring the auditory pleasures of the nocturnal hunt.

"There, he's treed," the cooner said, sensing a shift in the tempo and tone of the barking hound.

Rusting faster through the labyrinth of pines, hardwoods and underbrush, the cooners headed for the call of the hound. A hundred yards away, breatheless and animated, lights were aimed from all angles at a huge leafless oak.

There, glowing like a pair of diamonds, were the beady eyes of the stripe-tailed quarry hugging a branch 20 yard up.

Holly barked out of control at the treed coon.

That's where the hunt ends this time of year in Virginia. The dogs were called off and a new trail was sought out.

Cooning is one of the few hunting sports where a kill is not necessarily the conclusion.

The treeing of the coon by the hounds and spotting of the quarry is indisputably the climax of this intriguing night sport, and much cooning is done without killing. Often the decision not to capture the coon is the cohice of the hunters.If a coon has been taken, the next coon may be spared; if a family of raccoons is treed some will be left for seed stock.

This year in Virginia cooning without killing has become law for much of the open season. In most eastern countries the season began way back on Sept. 1 and runs through March 31. West of the Blue Ridge (except in southwestern countries) the season extends from Oct. 15 to Feb. 28. Out of these time spans the only period in which coons could be killed was Nov. 1 through Jan. 31.

The decision to spare coons during much of the open "hunting" season left some hunters miffed, but the Virginia Game Commision felt it had sound reasons for the changes.

Pelts fro m coons taken before Nov. 1 or after Jan. 31 often are of little value because the fur is in poor condition. When you consider that coon pelts taken in the prime season may fetch up to $25, it seems a waste to capture a coon when the fur is in poor shape.

Education division chief Harry Gilliam wrote in a recent Virginia Wildlife editorial, "A coon taken is a dead coon, whether taken by a coon hunter or a trapper. High fur prices make the coon an attractive quarry, so attractive that a long taking season could seriously reduce numbers. That is the logic behindthe decision."