First of all, they are never dogs. They're hounds.

Last week 213 of them came from three states for the Maryland State Fox Hunters Association's 61st annual bench show and field trial at 2,000-acre Jug Bay Park on the Patuxent River.

It was supposed to be on park land, anyway.

"Everybody hold your dogs," cried the master of the hounds, Gerald Simmons, to the occupants of two dozen pickups parked on grassy bottom land in the dark before dawn. "We're going to try to keep 'em in the park this time. We'll let 'em out on this end first and try to get the others to follow."

But when the first tailgate was sprung the hounds poured out like lemmings, milled wildly, then lit out in various directions for private land, with the others close behind.

"You can't tell a hound what to do," muttered a handler.

Oscar Wilde described fox hunting as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable." He was talking about traditional English-style hunts, where the hounds stayed in packs, elegant hunters rode horses over them and the goal was to catch the fox.

The Maryland crowd is different. The participants are so-called night hunters. They hope the fox gets away. The magic in their hunt is hearing the warbling howls of the dogs echoing from dark hills and hollows. "We just sit back and listen," said Dick Rembole of Bel Air, a field trial judge, "to the sweetest music this side of heaven." Thus, it is not fox hunting, participants say. It's fox chasing.

"If a man shoots a fox in front of a pack of our hounds he's really treading on dangerous ground," said Simmons. "Without a fox we don't have a hunt. Our goal has always been the spirit of the chase."

Even then, sometimes when you let a pack of predatory beasts out on rural land bad things can happen. A few years back, not far from Jug Bay, a hunt ended when the hounds stopped in mid-chase to gobble up eight cats on a woman's front porch.

As the fellow said, you can't tell a hound what to do.

Dave Green of Montrose, Va., was one of 20 judges at the Maryland competition. A judge's job, he said, is to drive around the country roads, listening to the CB and asking fox-chasers along the road if they know where a pack is working a fox.

The goal, said Green, is to find a chase, get to a cleared crossing before the fox and hounds and mark down the numbers of the hounds as they follow the fleeing red or gray.

Hounds are scored, he said, on ability to hunt, trail and on their speed and drive. They are scratched from the competition if they babble, loaf or show up by the roadside, waiting for their master, before the hunt is over.

The numbers are painted on the dog's side. "I thought they used some kind of biodegradable, ecologically sound marking paint," said Rich Dolesh, the Jug Bay park manager. "Then I saw it here on the table. Industrial lacquer."

I rode around for a while with Green but we never did sight a real fox chase. We visited some of the local hunters' kennels to see if any hounds had tried to go back home, and eventually we found one lolling outside his kennel. Green scratched him from the competition.

Green said many hounds wouldn't get scored at all in the trial, even with 20 judges and three days of chases. "A lot of dogs will never get seen, even if they might be hunting and trailing real good," he said. "It's a lot of territory out there. But if you see a dog that does consistently well in trials, say a third here, a fourth someplace else, a 10th, a first. That's a good dog."

Shortly before noon quitting time Green got a report of a good chase near an old hog farm and we gave pursuit. He abandoned the truck at the end of a sandy farm road and took off running through the woods, following the baying of the hounds. On the far side of the cornfield he at last sighted some hounds, but there was no fox visible. No score.

On the way back through the dusty, dry cornfield a pathetic hound came snuffling through the rows. "What's he following?" Green wondered, then watched his question answered as the dog buried its nose in some deer tracks.

Down another woods road a woman stood waiting for a fox to cross. She was Jane Toal of Annapolis, 60, a retired biochemist with a master's degree from Cornell.

Like many, she said, she started out hunting to ride and wound up riding to hunt. "First it was the thrill of riding over the terrain," she said, "but I became more interested in the marvels of the hound's nose."

Toal described the sounds a couple hundred hounds make in the woods as "like the kids who like to turn up the jukebox so loud it blasts your ears out. It's ecstasy."

Her family, Toal said, "thinks I've gone to the dogs."

Please, folks. She's gone to the hounds.

The Maryland state trials having been completed, local night hunters' attention now turns to the Tri County Fox Hunters Association's fall bench show and two-day field trials, Oct. 10-11 at Jug Bay. The Tri County is regarded as a social hunt and includes a hoedown Saturday night.

The hounds will be released both days at the crack of dawn, and visitors may watch. Jug Bay, a part of the MNCPPC's Patuxent River Park, is at the end of Croom Airport Road off Rte 301 a few miles south of Waysons Corner.