The men split up after entering the Virginia woods at dawn. They were hunting wild turkeys, elusive birds that are exceptionally hard to find and more difficult to shoot. So by late afternoon, when the first hunter heard rustling in nearby underbrush, and thought he saw a turkey leave its roost, he hoisted his 30.06 rifle to his shoulder and fired.

He was listening for a yelp but heard a yell instead. When he reached the underbrush, he found his friend, Gerald Bryan Chiasson, 22, of Arlington, with a bullet through his back. By the time help arrived, Chiasson was dead.

Chiasson was one of 11 hunters killed in Virginia since June of this year. Their deaths have been caused by a variety of weapons in terrain ranging from thick woods to open fields. Two deaths were self-inflicted. For every hunter killed, almost two more have been wounded.

A small dose of common sense would have gone a long way toward preventing the accidents.

"Stupidity is the word I'd use," said Capt. James Kerrick, the safety officer for Virginia's Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. "People get anxious . . . and let their imaginations get the best of them."

Kerrick and other game officials are sometimes defensive about citing accident statistics because antihunting groups use them as ammunition against the sport. With 500,000 registered hunters in the state, the percentage of hunting accidents is statistically slight. But no one is less than alarmed at the unintentional bloodshed that has occurred in Virginia at the annual rate of 10.2 fatalities during the last 21 years.

For some hunters who stalk the woods, particularly during deer and turkey seasons, the knowledge that some unseen, trigger-happy fool with a high-powered gun may be nearby is chilling.

"I'm afraid to go into the woods," Dr. David Oxley, a longtime hunter and the chief medical examiner for western Virginia, told The Associated Press last week. "You can be a careful, competent hunter and some crazy can blow your head off."

Oxley has examined the bodies of six of the hunters killed since deer season opened in mid-November. Some of the victims had high enough alcohol levels in their blood for Oxley to speculate that the hunters who shot them, often from within the same hunting party, were drinking, too.

More often, say Oxley and game officials, accidents are caused by keeping guns loaded when they shouldn't be, shooting at sounds and movement before knowing what has caused it.

"You should never carry a loaded firearm in a vehicle," said Kerrick. "In Virginia it's against the law to shoot from a vehicle or from the road, anyway. But people still keep the guns loaded.

"I've asked the question, 'Why?' to groups for 21 years and nobody's been able to give me a logical answer to it."

In West Virginia recently, a 14-year-old boy was walking home from a hunting trip when his shotgun, loaded and slung over his shoulder, discharged and killed his 12-year-old brother. One day earlier, a 48-year-old hunter from Florida was killed in a West Virginia deer hunting camp when he began to clean his loaded rifle.

Every year hunters kill themselves pulling loaded guns out of cars, or after tripping over tree roots or farm fences. Last year a 14-year-old boy from Halifax, Va., was killed in a bizarre case.

After twice wounding a squirrel with his .12-gauge shotgun, he tried to finish it off with the butt of his loaded gun. He killed the squirrel and himself with the same blow.

There are 29 states that require hunters to take a safety course before qualifying for licenses. Virginia is not one of them. There are many in the state who would like to see that changed, but every time an attempt is made to mandate that kind of program, it is defeated in the state's General Assembly in Richmond.

"It's a big political football," said Kerrick. The state does have voluntary hunter safety programs conducted by 140 game wardens and volunteers. This year an estimated 10,000 hunters have participated.

Red Hasay, president of the North American Association of Hunter Safety Coordinators, which includes representatives from 60 states and Canadian provinces, supports hunter safety courses but isn't sure they are as important as changing attitudes and ethics.

It doesn't take much knowledge, said Hasay, to know it is idiotic to carry loaded guns over rugged terrain, fire at sounds and drink alcohol while hunting.

"People do things like that in spite of what they know," said Hasay, who also works in Canada with the Alberta fish and wildlife division. "A lot of accidents are caused because of expectations we set for ourselves. We have to get that buck and we don't want to miss any opportunity.

"If we come home and have to face a bunch of people who say, 'What kind of hunter are you? You didn't bring anything home?' we get cudgeled into doing something unreasonable.

"I would like to say that we could have a hunting season with no accidents. But I'm afraid that's 'pie in the sky' thinking. You have humans, and humans are bound to have accidents."

Not all episodes of misdirected fire have ended in tragedy this year. Last week a Danville, Va., man took his grandson into the woods to look for signs of deer. Despite a bright orange hat and red-and-black hunting clothes, someone still mistook Herbert Clayton for a deer. He heard the first shot pass by his head. The second one tore into the upper right corner of his hat.

After hiding motionless behind a tree for a few hours, Clayton and his grandson went back to the car. The boy asked his grandfather if he had been scared enough to see his own ghost.

"No," said Clayton. "But I thought I was going to be one there for a minute."