From my seat in a sycamore tree, 20 feet above a clearing in a hardwood forest, the sound of the deer browsing in the thicket behind me seemed to be moving closer. All I had to do was sit still, stifle the sneeze that had been threatening for 10 minutes and wait for the deer to appear beneath my tree stand.

Stifle, stifle. Choo.

It was a microscopic sneeze, smaller than a chipmunk's sniffle. But it was loud enough to spook the deer and mark an ignoble start to another hunting season.

"You don't have to be that careful hunting with a gun. But with bow and arrow, it's a totally different game," said Chris Anton, who had put me up my tree in the woods of Fauquier County. "You have to let the deer get much closer. The smallest sound, just rubbing your coat against the tree, can make you paranoid."

For the great majority of Virginia's hunters, those who use firearms, the deer season will not begin until Nov. 19. On that day, the woods and fields of the Old Dominion will boom like battlegrounds. But for a much smaller group of modern-day Robin Hoods, the deer season began Oct. 13, with no more noise than the sound of hunters' footsteps.

Not many of Virginia's more than 30,000 bow-hunters dragged anything but their own sleep-deprived bodies out of the woods on opening day. The difficulty in getting a deer with bow and arrow is so much greater than with a gun that some cynics claim it is the perfect sport for hunters who don't like the sight of blood.

Anton and his bow-hunting friends in the 2-year-old Blue Ridge Archers club don't mind the kidding. Many have had great hunting success. And all accept bow-hunting's challenge as a positive aspect of the sport.

"Using a gun takes the fun out of it," said Charles (Spike) Debarr, our host for this day of hunting. After a quarter century as a conventional deer hunter, Debarr retired his rifle and picked up a compound bow.

He never has regretted the conversion.

One of bow-hunting's most obvious appeals is the prolonged season. In most states, bow-hunters are allowed into the woods at least a few weeks before the firearms season begins. The weather is milder and there is less chance of being shot by another hunter.

And there also is considerable historic appeal to the sport. No other method of hunting can claim as direct a link to antiquity. From the day Apollo bestowed the bow upon the inhabitants of Crete, to the 16th century when the gun, which required less strength and little practice, replaced it as the weapon of choice, every culture has had its legendary bowmen.

Such as the Persian Bashram-Gu, who reportedly was able to pin the hoof of a wild ass against its ear with an arrow in midjump.

The English bow was probably the best known of the stringed weapons. As tall as the man using it, it weighed up to 200 pounds. Ethiopian hunters developed a three-man bow to bring down elephants. One man pulled back the arrow while two held the bow. Attila and his Huns, with their giant bows, were such dreaded archers they inspired a prayer, "O, God, save us from the arrows of the Huns." It still was being said in Italy centuries after Attila's demise.

The modern, compound bow bears only slight resemblance to the bows of antiquity. Most of today's are made of lightweight fiberglass and are equipped with sights, pulleys and metal cables to enhance aim and velocity.

Despite those advantages, a successful bow-hunter must spend hours practicing just to maintain a level of mediocrity.

"We shoot competitively, so basically we practice all year," said Anton, 36, a Warrenton real estate agent and a founder of the Blue Ridge Archers, one of 30 bow-hunting clubs in Virginia.

Hunting with Anton this day were his brother, Tom, a sculpture student at the Maryland Institute of Art; Debarr, and Terry Evans, who is in the Navy, stationed at Virginia Beach. I was armed with a camera.

"It's a little too warm. The deer move better in colder weather," said Evans, as we prepared to enter the woods with the temperature near 45 degrees and the moon nearly full.

After scaring away the first deer, I sat watching the sky brighten. Crows were calling from all sides. A hawk chased a smaller bird overhead. It was a great morning to sit quietly and listen to the day begin.

Four hours later, we abandoned our tree stands to compare notes. No one had shot an arrow. But Tom Anton was nearly run down by a buck and doe that bounded past him, too sudden and too close for a shot.

Evans watched one deer approach, then turn away before it was in range.

"I could have shot that doe 50 times with a gun," said Evans, without a hint of disappointment in his voice.