LOUISA, Va. -- When deer season begins in two weeks, the men of Bowler's Mill Hunt Club will gather before dawn behind a suburban rancher not far from this central Virginia crossroads. .. Warmed by strong coffee, they'll decide which land to hunt -- the Cut Over tract, the pine tree farm, the Main Side -- and how to hunt it.
Dressed in camouflage and blaze orange, Ed Crebbs will check the wind -- "You want to be in a position to minimize your scent." He'll load his yapping dogs in the truck. And then, armed with shotguns and buckshot, he and the other club members will head for the big woods.
"I own a rifle," says Roswell Henderson, one of the Bowler's Mill eight. "But the law says I can't use it. So I don't. I grew up in Mississippi, where rifle hunting is legal. I find it contradictory where all the surrounding counties allow rifle hunting and we don't."
The 33-year-old auto parts salesman is hoping Louisa County voters change that law Tuesday. In 188,000 precincts across America, voters like Roswell Henderson will go to the polls.
They will vote for politicians, both big and small. But many will deem more important the questions on the ballot that affect their everyday lives, issues political analysts might consider trivial.
Those choices -- whether it is to permit doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon or prohibit lying on a sidewalk during the day in San Francisco -- can say much about a community.
"Basically it's a citizen legislature," Richard G. Smolka, editor of the Washington newsletter Election Administration Reports, says of the referendum and ballot issues.
And the question before the 9,786 registered voters in this rural county within commuting distance of Charlottesville and Richmond is this: Shall the hunting of deer with rifles be allowed in Louisa County?
For decades, killing a deer with a rifle has been outlawed in Louisa. This is a shotgun county, where deer are killed with a spray of buckshot. To take a buck or doe with a single, high-powered rifle shot, Louisa sportsmen have to hunt in a neighboring county.
Some just disobey the law, like the "road hunters" who troll the county in their pickups, stopping long enough to sight a deer across a cornfield and fire their rifles. With one clean shot, they bring home a truck bed of venison.
It's road warriors like these who have given hunters a bad name and deepened an anti-hunting sentiment slowly creeping through the county.
Pro-rifle hunters like Mr. Crebbs worry that the illegal hunting and the fear of high-powered rifles may defeat the ballot question.
What an unlikely outcome in a rural county such as this.
It wasn't that long ago that Louisa schools closed on the first day of deer season -- boys just wouldn't show up. Even now, more sons will carry shotguns into the woods than tote books into classrooms when the hunting season opens Nov. 21.
Still, not everyone sees with a hunter's eye. Especially the owners of the summer houses and retirement homes on Lake Anna, a 13,000-acre reservoir in the county's northeast corner.
"You have a tremendous amount of people who moved to Lake Anna, who moved out to the country but brought their concerns of the city with them," says Mr. Crebbs, a 44-year-old teacher who would gladly trade in his books if he could earn a living trapping fox and beaver. "They don't want people hunting in their back yard."
Louisa hunters also are divided on the issue.
While many would like the option of hunting with a rifle, others worry that the Louisa custom of using hounds for deer -- a practice unseen in much of this state west of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- would be forever changed.
Some fear the road hunters would multiply like rabbits. And others speculate on what a defeat might encourage. "We may not be able to hunt at all on the next referendum," says one longtime sportsman.
'Hunter in the woods'
Come deer season, Gerry Harlow retreats to a perch near a favorite creek bottom. No CB radios. No four-wheel drives. No pack of dogs.
But before the 40-year-old telephone repairman climbs into his home-made tree stand, he leans a plywood sign against his truck.
Painted in glowing orange letters, it reads: "Watch your shot. Hunter in the woods." Last season, while he sat in his stand, two shotgun blasts were fired over his head as a deer ran past him. Each shell had 24 pellets, he says.
"I'd rather take my chances with a rifle," says Mr. Harlow.
He tells the story to counter arguments that deer hunters with rifles are a more dangerous breed because their bullets travel farther.
The range of buckshot fired from a 12-gauge shotgun is 50 to 55 yards, hunters say. A high-powered rifle in the hands of a good marksman can hit a deer 350 yards away, they say.
Eighteen months ago, Mr. Harlow first approached the county Board of Supervisors about lifting the rifle ban. He wanted only to use a rifle in a tree stand.
But in the subsequent bureaucratic wrangling, the proposal be