ANNAPOLIS -- Earlier in the day, once the wind had dropped away to a zephyr and the Chesapeake Bay had settled into wavelets and a persistent swell from the northeast, a pair of sleek rockfish had been brought to the boat, one about 24 inches and the other a few inches longer.
Neither was close to the spring trophy minimum of 36 inches, but then neither was to be sneered at.
According to an early season count by the Department of Natural Resources, only 410 trophy stripers had been caught by May 10, which was 10 days earlier. Of those trophies, 229 had been taken aboard charter boats and 181 had been caught by individuals fishing from private boats.
But there is a better statistic by which to gauge the early success of the spring trophy season: the percentage of the catch that is post-spawn or pre-spawn.
Of 47 rockfish that were tested by a University of Maryland program, 85 percent of the stripers landed and kept already had spawned.
A percentage that high should go a long way toward allaying the fears of some interested parties that fishing on the spawning stocks could do irreparable damage to the recovery of the stripers.
Some hours after the boat had been hosed down and the gear stored, seven members of the Striped Bass Advisory Board and representatives of the DNR were discussing the pluses of the spring season and the prospects for the fall.
The proposal Maryland plans to make to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for the fall season is especially good -- and given the successful management of previous spring seasons and fall seasons, DNR fisheries personnel expect the proposal will be approved.
The fall season, as structured Wednesday night, would run 40 days -- the entire month of October and three, three-day weekends in November (6-7-8; 13-14-15; 20-21-22).
The creel limit for recreational fishermen in the bay would be one fish per day, with charterboat customers allowed two fish per day.
The size limit in the Chesapeake again would be 18 to 36 inches.
The set-up, with a priority on setting a number of days and then being able to stick to the schedule rather than the on-again, off-again fishing of last fall, is due in part to the 1989 year class.
In 1989, an unusually large young of the year index led to the reopening of fishing for stripers, which had been closed since 1985.
By this fall, the 1989 year class will be large enough to be counted in the catchable population. As a result, Maryland can expect an increase in its overall quota of fish to rise by a half-million pounds, to about 1,636,000 pounds.
Of that total, 42 1/2 percent will be allocated to recreational fishermen, 15 percent to charterboat customers and 42 1/2 percent to commercial interests.
One drawback to the spring trophy season, which runs to the end of the month, has been a dropoff in the fishing after the first few days of the season.
"Beginning with that cold-weather spell we had from about the fourth through the 10th, what appeared to be a very good season fell off to almost nothing," said William P. Jensen, head of fisheries for the Tidewater Administration. "For a period of five or six days, we had very few fish reported."
Part of the reason might be a diminished effort compared with last year. In 1991, some 37,000 permits were issued for spring rockfish; this year, only about 14,000 were requested.
It isn't clear yet, Jensen said, whether the fish are on their way into the spawning areas or on their way out, although there are a lot of fish in the spawning reaches and there have been some May spawns.
May spawns generally are good news because the young have a better chance of survival.
On the charterboat front, with bluefish still scarce through the Maryland portion of the bay, captains are having a hard time booking parties.
Several charterboat operators have said they are at an all-time low, and a move was introduced Wednesday night to extend the spring season and lower the size limit. The notion might receive some consideration for next spring, but is out of the question this year.
The best news, however, was that surveys indicate fishing mortality is being controlled at a level slightly below the minimum required coastwide.