Around the country people are still telling jokes about Lake Erie. It's image as "about the only body of water in the world that constitutes a fire hazard," in the words of Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, dies hard.

But that was nine years ago, and things have changed.

A couple of weeks ago Bob Zawadzki was taking a lunch break during a day of duck hunting on Presque Isle Bay, the port of the city of Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania.

He needed something to wash down the flavor of fresh deer steaks and fried potatoes. He took a cup and dipped it over the side of his boat.

And Zawadzki drank Erie water, just like that. "It's the same as our city water. It's just not chlorinated. I do it all the time."

Harold Rushton, now retired, called Erie his home all his life. These days he whiles away his time fishing for yellow perch every day off the beach on Presque Isle Peninsula. "Eight years ago I'd be sitting right here on the rocks," he said "and I couldn't see the bottom two feet off shore. There was piles of white foam on top clear across the Bay, and the water underneath was muddy and brown. Now it's clear as day."

Just last month Rushton got the shock of his life when he tried a new spot along the beach. He tossed a worm out from a little point. Came a tug on his line, then a tremendous yank.

"I thought it was a carp. I caught one a few years ago and he ruined a good reel. I'm on retirement and I can't afford that. So I decided to play this one real slow.

"It took me about 20 minutes, but when I got him in, man was I surprised. It was a 28-inch coho salmon."

Indeed, salmon are thriving in Erie as an eight-year-old state stocking program grows by leaps and bounds. Although the kings of the trout family have to share the busy waters with tons of yellow perch and walleye, the backbone of the lake's commercial fishery, plus big rainbow trout, muskellunge and northern pike.

But it's the coho that have caught the attention of sport fishermen across the Northeast.

"That's the first thing people ask when they see you're from Erie," said Bob Chandler, who writes the fishing column for the local Erie paper. "How are the coho?" I try to play it down as much as I can. We want to save some for ourselves."

That shouldn't be hard. The state stocks some half-million or more coho and chinook fingerlings every year, and so far the return has been remarkable. Except this year. Wine and weather conspired to break up the fall spawning run, and the salmon fishing has been spotty.

This hasn't stopped the anglers, who jam the new Walnut Creek boat ramp east of Erie at the crack of dawn every morning, weekdays and weekends alike, to head out to the mouths of the tiny spawning creeks and troll for coho.

The state has even set up a coho hot line (800/838-3424) to deal with the crush of questions from around the region.

In 1965 Interior Secretary Steward Udall said Erie was on the verge of a degree of pollution beyond reversal, but immediate action might save it.

It looks as if for once the governments - federal state - acted fast enough.