In December of 1975, then-Governor Mills Godwin banned eating fish caught in the James River and its tributaries-including the bass-rich Chickahominy-because of kepone contamination. Little did he know what his move would do to sport fishery management.

For the ban created one of the nation's first fish-for-fun bass rivers. Even though the largemouths' flesh is tainted with the pesticide and unsafe to eat, the fish themselves are vigorous; they provide no food, but plenty of sport.

"No-kill" fishing has been gaining adherents daily among the trout clan as anglers see with their own eyes the quality that results when fish are returned to the water unharmed. Recycling the catch provides untold bonus hours of enjoyment.

But would no-kill work in a warmwater bass river? Most biologists and fishery managers hold staunchly that bass are capable of replacing any creeled fish with natural reproduction, In short, harvesting is often placed as a goal above the sport of catching more and bigger fish.

The James, and particularly the Chickahominy, put the lie to the theory that harvesting is a necessary part of bass management in all waters. In the 3 1/2 years since the ban was imposed, the rivers have experienced a phenomenal jump in the quality of fishing, in both size and numbers of fish caught. And there are no signs of a leveling-off. The bass are fat and ubiquitous.

Dew still cloaked the green lawns with beads of glistening white hoarfrost when two Maryland bass guides and I pulled into Hideaway Marina on the Chickahominy River recently. The guides, Pete Cissel and Glenn Peacock, had taken a rare day off to sample the no-kill bassing Chickahominy has been offering of late.

The tide was almost dead low. After brief concultation, Cissel gunned the big motor and our bass boat lurched toward a fovrite feeder creek several miles upriver.

Peacock was the first to cast toward the creek mouth, and four turns of the reel was all it took: A two-pounder sucked in the plug and throbbed on the end of the line. Second cast, another bass.

Cissel and I weren't so blessed-it took us two casts before we latched onto a double from the schooling largemouths stacked like herring.

Fifty minutes of the most incredible bass fishing you're likely to find anywhere ensued. Twenty-one bass were stashed in the live well for photos at the end of that furious feeding binge. Another two dozen had been released as soon as they were fought to the boat.

Picture-taking finished, the bass in the live well were also released. The afternoon was then spent probing a variety of cover along this fertile tidewater river. Dock pilings, sunken logs, dropoffs, and fat cypress trees all yielded bass, including specimens of four and 5 1/2 pounds. By day's end the tally reached 60 or 65 bass, averaging 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds.

If this sounds like once-in-a-lifetime fishing, think again. Cissel and Peacock claim it was nothing unusual for the Chickahominy. Many well-traveled anglers consider it the best bass water north of Mexico. That's what "putting 'em back" will do to a fishery.

If you've never tried for tidewater bass, don't let it scare you. Some fish can be caught in these fertile rivers under just about any conditions except a flood tide, which occurs only rarely. The best times-when catches of 40 bass in as many minutes can be made at certain spots on the river-come at the tail end of a falling tide. At these times Peacock and Cissel like to fish the mouths of shallow feeder creeks, where bass congregate to feast on morsels being washed out of the tributaries by the strong tidal current.

Fish are so plentiful there that the johnboat angler can even score well working water within a hundred yards of the dock.

Fishing is exceptional during April and May, but also holds up well throughout summer when "buzz baits" skimmed across the lily pads draw smashing strikes from angered bass.

Weekends are crowded, since local bass clubs hold many tournaments there. During the week you can have vast stretches fo this bass-rich river to yourself.

GETTING THERE

The Chickahominy River lies about an hour east of Richmond, and can be reached by taking either U.S. 60 or I-64 to Virginia Route 155, then turning south and picking up some of the back roads. CAPTION: Picture, GLENN PEACOCK WITH A STRING OF CHICKAHOMINY RIVER BASS. By Gerald A. Almy.; Illustration, no caption, By Zarko Karabatic