Yellow perch are so small that only with the lightest of featherweight tackle do they bend the rod. Trophies weigh a mere pound and average specimens less than half that.

But in spite of this, the yellow perch runs -- due to start any day now -- now -- are welcomed by thousands of area anglers with the same ardor a sailor displays when meeting his wife after a long stretch at sea. s

Days before any sane sportsperson could expect the perch to arrive in the freshwater heads of Maryland's tidal creeks, you'll find these anglers milling about on the South, the Chester, the Corsica. Staring blankly in dismay dismay that the perch haven't arrived, or with eyes gleaming in anticipation, the anglers stroll about and talk of perch runs past, check water temperatures and make a tentative cast or two.

But what's the attraction for such punny quarry?

Numbers are part of it. The spawning, three- to five-year-old perch ascend the creeks in droves, clogging tiny tributaries with their milt- and roe-filled bodies. Waist-high stringers and buckets brimful of perch are not uncommon when you hit the runs just right.

Beauty is also there. Bold black bars splash symmertically down golden-yellow flanks, and the clean, flowing form of the perch is much like that of its close cousin, the walleye.

Gastronomically, perch is a winner. Having spent the bulk of its life in the salt water of the Chesapeake, perch has the firm texture and rich flavor that typifies fish taken from the brine, not mushy consistency and bland flavor so common among freshwater gamefish. Though the fish are tiny, most perch fans fillet their catch, broiling, poaching or deep-frying the resulting morsels for a mouth-watering treat.

Acessibility is another prime reason for the perch's popularity. Many of the best streams are less than an hour's drive from Washington and Baltimore and mere minutes from Annapolis.

Once you arrive at the water, the perch are easy to get.Simply drive up, step out of the car, and start fishing. No long boat rides, pre-dawn starts nor grueling hikes through thickets are required, which makes the perch great targets for family outings.

But while all of these qualities contribute to the deep-rooted appeal of perch, the most important factor is simply that they are first. Like lusty turkeys gobbling from the hillsides and redbuds splashing color on the gray winter forest, the perch run is a sign of spring's imminent arrival. It's a harbinger of better things to come, weather-wise and angling-wise.

Rather than sputtering and cranking into gear, the runs of perch thrust angling back upon us with fury and intensity. Catches of dozens of feisty, albeit small, fish come in on good days astream.

After the long, cold and mostly fishless winter, no matter that the perch weigh only five or six ounces. The consistency of sport they offer and its timing -- when our patience has just about had enough of this winter business -- more than compensate.

Pete Cissel, longtime perch fanatic from New Carrollton, says you can ususally expect the black-barred fish to arrive during the first week or two of March.

For the perch, however, things began much earlier when they started congregating near the mouths of feeder rivers of the Chesapeake, waiting for the crucial lengthening of days and rise in water temperature to the 45 degrees to 50 degrees f. mark that will trigger their surge into the cramped headwaters for spawning. A soft, warm rain when temperatures get close is often the final boost that will spur them onward, as is the case with shad, salmon and other anadromous fish.

The arrival of the quater-pound to half-pound bucks signals the onslaught of the runs. Within a few days, females join them and spawning takes place at night near roots and submerged brush piles. Long, knurled ribbons of eggs are draped over underwater branches and then fertilized with milt from the males.

Since the perch will remain in these 10- to 15-feet-wide headwaters only for 10 to 14 days, time your fishing trips right. As a rule, the second and third weeks of March are the most consistent, but conditions vary from year to year. Call the numbers listed below before venturing out if you have much of a drive to the water.

Bait fishing is a polular method for perch, with grass shrimp, live minnows and garden worms all taking their share. Use a No. 6 or 8 hook and a tiny cork to keep the bait a foot or so off the bottom. Drift the offering through deep holes and eddies and near shoreline brushpiles. Concentrate on the deepest side of the creek and keep the bait within a foot or so of shore for the most action.

Among lure tossers, the No Names and Wee Willie spoons are favorites. Rig these beneath a bobber and work them with a fast, jerking retrieve, chugging the bobbler across the surface.

Cissel uses the ultralight spinning gear and four-pound line favored by most perch anglers, but over the years he's found that nothing will take these fish quite like size 10 or 12 Mickey Finn streamer fished with a bit of wrap-on lead a few inches above the fly.

With polarized sunglasses, Cissel tries to sight fish before even dropping his hook in the water. When they're in thick on the upper waters of the South, near Crofton, where he does most of his perch fishing, they aren't hard to see.

When he locates a pack, Cissel dangles the red and yellow streamer in front of the fish and jigs the offering up and down, slowly and tantalizingly. The result is usually an angered, slashing strike and a frisky perch on the line.

My perching technique is similar to Cissel's but I prefer a fly rod for the increased reach the long pole offers. I use a simple No. 8 or 10 orange-bodied fly with a white marabou wing to take good numbers of the spawners on the Wicomico, Wye and Corsica rivers. You can't always see the perch in these rivers, but jiggling the fly in likely looking pools often produces electric strikes from the sassy perch.

Noon and evening are top times for perch. Where there is tidal movement, a rising flow is often best.

Listed below are a few popular perch spots. Many other rivers have good runs, however, if you're willing to explore and anxious to escape the crowds that often congregate along easily accessible spots.