C. Ashley Smith lives near the mud flats of the Mattawoman Creek in Charles County, Maryland. Each spring, like so many of his neighbors, he waits for the forsythia and the dogwood to bloom, signaling an end to dread winter.

It's about this time that he gives his teen-aged helper, Leo, the afternoon off so they can traipse on down to fish in one of five rock quarries that now serve as private ponds, holding every friend the freshwater fisherman has: pickeral, crappie, bass, sunfish. And Ashley holds the key to these nearly hallowed grounds known as the Mattawoman Rod'n'Gun Club. The club is small, and entry sorely gained: "There are 50 members, and 500 waiting for one of us to die so he can take our place," says Smith with the pride of privilege.

Even so, few know about the exclusive club, probably because it's harder to find than a good rib-joint. But Smith knows a little bit aobut that as well.

To gain access, a friend, such as Smith, has to extend an invitation. Then, a rendevous is arranged so the interloper isn't lost forever on some unmarked country road. Upon arrival, the host navigates past a "no trespassing" sign and unlocks two heavy-gauge link chains, swings open the two gates, and opens wide the prospect of the ponds.

Leo, with his freckled face and bowl-cut hair catching the northern breeze -- an ill wind if there ever was one -- tossed minnows toward water-logged brush and fallen trees. But the fish paid little attention, which was probably the fault of the minnows. Out of two dozen purchased from a local bait shop, only a few were healthy enough to swim without water wings.

Despite the stories of seven-pound bass from these emerald waters, the fishing proved slim. Leo's floating minnows brought home a couple of crappie, and Smith folded a respectable, two-pound pickeral into chomping down on his balsawood rapala. "I just wanted to prove to you guys that there are fish in these ponds."

By late afternoon, the anglers were hungry for food. Smith headed for a ramshackle, roadside eatery. "This is my friend," he said, "is one of the true epicurean delights of Charles County." He was speaking of Fred's barbecued chicken and ribs.

Earlier, Smith had made arrangements for Fred to set aside three dinners with hot sauce and white bread for sopping. When he drove over to pick it up, an angry line of rib eaters watched Smith stroll in and pick up the last available orders. Fred kicked the most irate customer in the pants, and booted him out the front door amid threats galore.

Back at the more peaceful ponds, the anglers devoured their hickory-smoked ribs, which had much more meat on them than the lonely pickerel. Sated, they packed their gear, loaded the canoe and drove off just as a fish splashed loudly along the shoreline.

"The season's early gentlemen," said Smith. "The season's early."