California has its grunion, New England has the smelt. But for sheer pre-spring fishing madness, nothing rivals our region's annual yellow perch spawning run.

None of these species can be classified in the "explosive-behavior" range, since all three tend to be small; but there's a special magic about shaking your cabin fever by joining the happy throngs on tidal streams when the yellow perch answer a call of nature that hasn't changed in eons. Right now, somewhere deep in the channels of Maryland's South, Severn, Patuxent, Chester and Wicomico rivers, or in Virginia's Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers -- to name a few -- the perch are massing. They lie in the dark, warm waters, waiting for the temperatures in the rivers' shallow headwaters to rise sufficiently.

When it happens, the reproductive urge takes over. The smaller male perch start the procession, swimming and gliding gently over underwater obstacles to investigate the narrowest creeks and shallow gravel bars for suitable mating areas. Later, the females, the roe perch, follow to spew forth great ribbons of eggs that cling to waterlogged branches like paper streamers at a high-school homecoming dance. The "buck" perch finish the job by fertilizing the eggs with life-giving sprayings of milt.

It's about to happen. Already, some of the diehards in Maryland, the hipboot-and-hot- Thermos set, are busy checking the tidewater creeks for signs of life. Forget the most- always-present chain pickerel and crappie: They're only by-products this time of year. The boys are interested to see if the "yellow neds," as the oldtimers call them, are in.

Since one of my local haunts, the Wicomico River in Charles County, Maryland, is only a short drive away, we can safely pass on the news that yellow perch have been caught in the deep holes of the river, near its junction with the Potomac. Local fishing expert Pete Cissel, best known for his bass exploits but no slouch in any fishing category, predicts that the heavy perch invasion will come in the narrow creeks by March 11. Art Cousins, a fanatic yellow-perch hunter from the nearby suburbs, thinks it will happen much sooner -- with any sort of break in the weather perhaps by the end of February, he says. A lot depends on warming rays of sun. If the shallow waters reach 45 degrees, the run will be under way.

You can use a variety of freshwater gear to catch the golden delicacies, but the all-time favorite is an ultra-light, open-faced spinning reel loaded with four-pound-test line; a 51/2-foot light rod complements the setup. Remember, you'll be after a fish that rarely weighs more than a pound. Sport should be the overriding factor.

When yellow perch are in a feeding mood -- something strongly affected by times of day and proper incoming tides -- live bull minnows or grass shrimp are hard to beat. The baits, gently pierced to smallish hooks with a tiny piece of splitshot lead a foot or so above the bait to give it casting weight, will almost always draw the fish. If tidal currents are too strong, heavier bottom-fishing rigs are advised.

A 1/32-ounce yellow shad dart -- with or without bait -- also can be successful when fished in erratic stop-and-go fashion. Others like flyrods with tiny No. 10 Mickey Finn streamers that flit and slide through various depths, often with astounding success. Either way, I'll take a grass shrimp; you suit yourself.

Whatever you choose, the uniform of the day must include a good pair of polarized sunglasses to let you see down into the water. With these, you can see hordes of perch; without them, you're fishing blind. for them before wetting a line.