"We caught a ton of trout over at James Island," said the kid with a grin as wide as the Chesapeake Bay. "All of them on bottom rigs and peeler crabs, sittin' still in 30 feet of water." Pardon the youngster's enthusiasm. The fish box aboard the boat did, indeed, show a healthy number of keepers in the two- to three-pound range.

The happy report signals the beginning of autumn and with it, some of the best fishing of the year.

For example: The week has seen huge smallmouth bass taken from Virginia's Rappahannock River; landlocked stripers have been schooling at the surface in Smith Mountain Lake and Lake Anna; bluefish are ripping into anything that looks like food throughout the Chesapeake; and sea trout are increasing daily along the Atlantic inlets of Maryland and Virginia.

Strong winds and a new heat wave could change the outlook, but only briefly. MARYLAND RIVERS AND LAKES POTOMAC RIVER -- Trolled or cast lipped lures result in rockfish in the downtown portions of the river. Upper waters, from Montgomery County to western Maryland, show smallmouth bass -- a few hefty largemouths -- for waders and small-boat users. Catfish aren't the least bit bashful. Just offer something that smells of food. Heavy rains could throw a monkey wrench into the works, however. WSSC RESERVOIRS -- Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge lakes are starting to turn on with more active largemouth bass and scattered pike. Crankbaits, plastic worms and early-morning surface lures draw hits around shallow-water brushpiles and fallen trees that sit near deep dropoffs. If it suddenly warms, switch to 10- to 15-foot depths. DEEP CREEK LAKE -- To prove that cooler weather brings hotter fishing, think about the 7-pound largemouth bass, the 7-pound, 9-ounce walleye, and the 9-pound, 2-ounce northern pike that won last week's Deep Creek fishing tournament. Troll long- lipped lures along the edges of shore dropoffs now and hold on. Brush and grass beds will give up topwater fish early and late. EASTERN SHORE PONDS -- Leonards and Johnson ponds (Salisbury area) have been good for early- morning bass on Lunker lures and broken-back Rebels, as well as plastic worms. Urieville (Route 213) and Unicorn (Route 313) are better for large sunfish and crappies. Recent rains apparently did not affect water conditions. NANTICOKE RIVER -- The Seaford, Delaware, to Sharptown, Maryland, sector has been fine for plastic-wormers and crankbaiters hoping to latch onto keeper bass during outgoing tides. A smattering of striped bass is noted around the Marshyhope Creek junction. CHOPTANK RIVER -- At times the river is alive with fish, starting at the mouth, where sea trout and blues take up station over deep holes. Above Cook's Point a few schoolie stripers are taken on crab baits or trolled bucktails. White perch like evening tides and bloodworms. Farther inland, above Denton, perch, bass, crappies and slowly awakening pickerel make for fun outings. Greensboro and Martinak State Park ramps are popular starting points. SOUTHERN MARYLAND PONDS AND CREEKS -- St. Mary's Lake (Route 5, south of Leonardtown at Camp Cosoma Road) is the place to go for early- morning surface popping. Bass and large sunfish will oblige. Plastic worms or small crankbaits are the thing after the sun gets up. Gilbert Run Park (Route 6, east of LaPlata) offers increasing bass and sunfish chances now. Mattawoman Creek (Route 225 west of LaPLata) pickerel and crappies are stirring. Nanjemoy Creek (Route 425 to Friendship Landing Road) bass and crappies can be found by boaters heading upstream. PATUXENT RIVER -- Late September is a fine time to begin thinking of visits to Town Creek Marina Pier (Route 235 south to Route 4 Bridge light, turn left then left again on Patuxent Beach Road). Evening bluefish and late summer sea trout will take fresh menhaden or spot. And if you bring a long-handled crab net, you could pick up enough floater crabs to make it worthwhile. Long casts with cut baits should also bring bluefish from the Solomons seawall, across the bridge. CHESAPEAKE BAY It starts with James Island, on the eastern side of the bay, a short run across from Calvert Cliffs, where sea trout have been schooling up these past few days. Peeler crab baits in 30-35 feet of water will turn the trick -- if they're still there when you arrive this weekend. Not to worry. There's more. Buoys 50, 52, and 54 also have been fine starting spots for sea trout on peeler-crab slivers. Bluefish trollers, meanwhile, do well nearly everywhere when winds are down. The blues are scattered not only in location, but in size as well. Some run as big as seven pounds, others are barely big enough to keep. The ship-channel ledges at Bay Bridge and some of the rocky piling supports give up a few striped bass on live eels or jigged lures. White perch love bloodworms on the eastern side of the bridge, with some perch also taken from the Sandy Point State Park jetty. Be careful on the rocks, folks. Evenings are a good bet at Point Lookout State Park where surf fishermen can connect on blues and occasional flounder or sea trout. Bring a blanket and a Coleman lantern and stay the night. VIRGINIA RIVERS AND LAKES SHENANDOAH RIVER -- Local rains during the early week probably helped more than hurt. Try for smallmouth bass with spinners or live minnows. Catfish and sunnies are plentiful at any rate. SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE -- More stripers are seen with each passing day, some of them breaking on top during evening hours when they're easy targets for lure-slingers. Trollers and jiggers score fairly often. Bass are stirring and like crankbaits and small jigs along rockwalls. LAKE GASTON -- Jimmy's Creek, Poplar Creek and Hubquarter Creek have been better than others for crankbaiting or plastic-worming. Some of the largemouth bass are trophy size. Landlocked stripers show up on top once in a while. Have one rod with a big short-lipped crankbait ready when it happens. KERR RESERVOIR -- A couple of rockfish in the lunker bracket were taken by trollers out of Clarksville this week. Crappies are turned on to minnows around brushpiles and bridge abutments, with largemouth bass going more for Speed Shad lures and the like. LAKE ANNA -- Striped and largemouth bass chances are good and will get better in the next few weeks. Plastic worms and deep-running Bagley or Rebel lures will attract largemouths along landpoint dropoffs in upper or lower lake. OCCOQUAN RESERVOIR -- More northern pike are starting to fill their gullets in anticipation of the cold season. Throw porkrind-dressed bucktails or long-lipped lures around deepwater brush for pike and bass. RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER -- Fredericksburg's Jimmy Brown tells of smallmouth bass big enough to take to a taxidermist. A number of these bass come from just a few miles upstream of Fredericksburg. Hellgrammites are deadly -- if you turn enough rocks to find them. Minnows and crayfish are second-best, with plastic jigs and small, diving crankbaits also doing well. Lower tidal waters, from Port Royal to Leedstown, offer increased chances for largemouth bass on a variety of lures. CHICKAHOMINY RIVER -- Live minnows will draw hits by bass, stripers and crappies in the upper river toward Walker's Dam. Of course, smoke grubs and plastic worms also turn the trick. The lake by the same name now shows good numbers of bass, crappies and sunfish. BACK BAY -- Bass are waking up and are wild about surface buzzers early and late in the day. If the weather cools again, there'll be dozens of citation fish pulled from all parts of these weedy waters. FARM POND NOTE -- We've received a number of trophy bass reports from Maryland and Virginia private-farm-pond anglers. This is typical for late September. Unfortunately, it doesn't help the readers looking for public waters. But why not drive the back roads and go searching. Always ask for permission, then start throwing shallow-running lures. Now's the time. OCEAN AND INLETS MARYLAND -- The headboats, now going after sea bass, will soon start finding sea trout close to the shores of Ocean City. Some of the big gray trout -- including a 12-pounder last weekend -- are now hooked at the inlet jetty of the resort town. Flounder, most of them small, are willing in the backwater channels and even in the surf on occasion. Surf-caught bluefish are the mainstay of Assateague beach fishermen, while offshore trollers still connect on southward-bound chopper blues when the weather is right. VIRGINIA -- What had been one of the best white marlin seasons in some time for the Virginia Beach fleet will slow to a trickle this week. Ten days ago, one boat out of Rudee Inlet hooked and released 45 whites -- a record if ever there was one. That won't happen again this year, but a few whites remain in the offshore waters. Small flounder and increasing numbers of sea trout are in the Atlantic inlets of Chincoteague and Wachapreague, as well as Oyster. They'll be caught by boaters over the next four weeks. Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel's pilings are showing more sea trout now, but the channel bass of Cape Charles' C-10 buoy are starting to slack up. NORTH CAROLINA -- Up to four-pound bluefish provide surf action around Oregon and Hatteras inlets, with slowly increasing numbers of puppy drum noted at Buxton's South Beach and at Ocracoke Island. Offshore Outer Banks charter boats still find wahoo, dolphin and tuna. Call 919/995-5224 for weather and catch information before undertaking the seven-hour drive.