MARK ALLEN of Alexandria has discovered a sure-fire way of catching big fish: Be totally unprepared to catch anything.

Last Saturday we went with Allen to Burke Lake to do a little passive fishing. That means we hooked up some minnows and let them fish themselves while we sat in a rowboat, stared out at the water and every now and then said things like, "Boy, sure is nice here," "Wow, look at that duck" and, mostly, "Well, lost another minnow."

Fishing is what you make of it. You can wear yourself out, or it can be the next best thing to sleep. Lie back, close your eyes, pretend the fish will somehow get on your hook . . . . That's how we felt Saturday.

In fact, we were in such a hurry to race out and get some rest, it was a miracle we remembered to bring along fishing rods.

Other things we did forget. It rained -- no rain gear. Sun came out -- no suntan lotion, no hats. It got hot -- no beer. We got hungry -- no food.

We were sitting ducks for something we couldn't handle.

Allen's pole suddenly bent in two. He cranked and pulled, line hissed off his reel. This tug of war went on for a good five minutes, and the fish still hadn't broken the surface.

Then a shadow passed by just under the surface.

Oh no.

A monster . . . catfish.

Naturally we had no net to get it on board.

"You fellas need any help?"

Two fishermen boated by, equipped to the teeth. They handed us a net. When we got the cat on board, they passed us some pliers to help get the hook out.

Luckily for the fish, we had no cooler to transport the thing home. "I don't really want it flopping around in my trunk," Allen said.

We decided to turn it loose. But first we took it to the weigh station at the lake.

And that's the clincher of this story.

The catfish was 93/4 pounds -- just a quarter of a pound shy of a citation.

So when you go fishing, remember: Be prepared. But if you really want to catch a big one, don't be. WHAT'S THE CATCH? D.C. AND VICINITY

Fishing for rockfish in the Potomac has gone from good to better, according to Jose Calvino of Shepherd's Live Bait and Tackle in Alexandria. That's good news for rockfish fans, bad news for those who are worried about the future of the endangered striped bass.

Calvino says he knows of one Potomac fisherman who caught 27 rockfish one morning this week and then went back in the evening and caught 32, "and of course released all of them, except for a few."

Why is the rockfishing (unfortunately) so good now? Two reasons, Calvino says.

Because of the springtime rockfish ban in the lower Potomac, there were no commercial fishing nets blocking the migration of rockfish upriver. So more rockfish than usual moved into the District section of the Potomac, where rockfishing is not controlled.

And, second, the hydrilla in the Potomac has contributed to the health of the river, Calvino says. "It's helping a lot."

"Sure, it's no help to the fisherman on the shore who's without a boat, but it's keeping down the runoff and it harbors baitfish," Calvino says.

Calvino says one of his friends who fishes for bass off Belle Haven in Alexandria says the fishing this year has never been better. The Belle Haven area is a hydrilla haven.

Ray Fletcher of Fletcher's Boat House says he knows of "a few guys catching a few big rockfish right now." He says he doesn't want to give the impression that if you go fishing for rockfish you're guaranteed to catch a lot of them. Fletcher says he knows of one fisherman who caught a 91/2-s week. But that's a possibility, not the norm, if you go out on the river, Fletcher says. Rockfishing is "nice, but isolated," he says.

Overall, the fishing in the Potomac is "a little better than last week. The rain put some current in the river," Fletcher says. You can expect to catch plenty of bluegill and catfish near Fletcher's, and just upriver, at the base of Little Falls, a few largemouth are being caught -- "surprisingly," Fletcher says.

Calvino reports good bass activity right now in the Duck Pond, or Roaches Run, near National Airport, "but nothing big -- every now and then a three- mostly two or three pounds." MARYLAND

LOWER POTOMAC -- A few small blues have begun appearing in this part of the river, according to Jack Yates of Capt. John's Crab House and Marina at Cobb Island. "They are running real late this year. Usually they are here by mid-June," Yates says. Blues around a foot long are being caught by anglers bottom-fishing with bloodworms as bait, he says.

Yates also says the fishing is pretty good for white perch and spot.

UPPER POTOMAC -- "The rains muddied things up. Some guys tried to fish and did okay, but nothing real great," says Rob Gilford of The Rod Rack in Frederick.

FARM PONDS -- They're in excellent condition, Gilford reports: "You can see big fish all along the banks. They are biting real good on plastic worms and spinner baits."

Gilford says one customer had fantastic luck on a lake that the customer would identify only by the pseudonym of "Lake Lulu." "He caught the limit of legal-sized bass on plastic worms," Gilford says, "but he must have deep- holed his partner, because he caught nothing."

Deep-holed?

"Yeah, that's when you find a hot spot and keep the boat positioned so only you can cast to it and your partner can't." He gets to fish the deep hole, you get the hot spot.

This fishing business gets trickier every day. VIRGINIA

LAKE -- "We've had a few nice fish ," says Greg Meeks of Sturgeon Creek Marina as he flips through a stack of recent photos of happy fishermen posing with their unhappy catches.

Meeks lists a few of them: a 7-pound, 2-ounce largemouth; 4-pound, 11-ounce largemouth; 13-pound, 3-ounce catfish; 6-pound bass; 10-pound striper; 4-pound, 8-ounce largemouth.

In other words, "things are picking up," Meeks says.

Are the summer doldrums over?

"I'd say so," he says.

Catfishing is good, crappie fishing is "excellent" and stripers are "picking up," he says. As for the largemouth, the bigger bass are being caught by "scraping the bottom with spinnerbaits," Meeks says. Plastic worms are working well, too.

Just about the only thing that's bad right now is the weekend, Meeks says: "There are a lot of boats on the weekend. If you really want to do any fishing, in my opinion, come out during the week.

After Labor Day weekend, "the water skiiers should be staying away, but right now, you'll see more skiers than anything."

RAPPAHANNOCK -- "The smallmouth are hitting real well upriver," says Karl Gentry of Chesley's Tackle Shop in Fredericksburg. "Big, live minnows" are working best on the smallmouth, he says.

Downriver, in the tidal waters, the largemouth, in the two-erked up, Gentry says. "Some big, strong" catfish are being caught downriver, too, he says. CHESAPEAKE BAY

ANNAPOLIS -- "The fishing is about the same as last week. Small bluefish are being caught in good numbers on the Eastern Shore, and some are being caught around Hackett and Thomas points," says Marv Walls of Angler's. For best results, Walls recommends trolling small- diameter surgical hose near the bottom in shallow water of between 10 and 15 feet.

Good catches of white perch are being reported near the mouth of the Magothy River over oyster bars and near the wrecks, Walls said. Use peeler crabs, grass shrimp or bloodworms for bait.

HOOPER ISLAND -- Some trout and bluefish are being caught in 70 to 90 feet of water near the Hooper Island light, says Dave Watson of Dave's Sport Shop in Quantico.

Watson also reports that some hardheads and small blues are being caught near the mouth of the Nanticoke River. And we can personally report that there were plenty of toad fish and at least one trout in the Honga River last week, but not much else.

POINT LOOKOUT -- Surfcasters off the causeway are keeping the fish-weighers at Sister's Place "busy as bees," says proprietor Pat Raley.

"They are catching a lot of bluefish and one man just caught a 43-pound red drum (channel bass). They are also catching some flounder, but small ones, and some medium- sized trout. And there is an abundance of crabs," Raley says.

The most popular bait with the surfcasters is peeler crabs, she says.

SOLOMONS ISLAND -- Across the Bay from Hooper Island, bluefish are the big attraction. Snapper blues have been hitting small surgical hose trolled deep in 30 to 40 feet of water at the mouth of the Patuxent River, north in the Bay to Little Cove Point and south in front of the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center.

Surface trollers haven't been having much luck.

Up the Patuxent, some anglers have caught plenty of white perch near markers 21 and 22, south of the Benedict Bridge.

CAPE CHARLES -- "Plenty of croakers and spot, a few trout and a few flounders" are being caught from the sunken concrete ships at Kiptopeake up to Cape Charles, according to Capt. Don Stiles of the Kings Creek Marina.

There are no bluefish around, Stiles says, but a few cobia have been sighted and about 15 have been caught so far this year. The biggest weighed 58 pounds, he says. And the red drum run should begin by mid-August, Stiles says. ATLANTIC OCEAN

OCEAN CITY -- Pier fishermen can expect to catch mostly flounder and blues and maybe a kingfish, says April Detig of the Ocean City Fishing Pier. Use shiners and squid to catch the flounder ("from keeping size -- 12 inches -- to 21/2 to 4 pounds," Detig says) and blues ("two to three pounds," she says). The kingfish -- in the three- quarter to a pound range -- are being caught with bloodworms. "There are not too many kingfish," Detig says. "They've slacked off a bit."

You can rent fishing equipment at the pier for $6.50 or $7.50, depending on the deal, Detig says. That includes bait, she says.

For those who want to get farther out into the ocean than the end of a fishing pier, you might try one of the headboats at Ocean City. They're catching "pan-sized" trout, flounder and two-d "some days we get into the blues," says Bea Cole of "The Capt. Bunting" headboat. The headboats bottom-fish and drift-fish, Cole says.

And for those of you who want to go even farther out into the Atlantic -- for the big fish -- there's still time to register for the 12th annual White Marlin Open August 16 to 22 at Ocean City. It is said to be the largest billfish tournament on the East Coast and offers $35,000 in cash prizes for catches of white and blue marlin, wahoo, tuna, dolphin and shark. For information, call 301/289-9229 or 301/289-7991.