MANY ANGLERS are asking when the striped-bass moratorium will be lifted. They say they're catching them like gangbusters and it hurts like hell to toss 'em back.

With so many stripers around the crisis must be over, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. What we're seeing is just the first signs of a possibly recovering fishery.

Before the moratorium can be lifted the young-of-year index must average at least 8 for three consecutive years. This means an average of eight juvenile stripers must be taken on each haul of the survey seine. We haven't seen anything close to that number since 1982. The 1987 index of 4.8 was slightly improved over last year's 4.1; in 1985 the index was a scary 2.9.

It's still a striped-bass desert in the upper bay, which traditionally produced 30 or more percent of the total spawn. There was essentially none north of Pooles Island and in the C&D Canal: The index was 0.3, just three fish for every 10 hauls.

One bright spot was the Choptank River, which for several years hasn't produced but this past season averaged 12.1 fish per haul. The recently barren Nanticoke came up 2.5, and the Potomac index was 6.4.

So keep tossing those stripers back; Mother Nature hasn't got any to spare.