At 9 a.m. spirits were soaring. By mid-morning they were sagging. At noon the mood was grim. The hand-painted sign in front of the Dale City community pool touted a "Catfish Rodeo, Sat. 9-4," and the murky water in the L-shaped pool was surrounded by fishermen, young and old.

They used minnows, worms, live salamanders, chicken liver, bacon and smoked salami -- but to no avail.

The catfish were playing hard to get.

"I think they're trying to starve me out," said 11-year-old Dennis O'Brien as he finally reeled in his line to check his "cow liver" bait.

The Prince William County Park Authority, which sponsored the event, boasted that the pool was stocked with 1,000 pounds of choice blue channel catfish -- about 200 of the bewhiskered devils.

As the hours ticked away, the fishermen suspected otherwise.

"Seems pretty strange to me that no one has had a bite," said one middle-aged angler who lounged on the concrete deck. "That would be a good racket though, tell everyone the pool is full of fish, collect $2 a person and then do it again next week."

"I'd like to see them drain the water at the end of the day," he added with a sly grin.

Park officials, however, say the $2 they charged each of the fishermen just paid for the catfish.

They insisted everything was aboveboard -- or rather, underwater.

"I saw them put the fish in myself," said park official Randy Dotson, shaking his head.

Dotson, who appeared slightly bewildered himself by the reclusive catfish, blamed in on the species' well-known moodiness.

"They're really strange, you know," Dotson said. "They'll start biting all of a sudden and go crazy for an hour, then you won't see 'em again. . . ."

By early afternoon, the dearth of fish turned even the youngest fishermen into fish psychologists.

"Is there a northeast wind?" one youngster asked Dotson. "You know, they never bite when there's a northeast wind."

The wind was out of the northwest.

"It's too late in the day," agreed several fourth graders who decided catfish are nocturnal.

"I think it's too cool out for catfish," said one mother somberly as she watched her 6-year-old stare at his sagging line in the brownish water.

"I'll tell you what I think -- I think they were fed this morning," speculated 9-year-old Kathy Henson.

Jeffrey Johnston was clearly disgusted by his lack of luck.

"I think they're all dead," said 10-year-old Jeffrey, casting his line in again, nonetheless.

Indeed, a flurry broke out when a 7-year-old girl reeled in a small -- and lifeless -- fish.

"Gross," said the youngster, realizing she had snagged a dead one.

As the day melted away, so did the dreams of a catfish dinner.

"I even when out and bought some cornmeal this morning," moaned one father whose three children had deserted their fishing poles to run laps around the pool.

Two trophies, set enticingly by the entrance gate (one for the biggest and one for the smallest fish), seemed to tarnish. Four hours into the rodeo, only two fish had been caught -- and those in the wading pool where the two inhabitants had been clearly visible.

But several of the seasoned fishermen in the crowd said they were prepared to stay until 4 o'clock.

"You gotta be patient to catch fish," 10-year-old Matthew Lynn said knowingly.

"They gotta eat sometime," added his 12-year-old cousin, Joseph Carrigan.

But the catfish continued to snub the fishermen.

"I don't know what's wrong," shrugged Bob McCalley, who had dropped his line next to his son Robby's.

"I've never been fishing in a swimming pool before.

Two prizes were awarded Saturday. The award for the biggest fish went to David Stevens Jr. for a 5 1/2 pound catch. The prize for the smallest fish went to Bruce Peacock for a quarter-pounder.

The park authority announced there will be another catfish rodeo this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Officials promise not to feed the fish all week.