It's a fish tale recounted dozens of times each session by members of the Virginia General Assembly.

They tell you the one about the fisherman who pulls a glistening shad from the cool waters of a Virginia stream.

"Lie still little fish, I'm not going to hurt you," coos the fisherman. "All I'm going to do is cut your innards out so the rest of you can be eaten." And when he is finished picking apart the bones, the creature no longer resembles a fish. It has been a victim of The Shad Treatment.

The story is usually told just before a legislator administers the same treatment to some hapless colleague's bill. Sometimes there is no warning, just a quick flick of the legislative knife, leaving observers in the audience to murmur knowingly.

"They'll tell you: 'It's a good bill. We want to help your bill,' " said Del. Clifton A. Woodrum, a Democrat from Roanoke, who's been watching the tradition for six sessions. "They say: 'We just want to reform the language. Make it tighter and nicer.' "

"In another place it would be called euthanasia," added Woodrum. "Here, it's called The Shad Treatment."

Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, a Democrat from Arlington, can tell you about The Treatment. He watched helplessly this week as the Senate carved an important provision out of his bill to give the physically and mentally disabled new protections against discrimination .

The Senate approved the bill unanimously, but not before it cut out one major group -- the chronically mentally ill -- and shipped it back to the House, which must decide whether to accept the changes.

"It was gutted and passed," said Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) after the tally flashed on the Senate's new electronic voting board. "It passed with not a dissenting vote. That'll tell you what happened to it."

It got The Shad Treatment.

Del. C. Jefferson Stafford, a Republican from southwest Virginia, also can tell you about The Treatment. He watched despondently last week as a Senate committee dissected his proposal to bar men who don't register for the draft from attending state colleges. What remained was barely a shadow of his original bill.

"What have I got left?" moaned Stafford.

He got The Shad Treatment.

But Stafford said he had been warned. One member of the committee "told me he thought it was a dumb bill," said Stafford.

The Senate this week approved the stripped version that denies state student financial aid to men convicted of failing to register for the draft, a far cry from the much broader proposal Stafford had pushed. Stafford's bill, too, must go back to the House, where the delegate said he will attempt to restore the legislation.

So the tradition goes. "It's a story as old as legislation itself," said Woodrum.

For a legislature that has been meeting since 1619 and prides itself as being the "oldest continuous body of representative government in the new world," traditions die hard.

And as if to preserve the reverence for The Treatment, legislators and politicians throughout the Old Dominion return to the roots of the fish tale every spring when they gather in the tiny rural town of Wakefield in southeast Virginia for The Shad Planking.

Here the real thing is nailed to a plank and cooked over an open pit until it is roasted to perfection and ready for The Real Treatment.

The boney fish is picked apart piece by piece and eaten, providing the fuel to refresh memories of the tale for the next legislative session.