This is the year the District was to enter the modern age of resource management by requiring fishing licenses of the 90,000 anglers a year who test their luck in the city's fish-rich stretches of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

But when Jan. 1 rolled around and the regulation took effect, nobody could find a D.C. fishing license anywhere, apparently because no one had ordered them in time. Officials at the Housing and Environmental Regulations Administration could not say when the $5 documents might appear, or where they would be sold when they did turn up.

Yesterday, with still no licenses in hand and no place lined up to sell them, Administrator Benjamin Johnson put the issue to rest until next year.

Johnson said he found "a lot of unanswered questions" in investigating the license situation, and his worries were compounded when the top man in his fisheries department, biologist Jack Buckley, left two weeks ago to take a job in Massachusetts.

Johnson said that after an "exit interview" with Buckley, one of 10 District fisheries biologists, he realized the licensing process was in disarray, "and as an administrator, that's not how I run things." So he issued a stop order on the printing. "If you're going to launch something, do it right," Johnson said. "The D.C. government gets enough black eyes as it is."

Although few fishermen are likely to protest a year's grace in paying a new fee, Johnson's decision left at least one veteran river angler grumbling. "It's unfortunate," said Dick Blalock, president of the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "Here we had for the first time a forward-looking plan to enhance fishing, and for some reason the administration broke down."

Blalock said he supported the plan on grounds that "a license is a gesture of respect for limits and regulations, and the booklet that comes with it would tell people what the laws are. "What {a license} says is, it's not just an open river where you can go in and savage the resource. It serves as an educational process, which is why I backed it."

The District last year instituted creel limits and size regulations on certain fish species caught here, most notably rockfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, shad and walleye. But without a license or designated policing agency, the rules largely have gone unenforced.

The District has been studying the fish in the fertile Potomac for about four years, and by instituting creel limits and regulations it became eligible for federal funds for fish restoration and enhancement projects. Last year, the city spent about $550,000 on fisheries management, of which more than $400,000 was in federal funds.