ANNAPOLIS -- Charter fishing boat operators are blaming the continued absence of bluefish from the Chesapeake Bay for one of the worst slumps their business has ever seen.

For years, big blues, which fight like bulldogs, have stayed away. Some speculate pollution or changing migratory patterns are the cause, while some scientists have said bay water has not been cold or salty enough recently.

The vanishing act, combined with a state ban on the rockfish, or striped bass, have made it increasingly difficult for the state's 430 licensed charter captains to reel in business.

"We've never had it like this as long as I've been out here. The damned bottom's fallen out," said Capt. Joseph Magahey, of Rose Haven, who has been guiding fishing excursions for 43 years.

Relief may be in sight, however.

From Oct. 5 through Nov. 9, charter fishermen can catch rockfish, provided the fish are at least 18 inches long. Anglers can keep only five fish. The limits are part of a state plan to combat overharvesting and pollution, which caused stocks to plunge disastrously low.

Captains are skeptical about the future. One possible solution is for the government to allow an earlier season. Catching fish in May instead of October would create momentum that could carry them through the summer, they said.

"We've got to get some relief and start our season off on a good note or people just stay away," said Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association.

A task force is studying the rockfish regulations and is expected to make recommendation to the state Department of Natural Resources by September.

Environmental groups are wary of a May fishery, because the month marks the peek spawning season. Commercial and recreational fishing groups, which also vie for a share of the rockfish fishery, have complained about the fairness of giving charter boaters May while they must fish in the fall and winter.

State Fisheries Director W. Peter Jensen didn't rule out a May season, but he said that the state sold its 1990 limited rockfish plan to coastal regulators by stressing that no harvesting would occur during spawning months. To change it just a year later probably would not sit well with members on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which ultimately would have to approve a May season, Jensen said.

With the partial lifting of the rockfish ban, the state has ended a $1 million-a-year compensation program intended to help commercial watermen and charter boat captains who relied on the rockfish trade.

Until the rockfish debate is settled, most captains are advertising other species.