Thousands of anglers descended on the Chesapeake Bay yesterday for the end of Maryland's abbreviated rockfish season, undeterred by crowded waters, bait that was scarce and priced unusually high, and fish that often weren't biting.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials estimated the crowds yesterday to rival those that took part in the fishing when the season, the first in five years, began a little more than a week ago. Officials said 75,000 fished in the bay during the three-day Columbus Day weekend that followed. There are about 200,000 licensed fishermen in the state.

Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather yesterday, many launched their boats from Sandy Point State Park near the western end of the Bay Bridge. From there they headed out to the large concrete bases of the bridge, a popular rockfish feeding ground.

About 300 boats bobbed around the piers, far more than the 60 that usually fish there, said Melissa Buttion, a State Police officer for the Department of Natural Resources.

Other anglers fished around the bay's lighthouses and oyster beds.

Contending that the catch from the first several days threatened the supply of fish, state officials last week announced an abrupt end to what was supposed to be a five-week season, saying no rockfish could be caught after 8 p.m. yesterday. That was too quick for Dave Howell, 21, of Crofton, who was having a difficult time finding bait.

"I fully support what the state is trying to do, but give me a chance. I want a chance to catch one fish," Howell said.

Howell said he was looking for eels, a prime bait for rockfish, but most nearby stores had run out.

At nearby Angler's sporting goods, salesman Rob Jepsen said the store ran out of eels within 24 hours of the start of the season, and that was after the price rose from 65 cents an eel to $1.50.

"I never saw anything like it. These people are pushing their grandmothers out of the way for this bait," he said.

Howell said Jepsen was exaggerating: "I wouldn't push my grandmother out of the way -- but my sister better watch out."

John Crawford and his party of four had eels, and they had caught three rockfish by about 1 p.m.

"We've had people asking to buy our bait all day," Crawford said as he bobbed in a boat near the base of a Chesapeake Bay Bridge pier.

Sport fishermen were permitted under the rules governing the season to catch 318,750 pounds, or 42.5 percent of the total 750,000-pound catch.

The remainder of the catch was divided between charter boats and commercial fishermen.

Anglers were each allowed to catch two fish a day, and the fish had to be between 18 and 36 inches. Fish less than 18 inches are considered too young to have spawned, Buttion said, and the 36-inch limit was intended to protect female rockfish, or striped bass, which tend to be the larger of the species. Penalties for exceeding any of the restrictions range up to $1,500 per fish.

Yesterday's end of the sport fishing season after only 10 days upset anglers, who wondered why fishing was allowed at all if the stock could be depleted so easily.

"It was just a big political ploy by Gov. {William Donald} Schaefer," said Henry Swanke, of Baltimore. "They should have stopped fishing for another year so there would be enough fish in the water that we wouldn't have such a short season."

Some anglers also complained about the state's decision to allow the charter fishing season for rockfish to remain open, as well as plans to proceed with a commercial fishing season for rockfish later this year.

"I pay more in taxes and tackle than they do," complained Crawford, of Baltimore County.

Maryland natural resource officials said political considerations had nothing to do with opening the season.

"The decision was made based on the resource," said spokeswoman Barbara McCloud. "A lot of fishermen had been complaining about the moratorium because they said they could see lots of rock in the water."

Most anglers interviewed yesterday did not mind that the season was being cut short. They were more interested in landing a fish that they said was good to eat and a challenge to catch.

"I'm out here because I have the itch," said Greg Vermillion, 30, of Lothian.

Anglers came from far and wide to take part in the last day of the season. Roy Bauerlin, 40, drove to the bay from Westminster, in Carroll County. Frank Smith came from York, Pa.