As with so much else in our data-efficient times, the first step in your opening day of fishing in Maryland begins with a swipe of a magnetic stripe. The state's Department of Natural Resources' recently installed computer system has made buying an angling license far easier than baiting your hook.

What began decades ago as a cumbersome task that filled court clerks' offices with paper-record chaos has been streamlined into a process that takes as long as a stop at an automated teller. And with the rise of chain stores that carry fishing, hunting and boating gear, the dispersal of freshwater and saltwater licenses has turned into a form of government and corporate synergy.

Not long ago I traveled to the Wal-Mart in Bowie to buy a freshwater sportfishing license. After receiving directions from the door-greeter, I took a left and wandered past aisles stuffed with junior dome tents, three-piece chow kits and coolers with rough-tread wheels.

A frill-paper sun wearing tinted glasses smiled benevolently above, swaying from its ceiling string in a ventilated cross-wind. At the end of the aisle, past the sea-casting rods and in front of a row of long-barreled guns locked in glass cases, an employee entered information from my driver's license into the Consumer Oriented Information Network. The DNR's database absorbed the essential facts, my money went into the till and a moment and a signature later I was licensed to fish in the state's nontidal waters the rest of the year.

This transaction, seemingly so simple, is the lifeblood for the DNR's major functions.

"You have a partnership between hunting and fishing shops and [the DNR]," said Bruce Gilmore, the DNR's director of licensing and registration service. "It's a strong link . . . it's a logical thing. One stop and I can get everything."

Last year the state of Maryland sold 435,000 fishing licenses that generated $6 million to $7 million in revenue, Gilmore said. COIN, operational since June 1998, tracks the flow of income from the state's 320 licensing agents and is compiling a data-bank that helps conservation and policing efforts (fishing without a license can earn a fine of $50 and the confiscation of equipment).

"We try to make it as easy as possible to take your money," said Bob Lunsford, the DNR's director of freshwater fisheries. "We do good things with it."

For each dollar, 83 cents goes to fisheries management, the rest to overhead. Trout hatcheries, stocking trucks, the population restoration of striped bass and American hickory shad as well as most of the DNR's salaries are paid for with fees organized by COIN.

The advent of COIN ("We're very proud of that acronym," Gilmore joked. "We made it up ourselves.") was tracked very closely by chain store executives. Although each bonded agent store--including those of Wal-Mart, Sports Authority and Kmart as well as smaller companies--receives a 50-cent handling charge per sold license and does not publicize its role, the volume of nationwide business has produced some interesting numbers.

Gilmore said that Wal-Mart has sold approximately $100 million nationally worth of hunting and fishing licenses a year. "As a percentage of total income it's not much, but it's tantamount to our budget in this department," he added.

Except for the handling charge, the millions generated by boating, hunting and fishing licenses are wire-transferred to state accounts in regular intervals. The stores' main aim is to increase sales of ancillary products such as sonar fish finders, outdoor-themed hardcover cookbooks and multiple-quart foam coolers that are stacked within easy reach. Wal-Mart's sports department manager, Darrell Williams, said he sold 700 tidal and nontidal licenses in May.

"As far back as I can remember the chains . . . use [licenses] as an incentive for coming into the store," Lunsford said. "It's like marinas selling ice . . . chain stores selling licenses is integral to selling sporting goods."

Big-firm efficiency also precludes fund-transfer delays the DNR occasionally encountered with smaller licensing agents that often were not bonded. Of the 22 agents in Prince George's County, 11 are chains: two Wal-Marts, three Sports Authorities and six Kmarts. However, in Maryland's more rural areas the national stores play a lesser role.

Ideally, the revenue flow will maintain the state's fisheries infrastructure as effectively as COIN and the chains take care of customers.

"We've had a lot of people come in and say 'I'm going to go fishing this weekend,' " said Chad Martel of Bowie's Sports Authority. "We'll give him the pole and give him the license and send him on his way."

Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at mullenj@washpost.com

HOW TO GET A FISHING LICENSE

With rare exception, anglers age 16 and older must obtain a license to fish in the state's waters, but buying one is not difficult. Many stores that carry fishing equipment sell tidal and nontidal licenses. For Maryland residents, the cost of a year's fishing license is $19 ($9 for saltwater, $10 for freshwater; each can be bought separately); nonresident anglers pay $34 ($14 for saltwater, $20 for freshwater). Anglers 65 and older are eligible for a $5 Consolidated Senior Resident Sportfishing License (nontidal, trout in nontidal waters and Chesapeake Bay); resident and nonresident blind anglers are required to have a license that has no fee (below right). Five-day freshwater sportfishing licenses are $7, five-day bay sport licenses are $6 and trout stamps are $5.

There are 22 bonded agents in the county; 11 are Kmarts, Wal-Marts or Sports Authorities. Also, the Department of Natural Resources' World Wide Web site (www.dnr.state.md.us/) has a link to an on-line license application that you can print, complete and mail to:

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Licensing and Registration Service

580 Taylor Avenue

Tawes State Office

Building C-1

Annapolis, Md., 21401