Dave Herrera could see the thousands of silver salmon rippling the chill blue waters of Hood Canal that day last fall. It was the kind of rich catch his tribe of Indian fishermen had been waiting for.

"But the state fisheries department wouldn't let us catch them," said Herrera, 25, fisheries manager of the Skokomish tribe. "They said they weren't there." The fish had grown from babies, called fry, who escaped a hatchery during floods, two years before. They weren't logged on the computer and thus had no place in the state's complicated fishing plan.

"You can come down and see them," Herrera told the state officals. But they wouldn't come down. Without state permission, the tribe had to let the salmon continue on their way to spawn in other waters.

Beneficiaries of one of the most significant Indian court victories ever, the Skokomish and 19 other tribes here along the shores and inlets of Puget Sound have begun to wonder just what they have won.

The Supreme Court said they could have half the salmon -- a fish important both to Indian religion and economic well-being -- in Puget Sound. But the complex rules of the federal, state, tribal and international bureaucracies have tangled their nets, and reluctance of banks to lend has beached many of their boats.

Now, a new federal program that would have allowed the Indians to acquire fishing equipment cheaply has been cut from $15 million to $2.5 million, just escaping elimination from the Reagan budget. And, as the effects of the budget cuts trickle down to the Indians, it appears that the cutbacks may make it impossible for the Indians to take advantage of their fish.

"That 2.5 million is nowhere near the amount of money needed to do the job," said Hank Adams, national director of the Survival of American Indians Association.

They almost had a war over the salmon, a prize catch of the Pacific whose flesh is treated like steak in the restaurants of Tokyo and Oslo. The last three decades of extensive fishing and dam construction, logging and chemical dumping near Washington streams, where the fish returns to lay its eggs, have sharply cut its number and made it even more precious.

Washington fishermen netted 86 million pounds of salmon in 1947, and pulled in 60 or 70 million pounds a year in the 1950s. The best year of the 1970s was only 58 million pounds in 1979 and last year they only got 24 million pounds.

Already faced with long trips to Alaskan waters to try to make up for the decline in fishing here, the non-Indian fishermen in Washington state have been enraged by the Indians' success in winning rights to half the briny harvest.

Non-Indian fishermen have hired lawyers, held demonstrations and defiantly fished on nights when only Indians were supposed to be on the water. in 1976 one non-Indian fisherman, Bill Carlson, lost the use of his left arm when shot in the head by a fisheries patrol officer who thought Carlson, fishing illegally, was about to ram his boat.

Today, the non-Indian fishermen, with 2,150 powered gill net and purse seine boats to only 392 for the Indians, are limited to about one day's fishing a week while Indians draw three or four days at least.

"They're not just killing a job, they're killing a complete life style," said Barry Collier, executive manager of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association. "If you've fished a year or two, it gets in your blood," said Collier, 25, who used to crew a purse seine vessel. "I really hate to stay in the office when i see the boats going off. I really want to get out and fish."

Eugene Vitalich's 58-foot purse seine vessel, "The Flamingo," sits idle at Seattle's fishermen's dock. No one operates the powered drum and accompanying equipment that pull in the huge net like the closing of a draw-string purse.

The 39-year-old Vitalich made a fair profit last year, much of it from an Oregon State University research project that needed to collect many fish. Researcher are using someone else this year, and in Vitalich's last day-long run he only caught 150 fish. Even at $1.60 a pound for the big sockeye, or red, salmon, that is not enough to meet the expenses of the boat and a crew of three.

Vitalich said he is resigned to the Boldt decision -- named after the federal judge who ruled in 1974 that the Indians were entitled to half the salmon catch and who was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1979. The decision was based on a 122-year-old treaty in which Indians gave up rights to much of their land in return for the right to fish "in common with" non-Indians.

Vitalich will go to Alaska or seek herring off the coat of California to make his living. His father, Anton, 66, came to Puget Sound from Yugoslavia in 1931, part of a general migration that has left the majority of purse seine boats here in the hands of fishermen of Yugoslav descent.

Vitalich said he likes the idea of the federally funded program to buy boats from non-Indian fishermen and sell them at cheaper rates to Indians. "There are certain people like my old man who would like to get out of the business," Vitalich said.

But the purse seine boats are worth as much as $250,000 now, so the $2.5 million program will not go far. A similar buy-back scheme failed a few years ago when some non-Indian fishermen sold their boats and then bought them back again at the lower prices.

Nick Wilbur Jr., 26, runs the hatchery at the Skokomish reservation and occasionally helps his father take his gill net boat out to snag salmon. He acknowledges that non-Indian fishermen think "the Indians are making a bundle every year," but most of the Indian fishermen he knows make no more than $4,000 to $6,000 a year.

The gill net boats stretch out long, fine-filament nets that are invisible at night and catch the unsuspecting salmon by their gills. Wilbur said the equipment on his father's boat often breaks down and it is difficult for Indians to obtain bank loans to repair or replace it. His father makes most of his living as a logger, a dangerous job. If he stays up too late fishing, and cuts tree the next day when he is not completely alert, "he could get killed pretty easy," Wilbur said.

Fisherman like Vitalich have learned from their own experience, and that of their fathers, the tides and times when the fish can be found. The creatures move with uncanny precision. Depending on the type of salmon, they always return after two, four, five or six years of frolicking and feeding in the ocean. They lay and fertilize their eggs in the same gravel where they were born, and then they die.

As romantic and as skillful as the Puget Sound fish hunt is, economists like Russel L. Barsh of the University of Washington consider it a waste time and gasoline. In the view of Barsh and other environmentalists, the best way to catch the fish is the way the Indians used to do it, just set up traps along the streams to which the fish always return.

Many Indians might like that, said Robert Dumbow, on the staff of the tribal-organized Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. But the idea "terrorizes sports fishermen, and it terrorizes the purse seiners and the gill netters." Far more than the Boldt decision they now suffer under, he said, "it would mean the end of a way of life."