If winter indeed is passing, and to this observer's eyes last week's signs are all to that end, then it's time to think fishing again.

Down at the Rod 'n Reel in Chesapeake Beach the skippers are rushing the season. They'd like to forget last year's miseries, when the bottom dropped out at the height of the season with the bluefish health scare.

Rod 'n Reel has fishing clinics slated for the next four Fridays in its big dining rooms overlooking the bay. The sessions start at 8 p.m. and feature guest speakers and captains from the 30-boat charter fleet addressing the issues by bay angling. It's free and open to the public.

It's also a panacea to the skippers, who trudge dutifully to the docks each day to check their graceful, icebound wooden vessels and then sit around over coffee, mourning the day they first heard the word Kepone.

"To tell you the truth we don't like to even mention it," said Rod 'n Reel manager Gerald Donovan. "We don't like to read about it in the papers or hear about it on the radio. We just wish everyone could forget about it and we'd get back to business."

His clinic programs mirror that view. There will be talks on line-rigging, finding fish with birds, migration, using the depth-finder, live baits, speed of lures, trends and predictions and other subjects. But not a word on Kepone.

It's hard not to sumpathize with Donovan. He's in the business of sport fishing, and in the central and northern bay that means bluefishing a good part of the time. There just isn't the diversity of fish to keep the chartermen afloat if the people shun blues.

And to my seat-of-the-pants reasoning the health scare doesn't make sense - at least not in Maryland. Who can forget the news photos from the Hopewell, Va., plant whose indiscretions led to the whole brouhaha? Workmen in that plant lived in a dust cloud of Kepone for months on end. They breathed, ate and coated themselves with the foul stuff. And eventually they became sick.

That much of anything - even confectioner's sugar - could topple a bull, it seems to me.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set "action" limits on Kepone and Maryland and Virginia officials are dutifully checking fish to make sure those levels aren't broached.

The EPA's limit to finfish is one-tenth of a part per million. In the year since the existence of Kepone waste was discovered in the James River at Hopewell, only one fish taken from Maryland waters of the bay - a blue - was found to exceed that limit, according to Jon Crosby of the Maryland Environmental Health Administration.

Crosby said the EPA limit has a study safety factor built in, so that the likelihood of danger to health from eating moderate amounts of bluefish even if they exceeded the limits would be practically nil.

The state has never issued a health advisory about Kepone danger from blues or any other bay fish. "We never told people not to eat bluefish. We couldn't tell them they should eat it, but we didn't tell them not to," Crosby said.

But the word was out and the summer scare was on.

"It just knocked us out," said charter boat skipper Mike Sullivan. "A lot of folks just flat wouldn't come. The ones that did would tell you, 'Anything but blues.'

"Parties would rather go out for a whole day and come back with two or three rock than 100 blues. I'd go right through a school of breaking blues to go after the rock."

The problem is that blues are the summer sport fish. Rock run in spring and fall but are scarce as icicles in the dead of summer.

"We got lucky for a couple of weeks with a run of sea trout," said Sullivan. "But up here we don't have that wide range of fish. Down south they can go out for flounder or croaker or spot if they don't want blues. Here it's just about the blues and rock, and when the rock leave it's blues."

Now the skippers wonder where it all will lead this year. According to Crosby, "Maryland's position is unchanged. It won't change until the source" - the tons of discarded Kepone lying at the bottom of the James - is removed."

"All we can do is keep sampling and make sure the levels remain below the federal action levels," Crosby said.

Maryland's diligence is laudable; its findings are reassuring. Its sport fishing future now is in the hands of the sport fishermen.

I, for one, look forward eagerly to that first run of vicious, fighting blues, and to the first plateful of tangy bluefish filet.

John Wessel, scientific coordinator for the Food and Drug Administration who is a specialist on Kepone, lends support.

"We would never advise anyone to discontinue occassional sport fishing and the consumption of fish, even in the southern bay," he said. "What concerns us is the guy who goes out and fishes all summer and stockpiles his freezer."

Dr. Jack Blanchard, head of EPA's Kepone task force, offers one more mitigating fact. If you're wary but still want to fish, think about going early - in June or July for blues.

"Earlier is safer," said Blanchard, because the longer the fish are in the bay the more chance they have to pick up traces of the poison.

"Early in the season, the odds are they will not have Kepone residues," Blanchard said.