They had to draw the line somewhere and it's probably fitting that they drew it right through the middle of Irving Crouch's stake nets.

Crouch is the dean of Maryland commercial fishmen. He first set net in 1913. In 1917 he went into it full time. For 60 years he set stake nets in the spring, pound (impoundment) nets in the summer and drift nets in the winter. He lived on his boat for weeks at a stretch as he and his crew followed the fish.

It is spring again and Crouch, one month shy of his 79th birthday, is working the waters north of Baltimore, setting his ambush fir the annual invasion of spawning rockfish.

This year there's a difference. Come May 5 half of Crouch's nets will be taken out of sommission. For 61 years he's set the same strings over the same territory. This year the state Department of Natural Resources has drawn a line, and after May 5 any rockfish nets north of that line will be shut down. The line splits Crouch's traditional territory in half.

Crouch is a law-abiding man and he-ll live with the law. He was there at a meeting 50 years ago when the state changes the maximum legal size for rockfish from 20 pounds to 15. "I think that was the best conservation move that's ever been set forth." he said. "I've always been for conservation."

But he is throughly unimpressed with DNR's latest attempt at conservation.

"The problem isn't that we don't have spawning fish," he said. "The problem is that the eggs aren't hatching or they're not surviving after they do hatch. Closing the fishing isn't going to change that."

Crounch estimates that the closure will deny him a third of the fish he normally takes. It's a sacrifice he thought it would do any good. But, he says, "What they're doing won't amount to a pinch of snuff."

Thursday showed why.

Crouch and his crew of three left Worton Creek on the Eastern Shore at 5 a.m. Their 52-foot workboat was loaded down with eight tons of stakes to set. Off the stern two skiffs bobbed in the wake. The first darts of orange-gold sunlight pierced a low bank of rain clouds.

By 6 they were at their established nets and Crouch sent the crew off in the skiffs. He followed his top man, Roy Squares, as Squares fished one of the 1,350-foot stake lines.

Squares hadn't worked more than 30 yards of net before the first big fish appeared, a female rockfish loaded with roe.

"Oversize," said Crouch from 100 yards away. Squares didn't even measure the fish. He dumped it back into the water.

Through the course of the day Crouch's crew hauled in and kept 250 pounds of rockfish that were below the legal maximum size of 32 inches.They threw back another 750 pounds because the fish were longer than32 inches. All but two of the biggest fish were females heavy with eggs.

"Now you see," said Crouch, "we've got plenty of spawning fish."

The problem, as Crouch sees it, is that the water quality is changing. More and more farmers are using strong weed killers that wash off into the Bay. Sewage treatment plants spill chlorine. For one reason or another, rockfish fry are not surviving.

"They've got to concentrate on that," he said.

Crouch has seen lean years before. He remembers as stretch in the '30s when rockfish were far scarcer than they are today. One year he caught one rock, total. Then there came a big hatch and it was boom time again.

But the captain is less than optimistic about the current decline.

He has watched croaker, spot and trout all but disappear from the upper reaches of the Chesapeake. He had seen American shad drop in recent years to practically nothing.

The only thing he is catching a lot of these days is white Perch and hugh carp. You can't make a living off them.