The tradition around this magnificent lake in the sky is that springtime striped-bass fishing hits its height when the whippoorwills start their mournful chant at dusk.

Dale Wilson, who guides for stripers every night, wasn't having any of that. "We've been getting plenty of action in the late afternoon for the last few days," he said last week. "When the sun goes down, everything quits."

But even the guys who fish everyday can be fooled. We left the dock at 4:30 p.m. By 9, as the sun sunk over emerald ridges that frame the big lake to the west and a siren at the dam sounded nightfall, we had only two stripers in the boat.

No one was complaining. The stripers were beauties, 12 and eight pounds, and along with them we'd picked up two magnificent smallmouth bass, both four pounds, one that released itself, another that was in the boat before we released it.

Now dark was closing fast. Pink, bulbous clouds reflected the last rays of sun over the dam; a beacon flashed from the peak of Smith Mountain. Sharp spring breezes died and it was calm, still, as quiet as a church on a weekday morning.

Wilson was puzzled. After regaling us all day with tales of tremendous striper catches, he was locked in hard times. We cruised gently up a cove near Cedar Key to the purr of the trolling motor, casting eight-ounce bucktails against the shoreline and swimming them back on ultralight gear.

The moon was a quarter of the way up in the east, a silver of silver in the gathering darkness, when we heard them off the point.

"Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will . . ."

Ah, the sweet sound of impending success.

It didn't fail us, although it took its sweet times. It was pitch black before the first strike came. We could hear the gizzard shad breaking water near the shore, racing to escape marauding schools of feeding stripers.

Wilson had us switch from the buck-tails to speed-shad-type lures, narrow silver plugs that sink to the bottom and rattle along as they are retrieved.

He hit the first fish. Line spun from the baitcasting reel on his heavy rig. We couldn't see a thing, but before long came a thrashing in the water and moments later he had the 10-pounder next to the boat. Wilson reached down delicately into the water, latched onto the plug and hoisted the fish aboard.

Before long we were into them hard.

You actually could feel the lure bumping soft striper flesh as you worked it back from shore. But stripers are very selective feeders and sometimes they'd take the plug, sometimes they'd let it glide by.

By 11 o'clock, we'd had enough takes that the live well was loaded with 10 fish and we'd released another half-dozen. They ranged from five pounds to 14.

It is a startling feeling, playing a fish you can't see from a shortline you can't see on tackle you can't see. The deep runners fought the way they are supposed to - fast and violently along the bottom. As often as not, we were hearing the drag on one of our three outfits screeching.

Soon we drew a crowd, and by then the bites started dropping off. Other boats, identifiable only be their running lights, were cruising around us, trolling, casting, taking occasional fish.

For a guy who's spent the last two years futilely chasing stripers on what's supposed to be their natural stomping grounds - the Chesapeake Bay - it seemed too good to be true.

Smith Mountain Lake has a four-striper-per-day limit. The serious angler who works hard will get that and many more to release.

Oddly, 20 years ago this was a medi-ocre fishing ground. Now it may be the best freshwater striper hole in the country.

Before the dam went up 100 miles downstream at Kerr Reservoir, the only fish local people caught in the Staunton River here were catfish, carp, suckers and occasional large-mouth bass.

When they closed the gates on the Kerr dam in the late '50s, stripers suddenly began appearing in the river outside Roanoke. It was surmised that spawning fish had been cut off above the dam and were thriving.

Then, when the Smith Mountain dam was closed in 1966, spawning activity upstream of that barrier was knocked out. The stage began stocking the new Smith Mountain Lake and the rest is happy history.

The fry are hatched and raised at the Brookneal Hatchery 20 miles downstream from the Smith Mountain dam.

Somewhere around a million fry a year are now dumped into the big lake in the mountains. Add to that the success of walleye stocking, the natural populations of smallmouth and largemouth bass, the incredible beauty of the surroundings and you've got a fishing experience not soon to be forgotten.