Even since I found out what a red drum was and how hard it was to catch, I haven't even come close to one.

There was a time when in ignorance I could have caught them all day.It was a few years back at Flamingo on the Florida Bay. There were fishermen there who specialized in snook and tarpoon and even bonefish, which they caught across the bay on the flats of the Keys.

I was fishing with a guy named Lud Johnson, who was tearing himself up trying to find some tarpon.We hunted from dawn to dusk, poling through the alligator-laden swamps of this lower Everglades and streaking across the big, clear inland lakes in his overpowered skiff.

In three days we found one school and I managed to land one small tarpon. But we kept at it because, as Lud kept reminding me, the alternative was to go for "redfish," and anybody could catch them.

Johnson said redfish were good to eat but hardly respectable as game fish. They were bottom-feeders and the locals went after them when they needed a good meal. Sort of a catfish of the sea.

But by the third day we were so tired of chasing around after nonexistent tarpon we decided to take a halfday break and load up on these redfish. Johnson piloted us to shallow waters over an oyster bar and we cast live shrimp over the bottom. Before long we had a fine stringer of five-pounders.

It took me a year to figure out we'd been loading up on red drum, prized trophy fish here in the mid-Atlantic. And of course I haven't caught one since or even seen one caught.

Which is not to say I haven't tried. I've stood on the beach at Assateague and watched the fall sky turn to gold and then black, waiting for a knock on the cut mullet bait I'd tossed far into the surf.

I've stood all night on the point at Cape Hatteras in November, feeling the rip sweep around my waders. I've sat under the stars in Ocracoke Inlet and waited for a bump in the night.

A bump that never came.

Last week a couple of fishing companions and I tried again. This time we were hoping to take advantage of the height of red drum season on the Chesapeake Bay.

The impetus for our bay trip on was a letter from a reader, R. G. Picard, who told of a phenomenal development he had witnessed. He was fishing for drum and sea trout with Capt. Taft Tippet near Point Lookout last month when the skipper landed two 40-pound red drum on the same rod.

Tippett was "fishing a double rig," Picard wrote, "with a red hose on the top and a yellow bucktail on the lower leader," Picard added that "Capt. Tippett is the only one I know who can fish for red drum while trolling. He can follow their (oil) slicks like a bird dog setting quail. . . ."

Enough said. I was on the phone with Tippett the same day, and he was saying that the first two weeks of September are the best time for red drum, which he has been pursuing on the bay for about half a century.

"If we get good weather we'll have a pretty good chance," the captain said. "They should be around."

And they should be big. One reason that red drum are considered trophies here and not in Florida is that they grow much bigger in the northern part of their range. Fish of 30 and 40 pounds are average in these parts and a 90-pounder was landed in Rodanthe, N.C., in 1973.

Of course they were around, and they were big, if the huge splotch that showed up on Tippett's fish finder is to be believed. "We were over them," at the end of our day, "no question about that. But they didn't want to bite."

Fortunately for us the sea trout did, and since both species share the same feeding grounds and bite the same lures, we were kept busy enough to end up happy.

We worked the oyster bars in 25 feet of water around Point No Point, north of the mouth of the Potomac, trolling rubber hoses, bucktails and silver spoons.

The bucktails seemed to work best, and by day's end we had the catch-box loaded with 25 sea trout in the five-to nine-pound range.

Not a bad diversion for long hours spent futilely chasing big fish.

And I imagine when I get back to Florida somebody will come along and tell me his dream is to get away from these dumb redfish and catch an eight-pound sea trout.