Some folks never learn.

Last year it was Dec. 6 when Dick Houghland suggested that we try one last trip on the Chesapeake. "Those rockfish haven't left yet," he said.

We made the trip three days later, spent 10 hours battling stormy seas, rain and bitter cold, and ended up bucking our way home that night with not a niblle among four of us.

Now that's a long day, friends, any way you look it it. So it came as something of a surprise when Houghland called last week to report that "John Page Williams says he's ready for our annual last-gasp fishing trip."

So who said anything about anual?

"There's rockfish out there," Houghland insisted, knowing no angler can resist that prospect.

For once perseverance paid off. This year couldn't have been any different from last. It started with a miraculously gentle December day, clear blue skies, sleepy puffs of wind, and ended with a 50-gallon drum full of fockfish on the dock and starlit skies to clean them under.

The stuff of fishermen's dreams.

"I knew four days ago that we were going to hit it right," Houghland said Tuesday as we putted away from the breakwater at Chesapeake Beach with the morning sun in our eyes.

"We had the cold front come through last weekend. It was bitter cold on Saturday, but noew the barometers's leveled off, we're right in the middle of a high, it's going to be warm and clear.A perfect fishing day."

As we worked across the Middle Bay we passed a pair of old skipjack workboats dredging oysters.

The boats kicked up flocks of white-winged scoters and old squaws as they moved. The wintering sea ducks flw off as if their tails were on fire, flapping frantically in long lines a half-foot above the gray water.

We were a half-hour traveling before Houghland slowed the motors to trolling speed. We had rigs already set. A pound of lead would get steel line to the bottom and twin bucktail lures tipped with pork rind would trail behind to bring in the fish.

We were at a spot called Brownie's Hill-a small hard rise in the bay floor of Tilghman's Island. It was 55 feet deep; Houghland had heard that fish had been caught there.

But he saw nothing on the depth finder. "Try it anyway," he said.

"Got him," interrupted Ben Florence, who was already trying. He cranked the heavy rig and in short order a three-pound rockfish was at the surface.

We didn't have long to ogle that fish. Before it was in the catch-box Williams and I each had another on, his a two-pounder and mine a little smaller. We were in a feeding frenzy of hungry rockfish.

Fantastic. Maybe too fantastic.

You wouldn't thinak many other boats would be out in mid-december.

You wouldn't thin they could find us, even if they were, we weren't sending out any flares or howling over the radio.

But they came, as if they could smell it. And in an hour's time we found ourself trolling farther and farther from the float Houghland used to mark the fish.

"I can't believe it," he said. "Dec. 12 and I'm being pushed off the fish."

We picked up and moved north, basking in the sun with a warm following breeze. Off Poplar Island we found them again, this time a few medium sized rockfish mixed with some jumbo white perch. And by the time the rest of the world followed us there we were off to a third spot, just north of the red lighthouse that marks Bloody Point.

At Bloody the water drops off form shoals to a 156-foot hole, one of the deepest spots in the entire Cheasepeake. It always struck me as a perfect place for fish, and it didn't dissappoint us.

They weren't in the deep and they weren't on the shoal. They were on hard bottom again, just northwest of the light. It was 50 feet deep and the strikes were coming with just enough regularity to keep us fresh and enthusiastic.

It's a quiet kind of fishing, with no big fighting fish to keep the adrenaline flowing. But rockfish are so hard to find these days that the thrill of outwitting them more than makes up for the lake of size.

The private boats tried to drive us off Bloody, too, but a hard west wind came up and drove them away instead. When it died the fish lit up again, and we were still catching them when the light fell out of the western sky and we had to turn for home.

Florence would still be out there if Houghland hadn't called it a day."You're going to need a gun to get me off the water today," he said.

Florence is the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' rockfisth expert, and he says the delectable fish will be in the bay all winter long though their numbers will be few again this year. They're moved down from the rivers and into the main stream, and that's where they stay until spring.

The problem is getting to them. For the last two years the bay has frozen solid by January and even the commercial fishermen were wiped out.

Should the warm fall run on into winter, there could be weeks of good fishing left. But even if the ice neve arrives, once water temperatures get below about 42 the rockfish will be dormant and all but impossible to catch.

We counted ours when we arrived at the dock-53 rockfish from one pound to about four and a dozen jumbo perch, which are almost as good to eat as rock.

One of the skipjacks had come back to Chesapeake Beach for the night, too, and was tied up at the pier next to the fish-cleaning station.

While I listened to the happy task of fileting I listened to the errie night cry of loons in the harbor and watched the old skipjack nuzzle the pilings, her cabin lights dancing on the dark water.