The battle was over. With inspired delicacy Dick Houghland hoisted the huge, egg-laden female rockfish into the boat.

His wife and five friends gathered around in a hush as he stretched a tape measure from its gaping mouth to its broad flat tail.

Forty-one and a half inches.

He inserted the hook of a scale into its lower lip and raised the big fish off the deck. Forty-two pounds.

Then John Page Williams cradled the mother-to-be in his arms. leaned over the gunwale and lowered it into the water. He held it briefly to force water through the gills. The big fish flipped its tail and swooshed off.

The crew let loose a riotous cheer.

It marked a great moment on the Chesapeake Bay last weekend-the capture and release of a championsized striped bass. These fish get harder and harder to find each year as their numbers continue a downward spiral that began almost a decade ago.

Almost as an afterthought, Houghland commemted that the fish might have been worth $1,000 if it had been caught three days later.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if that's the biggest rockfish caught in the Bay this year," he said. "It could easily take the tournament."

The tournament, it develops, is Anheuser-Busch's latest promotional gimmick. The beer barons are sponsoring a big-fish blowout for anglers who book trips on Maryland charter boats. Better they should scatter the money to the winds.

The tournament didn't begin until yesterday, which coincides with the day it became legal for Maryland sport fishermen to keep one rockfish over 32 inches long per day.

The early spring ban is designed to help the beleaguered rockfish, which are not reproducing well. It protects the big females while they are on their spring runs to the spawning grounds. The fish Houghland set free would be carrying about 4 million eggs, according to Ben Florence, who heads rockfish studies for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Now enter Budweiser, the king of beers, to place a price on the head of the queen of the Bay.

The Anheuser-Busch tournament is the first big-money, all-season fishing tournament on the Chesapeake. It runs from May 1 to Sept. 30 and offers the following prizes to anglers who catch large fish while aboard Maryland charter boats and bring them into an official weigh station:

Rockfish (the Maryland state fish)-$1,000 for heaviest, $750 for second heaviest.

Bluefish-$1,000 heaviest, $750 second.

Drum-$1,000 heaviest, $750 second.

Sea trout-$1,000 heaviest, $750 second.

Perch- $700 for the longest fish, $300 second.

Spot- $700 longest, $300 second.

Croaker- $700 longest, $300 second.

The Maryland Charter Boat Operators Association also will run its third annual cash tournament May 24-30, offering $1,000 each for the biggest rock and biggest bluefish caught aboard one of its member boats.

The question is, if it's for big money, why call it sport fishing?

Bill Perry, who runs the annual Maryland State Sport Fishing Tourament and offers only recognition, no money, is one who has his doubts about the new cash mentality.

"My own personal feeling is that cash prizes in a fishing tournament leave the door open for many things to happen. I can relate experiences I've had where cash prizes were offered before, and it's not a pretty picture."

Perry, in fact, agreed to be a judge in a new cash tournament in Delaware Bay, which will run under the auspices of the Milford Chamber of Commerce and offers $25,000 if a world-record sea trout is caught.

A hundred tournament entries were sold to fishermen at $100 apiece, and already there are reports that the entries are being scalped to other anglers for as much as $500, Perry said.

And anywhere there are big cash prizes for fish, there will be allegations of fish being taken illegally, or caught prior to the tournament and kept on ice. The Maryland limit of one oversized rockfish per person extends all summer long, but there is little doubt that an angler who caught a medium-sized one would keep a potential prize-winner if he caught it later the same day.

Ruffy James is a Maryland native who worked for Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. He decided to set up the tournament when he returned here, and is not without a few second thoughts himself.

"We'd love to be involved in more ecology programs than we are," he said, "but this is our first crack. We probably didn't do as well with it as we might."

To Nancy Kelly, a biologist involved in rockfish studies for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the cash tournament suffers a fishy smell.

Kelly was aboard Houghland's boat when the big rockfish was caught last weekend, and she was among the loudest cheerers when the roe-laden female swam off safely.

"It seems to me that the fact that you caught a wonderful fish ought to be enough," she said. "If you want more, you can get a state citation.

"But most people don't go fishing for money. I sure never have."