Rivers are nature's giant drainage ditches and for the last month they've looked it.

River fisherman were batting 0-for-October until the deluge finally ceased last week. The river levels began dropping daily and the water cleared. Over the weekend, it all came together at last.

On Sunday, when the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway were crammed with foliage fans toodling along the ridgetop two-lanes, a pair of adventurers took the low road.

They packed a little boat in a slough off the North Fork of the shenandoah and set off down the river's sweeping bends, headed straight for the base of Massanutten Mountain.

Equipped with poles, packs and paddles, they pioneered a sport they cheerfully dubbed "whitewater johnboating." A month of rain had left the river full, but no longer flooded. It also had loaded the oak, sycamore and dogwood leaves with moisture and that was now supplying the juice of brilliant, flaming color. It was quite a sight.

"River's down," a mountain man told them the day before, "and it's getting prettier every day."

All the early-fall rain managed to put the kibosh on fishermen's second favorite season of the year, spring being the best.But when the mud ran out to the sea the fish were supposed to bite again. And they did.

Squirrels busied themselves along the river banks, rustling in the fallen leaves to gather acorns and hickory nuts for the winter. Red-tailed hawks swooped overhead, searching out prey on the ground.

"It makes you feel good," said 20-year-old Peter Yarrington of Bethesda, "just to know that something still lives that way."

Smallmouth bass that abound in both forks of the Shenandoah live that way, too, although they are a little less obvious about it.

They are kings of the river predators, and like the squirrels this is the season when they prepare for the lean months ahead. Since bass don't have dens in which to store food, they store it internally.

Predator fish are said to embark on a feeding spree in October. Spurred by declining temperatures, they load up on bait fish to build up fat for the winter, just like some people do.

Which is why Yarrington and I had come to this place.

A good river is like a good museum -- different every time. I'd been on this five-mile stretch of the Shenandoah several times, sometimes when it was so muddy a shiny lure would disappear when it hit the water, sometimes when it was so low and clear the boat had to be dragged across the riffles.

On Sunday it was high and clear, and that presented new puzzles.

Where would the fish congregate in conditions like this? How should the rapids be negotiated? What lures or flies would work best? Was the johnboat adequate for the task?

Yarrington posed all these questions and I told him in good faith that I didn't have the foggiest idea.

So we pushed off on our odyssey and promptly forgot all our concerns when one line went tight. A rock bass grabbed hold of a Mepps spinner lure and came thrashing to the boat. A few minutes later a 1 1/2 pound smallmouth attacked the same lure and we had our first keeper fish.

We found that the fish -- mostly small bass -- were along the banks near tangled tree trunks and on the lips of deep pools just above the riffles. We found the lures they liked best were Mepps and white Mister Twister spinnerbaits, and that they weren't particularly fond of flies at all.

We found that the johnboat was not only adequate but a downright joy to bust through the fast water. The river was high enough that the boat scraped no rocks at all and just clear enough that was we swept over the shallows we could watch the rocky bottom roll by and even occasionally see bass dashing from hiding holes in the boulders as the boat sliced over.

We discovered that there are few things in life as nice as a hot sun and a cool river on an autumn day when the fish are biting, and that time flies when you go first.

We reached the take-out about two hours before we expected to and almost slid right by. We wanted more, so we hauled out and did it all over again and it was better still the second time through.

Fishermen say the best time to go fishing is whenever you can, but most would put October high on any priority list. Floods wiped the rivers out for the first three weeks of this October but now conditions are good and improving on all area streams.

The Potomac in Washington remains a little high but clear. Anglers can expect a short spurt of good largemouth bass fighting in traditional spots from Chain Bridge downstream, and good smallmouth fishing in the fast water from Chain Bridge on up to West Virginia.

As for the mountain streams, the word is this: Go. Now.

Winter fast approaches.