Last week we staged the third annual last-gasp striped bass fishing expedition on Chesapeake Bay.

In late fall, shortly after he runs his last fishing party of the year, charter skipper Dick Houghland likes to take one final shot for fun. He calls up John Page Williams, who mates for him from time to time, and me. We set a date and go, come snow or high water.

On Dec. 9, 1979, it blew like stink from the north. It rained and the seas were three and four feet. We hung around in the stern jigging for fish and freezing while Houghland battled the helm. We worked the rods all day and never got the first strike. Somehow we enjoyed it, and vowed to try again.

Dec. 12, 1978, dawned a beautiful bluebird day. Before long the captain managed to find a big pile of hungry rockfish (stripers) on a piece of hard-bottom called Brownie's Hill several miles below the Bay Bridge.

We cranked 53 stripers out of the hole that warm day, marking Houghland's best striper catch of the year. It was a healthy and heartening last gasp.

After this year's episode, last Wednesday, I guess you could say we're getting bullish on Dec. 12. And cocky.

The chemistry just seems right.

The Chesapeake Bay is a very large piece of water and once you get out of whatever creek your boat rests in, it all looks much the same.

Three months ago the Bay was teaming with fish -- mostly bluefish and sea trout, feeding on square-mile schools of alewives. A captain could point his boat in almost any direction and find fish.

But the alewives are gone to deep sea now, and with them the predators they supported. The indigenous small stripers of the bay have come out from their summer feeding grounds up the rivers to become the new denizens of the deep, along with white perch, in numbers far from teeming.

Houghland did a fine job of getting out of the creek at Chesapeake Beach. He's only done it 756,492 times over the last decade. But once the last channel marker was behind him and the broad, sun-glinting expanse of the Chesapeake stretched ahead, he asked the question saltwater fishermen ask every time they embark:

"Where now?"

Some schools of rockfish had been found up north on Brownie's Hill fairly recently. But Houghland knows the rules of the December game, and he knows the stripers are following their snouts inexorably southward.

During this month they will travel slowly down the bay, stopping from time to time over stretches of hard bottom to feed on small schools of spot. As the water grows colder (it's already 45 degrees), they head to deeper and deeper spots, finally coming to rest 70 feet or more below the surface where they lie over stretches of barren mud and wait out the dark season in near dormancy.

But not quite yet.

Houghland looked at us for inspirational and we shrugged and chuckled and grabbed for thermos bottles. "You're the captain . . . "

So without a word he swung the wooden spokes of the wheel hard to the right, and we set off southeast.

The die was cast.

The VHF radio called for 10-knot breezes from the south and temperatures in the 60s. As the heavy 36-footer sent spray splashing, startled flocks of winter birds -- whitewing scoters, oldsquaws and loons -- leaped from the chop and streaked off across the bay, low to the water.

There was a haze over the water -- a portent of the cold front due to blow through that evening. Across the bay we could see no sign of the workboats we knew would be oystering up the ageless Choptank River two miles away.

It was an hour to the first stop over a lump of hard bottom called the Winter Gooses. Fish sometimes congregate there, but not this Dec. 12.

We trolled a bit, fruitlessly, while Houghland stewed.

He was committed to the southern end. The old boat couldn't retrace her steps in time to fish up north on a short December day.

Further south, then. So we cranked up the lines and popped the tops on the thermoses again. More than a shade of doubt flickered across the captain's eyes.

"I hope it's not just another boat ride," he said.

It wasn't. As we slashed along, the day grew pleasanter. Houghland kept a keen eye on the depth-finder, looking for places in 50 feet of water where the bottom seemed to suddenly rise in a lump -- the signal that a school of rockfish lay below.

He was so busy staring at the rod flickers on the meter that he almost didn't see the little crowd of boats up ahead.

Fishing boats. Three of them. The Elizabeth, the Aldor and Miss Suzie, huddled in a circle around a white plastic bottle marker buoy that meant fish below.

It was the last of the Solomons Islands fleet, charter skippers taking a flyer with friends like Houghland was. And it had paid off.

"Put that sandwich down," the captain admonished. "We're going fishing."

The stripers were on the move. We'd find the lump of fish and then lose it. But on the finds, often enough both our lines would bump with bites. lWe were jerking in rockfish up to three and four pounds, sometimes two at a time.

The little fleet of fishing boats spent the afternoon that way, sometimes gathering close when the school bunched up and fed, sometimes splitting as much as a mile apart when the fish scattered and the search began. s

It was no slaughter, but by the time we turned for the long ride home into the sunset there were 37 stripers in the catchbox, which will help stock the larder.

That'll be sustenance. So will the memory of the startling feeling of a live and hungry striper grabbing a bucktail 50 feet down in murky cold water on a bright winter day.

And three friends on a boat, turning west for the last ride home until spring.