The buds are just about to burst on the magnolia out back. That means spring is really here and striped bass must be roaring up the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers in search of the magical area where fresh water meets salt.

It's there that the giant "cow" stripers and their excited male minions will perform the annual ritual of reproduction, the females dropping millions of eggs apiece and the little males fertilizing the eggs with an excretion called "milt."

Normally this is an event vigorously ignored in the back-slapping world of Capitol Hill, even though the dance of striped bass life is conducted in significant scope in the Potomac River within a few miles of Senate and House offices.

Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) is not a striped bass fisherman and never was one. But certain events and his own knack for latching onto a good issue have thrust him into the role of champion of these troubled game fish.

"No, I've never been a bass fisherman," Chafee said Friday as he piloted a boatload of five people across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in his tiny Dodge Omni. (In Rhode Island a striper is a "bass," in Maryland it is a "rockfish.")

"But we have a summer home in Matunuck on the Rhode Island shore and it happens that the beach out front is an excellent bass fishing spot. I used to see these fellows at dawn in the summer, lined up like sentries with their long rods, fishing for bass."

That left an impression on Chafee, who as a sailboat enthusiast and former secretary of the Navy has an abiding interest in the sea.

Then last year he read "Striper," John Cole's gloomy book in which the Maine journalist chronicles the woes of the striped bass since the days in the 1960s and early '70s when the species abounded.

Shortly after Chafee finished the book, Jim Range, minority counsel for the Senate Environmental and Public Works committee, dropped by to mention that the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act of 1965 was due for renewal.

Anadromous fish are ones that live in the sea but return to fresh water to spawn. The connection clicked in Chafee's mind.

"He said, 'Hey, striped bass is an anadromous fish, isn't it?'" Range recalled. "'We've got to do something about this.'"

So was born the Chafee amendment, which authorizes a three-year study of why striped bass stocks are declining. In January, Congress appropriated $1 million for the first year's work.

And on Friday, Chafee trundled to the hustings to make sure the money was going to get spent and there would be something to show for it.

He took Range, his wife Ginny, his legislative director Mimi Feller, and an itinerant outdoors writer. "You all look like Mark Trail," he said in the dim light of the Senate parking garage.

Two-and-a-half hours later at the University of Maryland's Horn Point environmental lab in Cambridge, Md, he met Dr. George Krantz, who two years ago decided he wanted to understand stripers better. Krantz converted some tanks and machinery used to study oysters into striper tanks, got some locals to help him net spring spawners and last year began hatching baby stripers.

He would like some of the federal money to continue his work, as would other scientists from the university's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies who outlined an impressive array of proposed striper studies.

Chafee prodded federal officials on hand to make sure letters of funding intent went out quickly, before the spawning season came and went.

A million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but federal officials say it isn't. Galen Buterbaugh of the Fish and Wildlife Service said requests for funds far exceeded the $1 million appropriation even before the oversight committee sent out its first solicitations for proposals.

But the Chafee amendment is a start. Its aim is to standardize testing and information-collection on water quality, temperatures, viability of striper eggs and many other variables in all the states in the stripers' range and coordinate the information collected.

Chafee didn't want the first spawning season to slip quietly away while bureaucrats fumbled with red tape. He was willing to get his feet and his trouser bottoms wet to see that it didn't.

Which beats another cocktail party, any day.

"Frankly," said Chafee on the long drive home, "the surprising thing to me isn't that we did something about this. It's that no one else did anything for so long."