"He put him back."

"Hey, did you see that? He's puttin' him back. Can you believe that?"

The word spread around the dark beach like a brush fire.

It was in North Carolina and there was a spring run of red drum. The beach was crowded and the fish were hitting. Big fish, 40 pounds and better.

The shocker came after a young man battled a big drum for 20 minutes and finally won, hauling the exhausted red monster out in a final surge of foam.

He handed his rod to the fellow next door, kneeled down and gently removed the hook.

He slid both arms under the fish's white belly and hoisted it with a grunt. Then, to general amazement, he waded back out in the surf, lowered the fish into the water, gave a gentle shove and sent it back into the deep.

He had let him go.

"It's the new thing," said a veteran Outer Banks surfcaster. "It's a trip for these guys. But I'll tell you what. I don't care what their reasons are. I think it's great."

A red drum is a beautiful fish. ycatching one is a great challenge. But a dead fish on a beach starts to take on a certain negative value. Even a macho man starts to think, "Why kill this poor fish. I don't need the meat and he put up a heck of a fight."

So he puts him back, and suddenly becomes more than a hero. He is a superhero.

A year ago, my wife and I ventured out onto the Chesapeake Bay with some friends. We were fishing and socializing when one of the trolled lines took off behind the boat.

My wife grabbed the rod and set to. A fine battle it was. Long minutes went by before the great fish was alongside the boat.

It was a 42-pound striped bass, every bit as grand a trophy as a red drum. But it was before May 1, the date on which Maryland permits sport fishermen to keep one striper per day over 32 inches long.

We hauled the giant fish aboard long enough to photograph it and weigh it, then set it back in the water. It was one of the great satisfactions of a lifetime to watch that wonderful fish swim off.

Ben Florence of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said the fish was a female loaded with eggs, on her way to the spawning grounds.

"You just realeased about 4 million striper eggs," he said.

That day, we vowed to turn loose any other big stripers we caught. Not because we're do-gooders.

Because it just plain feels good.

May 1 is past now. But do me a favor. If you should catch some big stripers this spring, turn one loose. Keep the bluefish, they're plentiful.

But turn one striper loose. Just to see what it feels like.