A man named Bob Williams called last week with a puzzled look on his voice.

"Don't you guys ever put anything in the paperr about fishing?" he asked.

"It's February," was the horrified response.

Williams was unimpressed. He was from Maine and it felt like fishing weather to him. He wouldn't hang up until he was promised an answer.

Williams, it developed, knows more about fishing around Washington in February than the so-called outdoors writer, who was more interested in sleeping after a long hunting season.

The outdoors reporter made a few calls that amounted to nothing and one that amounted to a startling something. That call was to a bait shop on Rte. 4 in Wayson's Corner, where the highway crosses the Patuxent River.

The outdoors writer had noticed a boat tied up under the Rte. 4 bridge a week before when we had driven to North Beach to sip rum and watch the ice form. A man was in the boat, fishing. Some lunatic, the outdoors reporters thought, and turned the heater up a notch.

"That was Ron," said Linda Willis, who was personing the phones at Cee-J's bait store. "He came in here a couple of weeks ago when the yellow perch first started running. He must have had 100 of them."

Ron's last name is Coppage. The outdoors writer remembered that once in his exuberant past he had spent a day on the Patuxent fishing for yellow perch with Ron Coppage. During a sleet storm.

Coppage had explained than that he drove a bread truck all week and when his day off arrived on Wednesday he went fishing even if there wasn't a sleet storm.

Coppage quickly confirmed by phone that he had indeed caught a few yellow perch at the Patuxent River bridge, which is half an hour's drvie from Washington. One hundred forty perch one day, to be exact. To get to his favorite spot that fruitful day, he had pushed his tin boat across the ice.

"We're tearing them dead down there," Coppage said, adding that in the last two weeks he'd fished the Patuxent perhaps half a dozen times, usually after work for a few hours. Generally, he's been taking home a decent stringer of perch -- perhaps a dozen or two, mostly six to 10 inches in length -- each time.

This is unusually early for the yellow perch run to begin. These fish are always the first of the spring to travel up to the headwaters of the rivers and creeks that feed the Chesapeake Bay in order to spawn. Their marks the officials start of fishing season.

According to Coppage, the heart of the run is yet to come. Of the 140 fish he caught his best day, only three were "ripe" females loaded with roe. The others were smaller males and females not yet fully ready to spawn.

That's good news for those of us who have been abed. It means, according to Coppage, that the best of the run on the Patuxent should arrive around March 1. That's a guess, of course. But the guess of Coppage, the dean of the Patuxent perch anglers, is as good as anyone's.

There are a number of others places to fish for yellow perch, but so far no success like that of Coppage has been reported elsewhere. Traditionally, Washington's Birthday (the old one -- Feb. 22) has been regarded as the start of perch season.

Some traditional perch hot spots: Rte. 450 about halfway to Annapolis, where the highway skirts the headwaters of the South River; Allens Fresh a few miles north of the Morgantown Bridge across the Potomac; the Corsica River at Centreville on Maryland's Eastern Shore; the headwaters of the Wye River at Wye Mills on the Eastern Shore; the Severn River east of Rte. 3 near Indian Landing.

Once the perch run is on in earnest, these places will be easy to spot by the traffic jam of trucks and cars along the roadside and the crowds of winter-weary fishermen drifting in and out of the woods. Yellow perch are unpredictable. One many days, the pickings are slim; then there are days when tossing a minnow in the stream is like throwing a wine bottle in a drunk tank.

Part of the reason for Coppage's early season success has to do with the fact that he's willing to get down and chew the roots with these small, delicious fish, which is to say he doesn't turn up his nose at bottom-fishing.

When the water is cold, perch hold close to the bottom. "I've been catching them all on nightcrawlers (worms)," Coppage said, "around brush piles or right on the bottom in the deep holes." A deep hole in the Patuxent, he said, is anywhere the bottom drops off a foot or two to a depth of perhaps eight or 10 feet.

To find the dropoffs, Coppage drags a lead weight along the bottom while he drifts in his boat.

Later, as the water warms, the perch are likely to be closer to the surface. During the heart of the run, most anglers catch them from shore with minnows or grass shrimp suspended three feet or so below bobbers. Artificial-lure fanciers fish Mickey Finns or doll flies in the same fashion.

Yellow perch herald the start of fishing. After their run is over, white perch invade the rivers of the bay, most notably the Potomac in Washington, and after that, shad and striped bass make their way to the spawning grounds. But by then it's May, everything is biting and fishing stories are a little easier to find.