From 8 o'clock in the morning until 1:20 in the afternoon eight men sat or stood around in the boat. They chatted and wondered and watched the sun march across the sky and felt the wind abate. Warm, for early April, and land fading into haze miles away across the bay.

Nine lines streamed off the stern, each connected at the end to a lure that simulated a small fish, each lure wiggling and washing with the motion of the boat as it churned through the clear water. Five hours and not a strike. You wonder if some change isn't in order.

"Nope," said Capt. Mike Sullivan, swinging his gaze from one line to another as he had for 300 minutes already. "these are the right baits. I don't know if there's a fish within 20 miles of here but I know one thing. If there is a fish around, a bucktail is the lure that will catch him."

The quarry: giant striped bass. In the spring they swing through these waters on the way upriver to their most critical mission -- reproduction. Frist to arrive are the largest females, loaded so heavily with roe they appear to be carrying two footballs.

Rockfish.

"There he is!" In the starboard port quarter a rod bent hard, like a sapling weighted down by a thrashing child. The reell screeched; wire line ripped from it in bursts.

Twenty-five feet down and 125 feet astern the point of the stainless steel hook pierced the lower jaw of a large striper. The fish had begun its life about 11 years earlier, probably not far from this watery place. It was 39 inches long, 36 lpounds, healthy and strong except for an eye that was clouded over, no doubt the result of an old accident, perhaps a hook from another fisherman's line.

The big roe fish swept its powerful tail and ran, seeking to break the strange force dragging it off course. On the boat, the men crowded around Harry Roberts, who had grabbed the rod and was cranking the reel without effect.Line stripped away. The men grunted appreciatively.

Ten minutes later the fish broke the surface and Roberts eased it close. Sullivan dipped it with an immense net, brought it into the boat. The cheering men weighed it and photographed it, then without further discussion watched the captain hoist the big fish like a baby in his arms, walk to the gunwale and simply let go. The fish hit the water moving, disappeared into the deep.

"Good," the men said. "Now let's get another one."

Two hours later they did; even bigger than the first.

Stripers, the Maryland state fish, are moving back into the rivers where they began their lives, resuming the troubled spawning cycle that replenishes these prized game and table fish. Scientists say the vast majority of East Coast stripers originate in the Chesapeake. Though the last decade has not been kind to them, big stripers remain from better years. The best Chesapeake fishermen still have a chance once a year to intercept them. The time is now.

The 36-pounder Roberts brought to net probably was spawned in the spring of 1970, the best reproductive year since scientists have kept records on the bay, and the last strong reproductive year at all.

Later in the trip Saturday aboard Sullivan's boat, Emmett Webb caught a massive, 49-inch-long 47-pounder, the largest striper Sullivan ever had brought aboard.

That fish likely was spawned in 1964 or '66, the two previous strong reproductive years in the bay. Two giants from years of remarkable reproductive success. But where will the giants of 1990 come from? Or will they come at all? No one knows.

The 49-pounder that Webb will think about for the rest of his life also was the beneficiary of Sulivan's gentle touch. Once boated, the hugh fish, her stomach distended with millions of eggs, was quickly dispatched back over the side. It is a strange business, this fishing for the fun of it and returning the catch to the water. It's almost unheard of among salt-water anglers, but after thinking about it Webb and Roberts and the others in their party decided it made sense.

"We're happy just to be here," said one. "This is something most people never even get to see."

Added Sullivan, "This is the one chance in the year I get to do something for the bay. All year I take from the bay. Now is when I get a chance to put something back."

Maryland law requires fishermen to release any striper over 32 inches caught before May 1. After that date, fishermen can keep one oversized fish per day, per angler. The idea is to protect the large females until after they've arrived at the spawning grounds and deposited their eggs.

The two brought aboard Miss Dolly presumably are now back on course up the Choptank River. They were captured off the mouth of that river near the bell buoy marking "The Gooses." Somewhere near the point in the river where brackish water turns to fresh they will deposit millions of striped bass eggs. Smaller males, attracted by the scent, will converge and excrete their milt, fertilizing the eggs.

And then it's up to man and Mother Nature, whether five or 10 or 15 years from now their offspring will provide sport and food for tomorrow's fishermen.

After Webb's fish hit the water the men aboard Miss Dolly shook each other's hands. "Wow," said Webb, "that was some huge rockfish."

"Yeah," said Roberts, no shrimp himself, "and I'll bet that fish is down there right now telling its friends, 'You'll never believe the gigantic human I just saw.'"