ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland officials must have rattled some procrastinators by closing recreational rockfishing today after only 10 days of a scheduled five-week season.

Anyone who had put off plans to enjoy a long-awaited rockfish feast may now have to wait until 1991.

Not so at our house, where the brief resumption of fishing after a 5 3/4-year closure was celebrated in full.

Opening day was a Friday, so the whole family was home the next morning when I hauled my prizes from the cooler -- a five-pounder and a six-pounder. We made short work of turning the sleek creatures into four slabs of firm, pink flesh.

That night, we mixed fresh crabmeat with a little mayonnaise, a teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning and some lemon juice. We dotted two filets with butter and broiled them for a few minutes until they were half-done, then heaped the crabmeat stuffing on top and put them back under the broiler for another three minutes.

Served sizzling hot alongside fresh tomatoes, home-made potatoes and crisp Italian bread from the bakery, it was a meal fit for royalty. It was so good, in fact, that the next night we fixed the same thing all over again. And then there were none.

In almost six years of abstinence we'd almost forgotten how good rockfish was -- king of table fish, distinguished by mild, delicate flavor and incredible firmness. The natural inclination was to go get more.

So I scheduled a trip to the Bay Bridge Tuesday, when the Columbus Day weekend crowds would be gone. Kevin Kenno, a rockfishing fanatic from Rockville, and Barry Hinckley, in town from New England for the U.S. Sailboat Show, would join me at dawn.

But none of us counted on the wild easterly winds. It was a cold slog out to the middle, with big rollers sending spray over the deck of the little 17-footer.

Nor had we counted on the fishing effects of the four-day mob scene at the bridge. Kenno had been out three of those days, watching the assembled hordes throwing every kind of bait imaginable at the pilings, and said the fishing grew progressively tougher each day. "It's definitely having an effect on the {rockfish} population," he said.

Even on this breezy weekday, we competed with a couple of dozen other boats for the most productive bridge pilings, where rockfish munch on snails, worms and minnows clustered for protection.

The flood tide, driven by the wind, smashed against the span's supports, creating prime conditions for rock to feed. But although we hurled our bucktails into the wildest water and fished hard and steadily, we had no strikes for more than an hour.

Hinckley finally felt the bump that signals a strike, then lost the fish when it took his lure around a piling and snapped it off. A half-hour later, he had another on and Kenno and I rushed to help, nearly knocking him overboard in the process.

Hinckley held his ground and brought that five-pounder home, and Kenno jammed a thumb in its jaw and hoisted it. All eyes locked onto the streamlined perfection of the slender, striped fish, spawned in the wild, survivor of floods, heat waves, famine, bitter winters and the assault of human hordes. Then our eyes locked on each other.

"Gonna keep him?" Kenno asked.

"Nah," said Hinckley. "We don't need this fish. Let's let him go."

And so a question was resolved that had haunted me since I'd lifted the lid on the cooler to show my opening-day trophies to my wife.

"Oh!" she'd said, recoiling involuntarily. "They're so beautiful."

And so they were. "You know," she said that night in the glow of a meal we may remember all our lives, "that was wonderful, but I don't know if it's fair to the fish."

Hinckley and Kenno and I weren't sure either until we faced the question head-on. Then we knew that the answer was no, it wasn't particularly fair for a fish that had overcome all those natural perils to be snatched and gobbled by guys in a fast boat who had plenty else to eat.

So when we hooked and boated four more rock up to 10 pounds that morning, we let them all go and felt better for it.

"I've had my rockfish dinner," said Kenno. "I don't care if I don't have another one for five more years. I'd rather put 'em back if it means they'll still be around the next time I come fishing."

Of course, Maryland state officials offered facts and figures galore to support their rockfish reopener. Young of the year indexes, population surveys, optimum sustainable yield analyses and water quality assessments all suggested rock could withstand the pressure of limited recreational, charter and commercial fishing.

But if you hold a wild rockfish in your hands and weigh its value alive, in waters where it was spawned, against its value as a slab of meat on a table, the winner is obvious.

Good to eat? You bet. Too good to eat.

Catch-and-Release Time?

When recreational rockfish season closes at 8 tonight, victim of state assessments that indicate the 1990 quota of 318,750 pounds has been caught, it creates an interesting irony.

Charter fishing remains open, with a reduced daily limit of two fish per person. Officials say chartermen have not yet reached their 1990 allotment of 112,500 pounds.

Which means that while the door is being shut to all private rockfishing including catch-and-release, where rock caught are returned to the water unharmed by recreational anglers fishing just for fun, those who pay for a charter may keep fishing and killing.

All of which suggests it's time state officials considered a catch-and-release, no-kill season for rock, instead of driving themselves and everyone else bonkers devising ways to divide up a pie that's clearly still too small and too desirable to be safely divided.

Catch-and-release is a nationwide success for wild trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass. Why not rock?