ASSATEAGUE -- The state park on this barrier island a half-dozen miles below Ocean City can be a bustling place, late spring through early fall. But once the state campgrounds close and there still are a few weeks of day use available before the park shuts down for the winter, the parking lots are almost empty and the beaches almost barren.
In those last weeks of the season, when only an occasional surfer will paddle out in expectation of a 5-foot wave built by the falling tide and a building onshore breeze, and but a few tourists transit the dunes in search of the wild ponies, the ocean-side fishing can be good.
In the autumn, blues and stripers begin to pass inshore on their way to their wintering grounds off the Carolinas and farther south.
Earlier this week, three fishermen had a mile of beachfront to themselves, while the air temperature rose toward 70 and the breeze pumped in steadily from the southeast.
Flights of waterfowl came along the coastline and wheeled in across the narrow spit of sand toward Sinepuxent Bay. Mole crabs dug and fed along the surf line, and the sound of small bells was carried faintly by the wind.
It was a slow day, with the surf roiled as the tide fell back into the wind. There was, perhaps, too much sunlight. Overcast skies tend to bring big fish into shallower water, and the day was virtually cloudless.
A couple of hundred yards downwind, a fellow was fishing a lure, probably a metal squid, judging by the distance and trajectory of his casts, seeming to work it on the backs of the breakers, where the water is relatively smooth. Through the binoculars, his movements were fluid. But his casts seemed to be falling short of a dark section of deeper water, where bait fish would be dumped by the undertow and predators might be waiting.
Upwind a scant hundred yards, another fellow sat in a folding chair, wearing a heavy coat, hip boots and a winter cap with the flaps pulled down over his ears. Before him were two rods set in sand spikes, their lines tight and leading well above the innermost set of small breakers out toward a dark channel, where water leaves the beach and takes small fish with it.
The fellow with the winter cap was fishing on the bottom, using small mullet double hooked through the body. He seemed to be dozing, shifting the weight of his head from his right hand to his left and occasionally resetting himself in his chair.
Twice in the first hour or so on the beach, the fellow with the winter cap, shaken from his slumber by some curious cue, left his chair to set his hook. On one occasion he brought a small sand shark to the beach and released it. On the other he struggled for a couple of minutes with an unseen adversary that doubled up his rod and then was gone, taking half the mullet with it.
During both incidents, there was the sound of bells ringing frantically. Otherwise, there was but that faint, persistent jingling carried down the wind.
While the squidder cast and the fellow in the winter cap dozed, the man in the middle was fishing cut mullet along the outside of a sand bar that seemed to have promise when spotted from atop the dunes. Over a period of two hours, promise had consisted of one strike.
The fellow in the winter cap now had had three, and perhaps he knew something the squidder and I did not.
"Call me Walter," he said as he rose from his chair. "But names don't make no matter anymore, anyway. I'm 75, you know, and I have been fishing here this time every year for years.
"Got a system, now that I can't get around so well as I could and can't take the weather. I just sit here covered up and wait for the alarm to ring."
The alarm system was two small bells attached to the tips of his two surf rods. As the surf moved his lines slightly, the bells produced a tinkling sound that Walter said allowed him to doze in the sun without watching his lines or rod tips.
"When a fish takes the bait, though," Walter said, "you better know there will be a jangling."
The bells are removed before casting, Walter said, and reset before the rods are set in the sand spikes.
"Maybe it's lazy fishing," Walter said and winked. "But it sure lets me sit back and take the day -- and sometimes enough fish to make it worth it."
If you are thinking about surf fishing along the coast this fall, at Assateague State Park (which closes Dec. 9), Assateague National Seashore, Ocean City or elsewhere, the following tips may be helpful:
* It is best to know the tides and to plan to fish two hours before or two hours after a high tide.
* The stretch of beach to be fished should be scouted out at low tide, when holes, sand bars and channels can be seen more easily. These are areas where fish are likely to be found. Scouting is best done from atop a dune. A pair of good sunglasses will help cut the glare and make it easier to see the bottom contour close in and the changes in water color farther out.
* Darker water indicates deeper sections; lighter water means shallows.