OCEAN CITY -- The waves breaking on the long, shallow bar southeast of the inlet were the second indication that all might not go well with the mackerel fishing that a handful of die-hards were undertaking last Tuesday aboard Capt. Bill Bunting's Angler.
The first indication was the wind.
With the tide moving toward flood and the wind offshore from the northwest at a steady 20 knots and gusting to around 30, the waves breaking on the bar were spectacular -- bursting perhaps 20 feet in the air, where the wind would catch them and batter them into spray.
Inshore, the seas were running 4 to 5 feet. Before the Angler had passed the first bell buoy, the ride was rough enough to bring the stomach to the back of one's throat.
But the mackerel were running -- early again this year, Bunting said -- the stern of the Angler was busy with the coolers, rods and reels, and the expectations of the die-hards were high.
Two fishermen who had driven down from New Jersey had brought aboard a plastic trash can, which they fully expected to fill with mackerel.
On Sunday, the headboats had done well, sating customers with enough fish to make arms ache. But on Sunday, the sea had been slick, the wind calm.
On Monday it had rained and the boats did not go out. By Tuesday a front was passing through quickly and the ride out toward Great Gull Bank did not bode well.
In the cabin, with the heaters running and a hint of diesel in the air, one of the New Jersey die-hards was regaling the eight of us with tales of whiting runs and dogfish catches to the point that one had to wonder whether there still were fish to be caught in the ocean.
His fishing partner had perhaps heard these words before. He lay stretched out on a seat with his face covered and only occasionally grunted acknowledgment as another hundred pounds of fish were brought aboard some other boat in some other adventure.
But that is as much a part of headboat fishing as the days when the rails are crowded and there isn't time to talk because the fish are biting fast and furious.
Mackerel fishing is done on the sea floor -- in this case 60 feet down, with an eight-ounce weight and a mackerel rig, a series of three or four 4-inch lengths of green, red and yellow surgical tubes with hooks inside. The weight is allowed to hit the bottom and then the rig is lifted a foot or so and dropped. On a good day, the fish hook themselves.
It is not scientific fishing, not an intellectual pursuit that requires patience and preparation. But on some days it is great catching.
"Went last spring and we caught more than 400 pounds of fish among four or five of us," one of the die-hards said as we stood with one hand on the rod and the other on the rail, as Angler rolled heavily on her beam. "And that was in two hours."
In the first two hours of fishing Tuesday, a handful of mackerel had been brought in, along with perhaps a dozen herring. The fishing was getting slower through no fault of the captain or the mate.
The captain would move us over a school of fish, the die-hards would move to the rail and drop their rigs. But a few seconds after the sinkers hit bottom, they would lift up as the Angler drifted away, beam to the the wind, rolling heavily at trolling speed.
The fishing became a matter of continually reeling in lines and then letting them out. In those few seconds before the sinkers lifted away from the bottom, some dozens of mackerel and herring were caught, but it was not a day to bring in 100 pounds per man -- or even 100 pounds per boat.
Allan Whitwood of Millersville brought in some good-sized mackerel while wedged between the capstan and the bow pulpit, using the roll of the boat to jig his line.
"It isn't great fishing today," said Whitwood, wet through from a dousing when the Angler fell heavily through seas that had built to 6 to 8 feet. "But it beats being at work."
Whitwood was one of four anglers who took the rail through seven hours each time the captain stopped over a school of fish. The others folded their tents and retreated to the cabin, where there were, of course, stories of other trips and trash cans full of fish.
"Long as we're out here," said the die-hard from New Jersey, who had yet to bring aboard a fish, "why don't we get them to set up a shark rig -- go for one big dogfish, steak it out and split it among us. At least it would be something to show for our time out here."
Hard as it was to believe, there are days when even the greatest of fishermen despair.
Capt. Bunting's Angler is among the headboats making several trips a week from Ocean City for the mackerel run off the Atlantic coast.
The mackerel run should last until the middle of April. The best fishing probably is yet to come -- as well as the best weather.
If possible, pick a day when the winds are light.
FTC The Angler leaves the docks at the foot of Talbot Street at 7 a.m. The cost is $25 per person and another $4 for a boat rod, reel and rig. You are welcome to bring your own gear.
L Pack a lunch because food is not provided aboard the Angler.
The phone number for Capt. Bunting's operation is (301) 298-7424. Call ahead to be certain the boats are scheduled to go out.