It's that time of year again: Anglers line the rails of local party boats, awaiting the moment when the captain calls, "Let's try it here, folks."
As the fishermen drop the multicolored mackerel rigs into the water, the bright tubing imitates sand eels, which the Atlantic mackerel feed on. On the bottom of the three or four hooked rigs the anglers attach either a 6-ounce diamond jig or sinker wrapped in aluminum foil.
When the mackerel are biting, a lucky fisherman can load every )) hook of his lure with a 2- to 3-pound fish.
The first weeks of April are usually the best time to catch the Atlantic mackerel. This year, the season, which usually lasts four to six weeks, got an early start in February. John Bunting of the party boat "Miss Ocean City" says the fish were biting as close as 10 miles off the beach. Then we had a spell of cold, blustery weather, which made the fish disappear.
Capt. Monty Hawkins of the "O.C. Princess" found the mackerel again in mid-March, 28 miles offshore near the Jackspot Shoal. They had an excellent catch for a couple of days. Since then, the mackerel have been unpredictable. Some days the boats do well, while other days the fish are not to be found.
What's the problem? Wind and water temperature are the culprits. The optimal water temperature for mackerel is 46 degrees. For weeks, the water temperature has been fluctuating between 41 and 43 degrees. Windy, blustery weather scatters the schools of mackerel, making them hard to find.
Maybe by this weekend the fishing will be better. Call your favorite tackle store or party boat for the latest information on the "mackerel run."
Because spring weather can be unpredictable and cooler on the water than on the land, be prepared when you venture out on a party boat to try your luck with mackerel. Be sure to carry plenty of warm garb and a rain slicker. Many serious mackerel fishermen wear boots. As the fish are hoisted over the railings, tiny scales and splashes of blood and saltwater go flying.
Also carry a cooler with some ice, and a couple of rags to wipe your hands. Mackerel fishing can be messy.
If the day is successful, tired but happy fishermen return to the dock. Since mackerel are the first saltwater fish to bite, they are the first catch of the season for many a fisherman.
Fish cleaners are available at most of the marinas to fillet your catch. Mackerel are excellent to eat fresh, but watch out for the tiny row of bones running up the center of the fillet. Many chefs will trim these out with a sharp knife before preparing the fish. Broiling or baking is the favorite way to cook fresh mackerel. Some cooks find the mackerel is excellent cooked in tomato juice. Atlantic mackerel is also excellent smoked or salted.
Many anglers save the mackerel belly for flounder or surf fishing in the spring. Mackerel also makes good bait for shark fishing. A mackerel fits perfectly in the bait cylinder of a commercial crab pot.
What else is running offshore? Jack Redinger of Sea Hawk Sports Center in Pocomoke reports that tautog have been hitting on the wrecks all winter. Last Wednesday, Mr. Redinger and some friends ventured 18 miles out of the inlet from Wachapreague, Va., and fished near the Winter Quarter Shoal. They caught 10 tautog weighing more than 10 pounds on sectioned crab. The largest weighed 15 1/2 pounds.
Bob Coolick of Ocean City has had several tautog trips just offshore this winter. He also brags of catching tautog weighing up to 15 pounds. Most anglers who fish for tautog realize that these fish spawn in the spring, and try to release the pregnant females.
Inshore saltwater fishing is slow. The biggest news is that the first striper of the season was caught and released at the Indian River Inlet last weekend. It was estimated at 5 or 6 pounds.
Tautog should start to bite at the Indian River and Ocean City Inlets at any time. Anglers need to use sectioned crab or sand fleas. Scott Baltz of Old Inlet Bait and Tackle, an avid tautog fisherman, says the sand fleas can be dug in the wet sand on the beach this time of year. They are deeper than they are in the summer; one may have to dig down one or two feet.
Inland ponds and creeks warm up before the bays and ocean, creating fishing activity. Anglers are catching crappie in the Shad Landing Park near Pocomoke. Some yellow perch have been reported from other areas of the Pocomoke River. One crappie from a local farm pond in Kingston weighed in at 1 pound, 14 ounces at Sea Hawk Sports Center.
Kelly Racz of R and R Tackle in Rehoboth, Del., says the fishing in the creeks in that area is improving. White perch have been caught on grass shrimp and bloodworms, and some small stripers and lots of catfish have been caught. The catfish have been biting any kind of cut bait, such as mullet, mackerel or chicken livers.