For mackerel fisherman, Camelot finally arrived. One hundred and fifty pounds per angler, two or three tons per headboat, the bottom-line bounty of this spring's mackerel blitz. No drunks, a rock-a-bye breeze, Sea-and-Ski sunshine. In Camelot . . .
With a great grunting and groaning, Ocean City anglers wheeled garbage cans along Talbot Street Pier, from the headboat Mariner to their pickups in the parking lot. Fishtails protruded from the ice in the cans. With fish running two pounds apiece, coolers couldn't carry a mackerel sixpacks. Hefty trash bags ripped asunder.
Baltimore longshoreman Gus Gabauer was speechless as he labored across the planking, a Rolling Rock "mini" clenched in his teeth. Gus, I and 30-odd colleagues had fished five minutes less than five hours, yet when Captain Darrell Nottingham suggested "Let's go home," no one whimpered in protest. We traded recipes instead. Sweet satiety.
The date, April 20, is important.
A mighty river of mackerel is flowing north now, within eyesight of Ocean City's clumpish condominiums and the World War II lockout towers at Lewes. Females bulging with roe (as in shad, not caviar), males fattened by milt, both propelled by waves of libido, are rushing toward trysts near Nantucket. Martha's Vineyard and islets off Boston.
For Washingtonians, the mackerel is a fish for one season-April. But springtime cold fronts rumble across our waters with predictable irregularity then. Given 48 hours' travel time, a front over Milwaukee can destroy Ocean City mackerel fishing. Forty-eight hours beforehand, local fishing forecasts will have been locked in type.
There is, therefore, a twofold rule.Never embark on a mackerel chase without calling Lloyd Lewis at 301/289-9125. He's the genial seer of the Talbot Street Pier in Ocean City. As the mackerel rear guard approaches Ocean City, which is now, begin calling Parson's (302/645-8862) at Lewes - a quiet, ramshackle fishing village 35 miles to the north. But never call beforehand without a fallback strategy for not wasting the weekend, for defusing the missus.
I don't know much about "families," but I know about my wife. Her idea of a perfect "camp-out" weekend involves, first, the preparation of Caesar Salad, the construction of Italian meatballs, the crushing of garlic cloves and the purchase of wickered chianti. She expects on arrival a kitchen by GE, a bathroom by Crane, cutlery by Hoffritz and a mattress (extra film) by Sealy.
A reasonable approximation awaits in Room 303 of the Talbot Street Pier. We dined al fresco on the balcony there. To the west, a sunset abeam Ocean City's bridge. Below, the fishing fleet, a ghastly green sloop and the eddies of Sinepuxent Bay. Next door, on the balustrade, a seagull, no pigeons. Lloyd Lewis produced the missing ingredient-a pot for vermicelli. He was, that day, fresh out of Romano.
Mackerel fishing is an enjoyable cross between meat fishing and sport fishing. Dryfly casters-those costumed fans of four-ounce fish-hold it in high contempt. Still, a few tips culled from many a season:
1. THE RIG. No need for a derrick. A Bay boat rod, 15-pound-test line with a 10-foot spider hitch leading toward hooks will do just fine. The spider hitch doubles the line where it's prone to break-just above five thrashing mackerel.
2. TERMINAL TACKLE. Buy at least two "mackerel trees" (about $1.50 per) for each rod in your company. Affix a chrome-plated diamond jig to the snap at the bottom. The jig should weigh four to six ounces. With anything less you can't control where or how deep you're fishing.
3. TACTICS. Mackerel may shoal at the surface, at the bottom or at levels between. When someone nearby connects, ask "how deep?" Fish there, pumping your rod tip every 10 seconds or so. A mackerel's strike is perceptible but not quite a jolt. Leave the first fish in the water because your mackerel tree sprouts four or more hooks. The first fish attracts other fish and so on until the tree hooks are taken.
4. THE RETRIEVE. If your line is affixed to five mackerel, so too will your neighbor's be. It's extremely important that ten fish, five on your rod, five on his, not arrive simultaneously at the boat. Let the other guy crank in first, or the fish, the hooks, the lines and the jigs will crochet themselves into a bouncing ball of barbs, teeth, fisn and slime. As I disentangled, my wife caught fish.
POSTSCRIPT: Television had been in color by Magnavox.Mackerel filets are selling for $3.00 a pound at the Chevy Chase Seafood Market. I can beat that now. CAPTION: Picture, A PAIR OF MACKEREL COME ABOARD A HEADBOAT IN THE BAY. By David Hoffman.