He was sitting on the main dock in downtown Crisfield, looking disconsolate.

"What's the trouble, cap'n?" someone asked.

"I been married to Lou Ann 23 years,' he said" and I been fishing with old Hank for 17 years, I never thought anything like this could happen.

"Last week Lou Ann ran off with Hank. Nowbody's seen either one since."

The old fisherman heaved a sigh and lit another Camel. He looked out over the fishing boats filing out to the Tangier Sound fishing ground in the afternoon heat.

"Yup," he said, "I sure miss old Hank."

That's a Crisfield joke, told not one-tenth as well as the great Crisfield story-teller Capt. Alex Kellam told it last weekend.

It's a typical tale for Crisfield, where such mundane matters as life and love take a tongue-in-cheek back seat when the fish are running. And usually the fish run here as they do nowhere else in the Free State.

Perhaps the biggest problem Crisfield charter boat captains have is with the outlandishly high expectations that weekend anglers bring along when they trundle down from Washington and Baltimore and other urban centers.

Capt. George Todd has experienced such problems. "If the fishermen are any good you catch some sea trout," he said. "If they're not they're going to be disappointed.

"You need a special kind of fisherman and everything has to be just right. If you don't start catching fish right away, the landlubers start mumbling and groaning.

"They're not willing to wait. They bring these huge coolers down. It looks like they're planning a burial at sea or they're going to row home in them. There's no way they're going to fill them up. You can't convince them."

Still, even when the fishing is mediocre at Crisfield, it beats the pants off most places. Lately Todd has been figuring on a minimum of 50 trout per trip, as long as he can wait the fish out until they start biting.

Years ago bottom-fishing was popular sport all around the Chesapeake. But in recent times the catch of hardheads (croakers) and spot has fallen off dramatically farther up the Bay.

At Crisfield anglers still catch some croakers and spot, and this year they've caught bottom-feeding sea trout in monumental numbers.

The lure of this bottom-fishing, which is a mellow way to spend a day, draws the people to this little town on the Eastern Shore, a 3 1/2-hour drive from Washington.

The sea trout fishing fell off some this month after an incredible early season in June, but a visitor from distant waters can still find the fish, even without a hired captain.

It would be almost impossible not to find the fishing grounds, night and day.

Charter boats and private boats are piled thick within sight of the bell buoy marking the entrance to Crisfield harbor. The later in the day it gets, the thicker the fishng boats get, because traditionally the best fishing is in the evenings.

Bill Brener and I cruised over the scalding Bay from Point Lookout on the western shore last weekend and hit the harbor entrance in time to fish for an hour.

Brener anchored up on the edge of the huge fleet, which looked like a city on the sea. The first stop yielded nothing but small oyster toads, but after a move of 100 yards the trout started to bite and we had half a dozen in 45 minutes, fishing soft crab chunks in 50 feet of water.

The next day we nursed his ailing boat, which had blown out an engine freeze plug, a mile off the harbor entrance to a place that Elwath Tawes, a native, had recommended.

Again we had only an hour to fish, and again we picked the right hour. Big croakers hit first, and we boated three of them up to 3 1/2 pounds. A couple of jumbo spot took the baits in 20 feet of water. Both were close to 14 inches long, which qualifies for a citation in Maryland waters. And more trout were there, as well.

For Brener, who's used to the one-dimensional game of bluefishing on the Western Shore, it was a real eye-opener. It was like salt-water fishing ought to be -- where when the rod bends with a strike there's no way of knowing what might be on the hook.

Tangier Sound, off Crisfield, is notorious for surprises -- sometimes big surprises. The Maryland Chesapeake Bay records for spot, channel bass and black drum were all set there, and last year's biggest fish in the flounder, black drum, channel bass and speckled trout divisions all came from the waters near Crisfield.

It's enough to make a fellow forget about life and love and start looking for a good fishing partner.