If the weather cooperates, the Boston mackerel's annual run should be under way by the beginning of April.
Newcomers to this type of fishing should be forewarned: This is not the kind of offshore fishing that requires a set jaw, tight lips and the silent awaiting of the first strike. Not by a long cast.
Mackerel fishing Atlantic-style is more reminiscent of a Marx Brothers adventure, a madcap outing that calls for gregarious, good-natured participants. The fish wouldn't have it any other way.
The comfortably large headboats that cater to the spring mackerel trade promise only one thing: To take a customer to the offshore grounds where -- with luck -- hordes of the migrating fish will charge past the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware coastlines in a journey that ends in Canadian waters.
The boats' crews might offer some coaching, but basically you're on your own. It doesn't matter. You, and every member of the family, can fish with the greatest of ease as long as mal de mer doesn't put you off.
The Boston mackerel is small as ocean species go. One- to two-pounders are the norm. But broiled or poached, this fish has an incomparable flavor. Most mackerel anglers are fishing for culinary reasons, not sport. Catch a tuna or bluefish if you want a bone-jarring tussle; mackerel are meant for the table.
You'll need a stout boat rod and a strong reel. Chesapeake Bay trolling gear loaded with at least 20-pound monofilament is ideal. The reason for such tough tackle is simple: As the headboat locates a school of the densely packed fish and the captain shouts "Drop 'em overboard," you'll release a wondrous assortment of lures tied like a string of Christmas lights and weighted with a 6-ounce sinker or equally heavy spoon. The lures are mackerel jigs, two-inch-long multicolor tubes with razor-sharp hooks at the business end.
As the jigs descend through the mackerel, engage the reel and start a slow up-and- down rodtip movement. The moment the first mackerel tears into one of the jigs, you'll feel a strong jerk. Resist temptation. Don't reel in the fish just yet. Continue to pump the rod up and down. Other mackerel will climb aboard the remaining empty hooks. Now you'll give thanks for the heavy gear.
Imagine four, five, maybe six, two-pound fish trying to free themselves by swimming off in every direction? Shouts of joy will equally be shared with proper puffs of happy desperation.
That's mackerel fishing, plain and simple. WHOLLY MACKEREL
The Ocean City headboats charge $20 per outing for adults, half that for kids 12 and under. If a suitable rod and reel isn't available, rent one for $3. Mackerel jigs are sold on the boats, or buy them already tied and ready to go in local shops for around $1.50. I use a large Diamond jig for a drop weight, but a lead sinker will do as well in most cases. Some fishermen claim that the silver jig will help attract the mackerel with its bright flashes. One final reminder: Wear warm clothes and non-slip shoes. April (sometimes late March) mackerel outings that begin at 7 a.m. can be chilly affairs. A rain poncho may turn into a trip-saver on some days. And don't forget to phone ahead and ask if the mackerel are running -- no sense in driving 175 miles for nothing. THE MACKEREL CAPTAINS BUNTING'S OCEAN CITY MARINA, Ocean City, Maryland. 301/289-6720. TALBOT STREET PIER, Ocean City, Maryland. 301/289-9125. BAHIA MARINA, Ocean City, Maryland. 301/289- 7438. WM. BUNTING'S TALBOT STREET DOCKS, Ocean City, Maryland. 301/289-7424. FISHERMAN'S WHARF, Lewes, Delaware. 302/645- 8862. CAPTS. DICK & BUTCH BENNETT, Indian River Inlet, Delaware. 302/737-5467. ADAM'S WHARF, Milford, Delaware. 302/422-8940. CAPT. ARTHUR BIRCH, Chincoteague, Virginia. 804/336-6584. CAPT. DON STILES, Chincoteague, Virginia. 804/336- 5433. CAPT. JIMMY WALLACE, Wachapreague, Virginia. 804/787-3272. CAPT. EARL PARKER, Wachapreague, Virginia. 804/787-3341. CAPT. RAY PARKER, Wachapreague, Virginia. 804/787-1040. CAPT. HARVEY BEASLEY, Wachapreague, Virginia. 804/787-2105.