For Nat Price it was worse than a day wasted. It was windy and cold aboard the 55-foot charter boat Ethel. The party of 16 he had organized was tired after long predawn drives from as far away as Philadelphia and Culpeper, Va.

They caught no fish. The mackerel they hoped would be running were now here around Indian River inlet on the Delaware chunk of the Eastern Shore, and it was just as dead on the long run south to Ocean City.

Some members of the party were seasick from the rolling of the big wooden boat; the trip was terminated early at 11 a.m. without a strike. Rain squalls piped up on the dispiriting run back to port. But worst of all was the final indignity, parting with the $245 charter fee, payment for a day of misery.

"All of our party felt we had been ripped," said Price. "I felt like I was in a public relations office. When we arrived there was a girl on the dock who kept telling us, 'Oh, it could be a good day . . . I've got a feeling.'"

Price, a Wheaton insurance salesman who has been fishing for two years, mostly with charter skippers, was the victim of a misunderstanding common to newer anglers.

"I've talked to experienced fishermen and they told me that some skippers will call and let you know if the fish aren't running. I understand a good captain will do this," Price said.

Not so, except in rare instances, calls to chartermen revealed.

Lloyd Lewis, who has worked the Talbot Street pier in Ocean City long enough to have a fix on what's done and what isn't, put it this way: "Sometimes the fish come in overnight. I don't think it's my responsibility to call a party and say the fishing's not red hot . . . they (the fish) may show up tomorrow.

"It's like saying 'let's go to the Orioles' and then getting mad if the Orioles don't win. If you want to be assured of fish, go to the fish market and buy them."

Which is not to say there are no options for the angler.

Most charters are set up well in advance, and most skippers harbor no grudges if a party cancels out by phone by phone with a minimum of 24 hours' advance notice. It's not hard to find out whether the fish you're after are available - the major papers have weekly fish reports and word-of-mouth travels fast. If it looks grim for your trip, call your skipper. He'll generally give you the straight story and offer the option of cancellation.

Still more charters are canceled at the dock, either because of bad weather or lousy fishing prospects.

BEn Betts was the skipper who carried Price and his party.

"When they got here they said, "We hear there's no mackerel.' I said, 'I don't knwo how anyone knows because no one's been fishing yet.' But I told them they had their choice, either go or stay. We could be heroes or chumps, and we all wound up chumps."

Betts said he wouldn't have blinked if the party had backed out at the dock, and there would have been no charge for the cancellation.

But Betts followed a long-standing rule of chartermen when he charged full fare once the trip was on.

As Captain Nick Morris, who works out of Chesapeake Rod 'n' Reel, put it: "If we leave the harbor and put the lines in the water, you've bought the trip."

Price and his partners bought their trip and Price, for one, says he'll fish charter boats again. Next time he'll probably consider his prospects more carefully before climbing aboard.

Only one thing is worse than getting skunked, and that's having to pay for it.