It's been a superb summer for marlin fishing, a sport considered by many to be the apex of saltwater angling off the mid-Atlantic states.

White and big blue marlin have been available in abundance off Ocean City, Rudee Inlet and Oregon Inlet. Conditions have been ideal, with practically no "blow days" when the fleets are locked in at the docks.

This month the prevailing winds begin arriving from the north quarter, and these too-water cruisers with the sharp bills and tall dorsal fins are starting to migrate south to warmer and more fertile feeding grounds.

Look at a map of the East Coast and you'll see that about in the middle of North Carolina the lay of the land sweeps east to a point at Cape Hatteras on the outer banks. South of there it falls back westward.

Carolina marlin anglers claim that it's off this point that migrating marlin make their last leading stand of the fall. They are driven south by the northeast storms, these amateur naturalists contend, and lay up off Hatteras for a final feed before the late autumn storms drive them around the bend and far south.

These waters are particularly accessible to marlin fishermen because off Hatteras the continental shelf and the Gulf Stream are close to shore - perhaps 35 miles out to sea. Marlin find plenty of bait fish to feast on near the shelf, where the bottom drops off from hundreds of feet to thousands of feet.

Anglers seek marlin for two reasons. First, the fish are surface feeders and hooking them involves practically hand-feeding the bait to the on-coming marlin, which is an art and a visual delight. They are big fish, too, ranging from an average 45-pound white marlin to monstrous blue marlins of up to 1,000 pounds.

But size isn't the key; it's the marlin's fighting ability. "Maybe there's been a marlin that didn't leap when he was hooked," said veteran marlin pursuer Joel Arrington, "but I haven't heard of it."

Arrington and I, along with some other anglers, shared two days of marling fishing last week off the Carolina shore. The first day was pathetically unproductive, with three marlin barely glimpsed and only one fish caught, a 30-pound wahoo that took a trolled surface bait but never showed itself till it was along side the boat.

On the second day we fared better. The weather was right and getting righter. Light east breezes dappled the water as we passed out the inlet channel and rising winds were expected all day.

"This is the only time of year we look forward to a northeaster," Arrington said. "It drives the fish south."

We roared out of the sound like a navy squadron on maneuvers, 40 or more high-speed seagoing sport fishing boats in a convoy, heading full speed for the marlin grounds. These boats are magnificent in the first gray of dawn, the deep flare of their bows sending spray cascading over the swells.

The day before, our skipper, Tony Tillett, had landed seven white marlin. We looked forward to more of the same and got it. The first fish hit less than an hour after we set the baits. It was a white marlin, and it came ranging up through the six rigged ballyhoo baits like a torpedo. This dude was hungry.

We'd see a flash of silver, a dorsal fun creasing the water, a bill poking out over the swells. The fish dashed from one bait to the other and the mate. Chuck Midgett, raced from one rod to the next, waiting to set the hook.

Finally it struck, smashing the closet bait with its bill. Midgett grabbed the rod, put it in free spool, clamped a thumb on the 20-pound-test line and held the rod tip high over his head. When the fish came bach and hit again he dropped the rod down, let the marlin run with the bait for a two-count, engaged the reel and set the hook.

The fish was on and Midgett handed me the rod. The marlin made a wonderful leap, clearning the water; then another, and another. It jumped six times in all, while Tillett rammed the motor in reverse and backed down and I reeled like mad.

In 10 minutes it was over; Midgett had the steel leader wire in his hand. He reached down, grabbed the fish by its bill and hauled it aboard just long enough to disengage the hook, then splashed it overboard. It flashed away.

We reenacted the scene three more times as the east wind built and glimpsed several more marlin that didn't take. By 2 o'clock we'd had plenty, and the seas were five feet and gaining by the minute.

We turned tail and headed for home on a following sea. Midgett readied the four flags that would fly from the rigging, announcing our catches-and-releases.

This may seem a silly way to spend a day and $260, which is the charter fee.

Marlin aren't good to eat, and mounting one on the wall doesn't appeal to most folks. It's a bit self-indulgent, forsure. And before the end of the month most of the Carolina charter men will be heading for different grounds to fish for king mackerel, which provide fewer thrills but are fine table fare.

But every angler dreams of latching on to a big marlin. For a once-in-a-life-time thrill, it lives up to its billing.