An old fellow at the rail of Capt. Darrell Nottingham's seagoing fishing boat shook his head and muttered to himself.

"Can't catch mackerel till you've see the first whale."

Maybe Nottingham held that superstition, too. He kept his eyes open.

He was halfway through a day of deep sea searching for Boston mackerel, which race north when the weather warms and can be intercepted off Ocean City. The fishing to that point had satisfied no one. Not a mackerel had been caught, though Nottingham had recorded some good catches the weekend before.

Then, 22 miles to sea and just off a red marker called the Jackspot Buoy, Nottingham ground the big 65-foot Mariner to a halt.

His voice came over the intercom. "We've got a whale off the right-side bow," he said. Forty anglers pushed to the front of the boat.

In a few minutes the great black back of the deep-water mammal emerged. It lifted half-clear of the water and the whale sent a small spume of water skyward.

"There she blows," someone felt compelled to say.

The fishermen watched the whale, which was joined shortly by another, for 15 minutes. The two 30-foot-plus behemoths cruised around the bow, giving a wide berth, and headed off to the north.

"Let's see what those whales were feeding on," Nottingham's voice said.

He fired up Mariner's twin diesels and moved the quarter-mile to where the whales first were sighted.

And the Mariner anglers started hauling up mackerel.

Not a lot of mackerel, but as a wise angler once declared, there's a big difference between one and none.

The mackerel season has arrived at Ocean City, though reports of spectacular catches would be overstatements.

Each year there are days when anglers grow arm-weary from hauling these delectable first-of-the-year saltwater specimens up. But those days are rare.

Meantime, the Ocean City headboats are going out daily, weather permitting, in search of what comes their way. Last Wednesday that proved to be a disappointing haul of about three dozen mackerel among a boatload of fishermen.

But the day was soft and springcool, the seas were gentle and the sun was bright. Nottingham conceded he had taken most of his crowd on a $16 boat ride.

There were no complaints.

Among marinas which will be sending party boats in pursuit of mackerel out of Occean City for the next few weeks are:

Bahia Marina, phone 301-289-7438.

Capt. Bill Bunting, 301-289-7424

Bunting's Occean City Marina, 301-289-6720.

Talbot Street Pier, 301-289-9125.