One certainty in modern America is that if you find a bargain you'd better grab it fast because it won't be around long.

One of the better outdoor bargains in the Washington area is a half-day fishing charter with Capt. Dick Houghland out of Chesapeake Beach, Md.

The beach is a quick hour's drive, on the button, from Washington. The last half-mile is an unexpected thrill as the car tops a rise on Route 258 and the vast gray expanse of the Bay unfolds below.

Houghland's boat, Mary Lou, is a 20-year-old Bay-built with a pair of gas-guzzling V8s. She's a sturdy boat that plows through any angry sea.

His rate is $110 a half-day. Split between six anglers, which is the most he can carry, it comes to just under $20 a person for the use of tackle, boat and the skipper's expertise.

A bargain.

Predictably not for long.

Not for long.

Houghland says he's bailing out. He feels the fishing in the Middle Bay gets harder every year. He can't make enough money working 14-hour days to keep afloat, and he's too decent a guy to jack his prices up any higher.

"Most of my parties are my friends now," he said. "They've been fishing with me for 10 years. They invite me to their homes in the winter. I wouldn't feel right about hitting them for more money."

So he's getting out after the season, probably to start a commercial fishing venture off the North Carolina coast.

A pity.

Last week we shared one of Houghland's orchestrated Bay days - an afternoon adventure that included a painted gray summer sky, half a barrel of bluefish, a spatter of rain, some high-sport angling and some easy conversation.

Houghland is 33, a native of Hanover, Pa., and one of the rare Bay skippers who doesn't try to bowl his parties over with clever, earthy Bay talk.

He has a reputation as a hustler - the good kind, that is.

Many skippers are content to troll along after bluefish, which always works but isn't very exciting. Not Houghland, who will jump at the chance to do something different and then take the heat if it fails.

Wednesday he pioneered live-lining for bluefish.

Houghland likes a risk but he's not crazy. Before our new adventure he took us trolling for blues until we had 20 in the box. Then we took our chances.

First we needed bait. He eased Mary Lou up on a 20-foot shelf near ship channel in the middle of the Bay. He rigg ed tiny hooks on light spinning rods and tipped each with an even tinier piece of bloodworm.

He stopped the motors and we dropped our lines, feeling almost instantly the insistent taps of tiny spot nipping the worms.

We yanked spot into the boat and tossed them in a bucket until we had three dozen, plenty for bait. One of our party, a novice, said even the spot fishing was more fun than trolling. "It's like going to a gambling casino and winning," he said.

With our bucket of live bait we set off to the bluefish grounds again as south breezes whipped the water into a gentle chop.

Houghland stopped the boat on a rise in the Bay floor called "The Gooses." He hooked the two- and three-inch spot onto light spinning rods, left the boat in a silent drift and watched as we set to work.

This was serious sport fishing. The idea was to let the spot run free through the hordes of ravenous blues, which never showed up in hordes and didn't seem all that ravenous, either.

The hard part was knowing when a bluefish struck, since the spot were thrashing away anyway, and then having the forebearance to let the big fish swallow the little fish before trying to set the hook.

Even Ricky Harris, the ex-Redskin kick returner, had trouble coordinating hands and eyes and timing. So did his boss, Howard football coach Floyd Keith, a veteran Midwest freshwater angler.

So did the outdoor editor, but no need to get into that.

In due time and after a multitude of hair-raising misses we managed to fumble our way into a few hookups.

Then the fun really began as the powerful three-to-five-pound blues ripped line off the light spinning rods (the same ones we'd used to catch the spot).

"Man," said Keith, "this is a genuine challenge."

Enough of a challenge that he never did get a bluefish in the boat. Houghland kept a wary eye on Keith as he brought his fish closer, only to see them snap off within feet of the rail.

Sometimes that can induce a frustrated angler to snap a rod over his knee. Keith kept his head.

Live-lining for blues is something Houghland has toyed with occasionally, never with great success. The bait is plentiful, available over almost any shallow hard bottom.

The problem is that with all those spot in the Bay it's hard to convince the blues to bite the one on your line.

"Oh, they chase 'em all right," said Houghland, "but they get suspicious when they see the hooks and lines."

In any case it's a fine switch from trolling, which gets old quickly. After all, the appeal of fishing is the exploration of the mysterious and invisible world of sea beasts on their turf and terms.

We were getting plenty of that and the satisfcation was not diminished by the fact that the bluefish won far and away more rounds than we. CAPTION: Picture, Capt. Dick Houghland of the Bay charter fishing boat Mary Lou, fishes for spot which become in turn, bait for bluefish. By Angus Phillips - The Washington Post