A tiny fleet of commercial fishermen battle wildly fluctuating fish prices, numbing cold, treacherous fog and one of the world's most unpredicatable sand bars in pursuit of freedom and, for the lucky ones, economic independence.

These Cape Cod fishermen -- about 250 of whom fish out of Chatham, about mid-Cape on the western shore -- never know whether they will make or lose money when they embark before dawn.

They have no idea what size catch they'll bring home. They don't even know what price the fish will bring. It may be 6 cents or 96 cents a pound -- both prices were in effect this year -- depending on the market for the day.

What do they do when the price is down?"

"Ya jes haveta catch more," a group of fishermen replied in their clipped Massachusetts accents at a postfishng Chatham water hole.

One skipper said he brought in 50 boxes that day in his gill nets and may have lost money since he carries a crew of three on his 39-foot boat. Crew members are paid a share of profits.

Bing Thistle, who took his mate, his uncle and this reporter with him that day, brought back five boxes after 13 hours of jigging for elusive cod.

There are 120 pounds of fish to a box and with haddock -- the price pantype fish in these part -- going for 17 cents a pound, his load might bring him as little as 6 cents a pound.

But Bingy, as most people call the 43-year-old, curly haired rock of a man, was not that unhappy after his second beer.

"It was a nice day," he said, his voice deep as a fog horn as he reflected on the calm seas and crisp, sunny skies we had experienced.

"Beats paintin' all ta hell," noted Doug Marvel, his mate on the Giacomo Z, a sturdy 29-foot cod boat.

Bingy plans to go after tuna later this year with Marvel manning the harpoon on the bow. Tuna may bring $2 to $3 a pound and they run 800 to 900 pounds, Bingy boomed.

At 5 a.m. -- about two hours later than he normally pulls out -- Bingy was waxing eloquent on the topics of fog and the Chatham bar as he negotiated the toruous passage before heading out toward Nantucket.

When the fog lifted he was just off the fence at Andrew Hardy Beach where he anchors and keeps a skiff to get to and from his boat.

"This is nothing today," he said, whipping the wheel from one side to the other in a serpentine pate between a visible bar on the port and an island to starboard. On this day there was only a slight breeze and we rode a full tide.

"Worst harbor in the world to get in and out," he said, noting that the channel can change completely over a week or so. "If you don't go out everyday you have to learn it all over." Even the charts advise seeking "local information." Bingy keeps a handwritten channel log.

Once past the maze of sandbars, Bingy steered his craft easily in the light roll, eying his Loran constantly while heading for remembered fishing spots.

The jigging rigs consist of a jig -- a stainless steel lure with a three pronged hook varying in weight from a few ounces to 37. This is fastened to the end of the line. About six feet above this is a red, bluish or yellow "teaser" -- a plastic tube with a single hook is tied off a short leader. A second teaser is located three feet above this one.

The weight jig selected is based upon the depth and pace of the tide.

To jig you drop the the hand rig over the side and let it hit bottom. Then you yank firmly on the line, pulling it upward several feet, then letting it go slack, hit bottom again and repeating the process.

When you pull up the jig -- from a cod's eye view -- it appears to be a fish swimming away. When you let the line go slack, it looks like a wounded fish. It is usually at this point the cod takes it. On the subsequent pull you know you have a cod because of the added weight. You pull the line and fish aboard, hand over hand.

Occasionally you haul up two at a time, since the cod also hit the teasers. Not infrequently, you side hook a fish. That makes a 10-pounder feel like 70.

I found myself aching in places I'd never even thought about and wondered how the Cape Codders did it day after a 12 to 14-hour-day.

But it is exciting to feel what you believe is a monster "steaker" -- cod which run over 30 pouns or so -- on the line and wonder if you have the biggest one of the day.

Bingy figures it costs him about $70 a day to operate his boat. With gas at $1.24 a gallon and his boat burning 11 gallons an hour the cost would be considerably more on this day.

It figured to be a real loss for him on this run with Marvel getting a full share of the take, the boat getting a share, and Bingy a share.

Some captains take on unskilled help and give them only a half share but Marvel has experience and will probably be moving up to be a skipper himself, just as Bingy did after five years serving under others.

That's the way the Chatham fleet maintains itself, with younger skippers moving up and taking the place of those who couldn't make it financially, or retire after years in the trade.

And as younger men move in innovations take place like the use of fish finders. Loran and gill nets, now popular, after having been used here for the first time two years ago.

Previously, boats used tub lines, trolling for fish with herring on hooks spaced over long lines. Now they set their gill nets and come back and haul in the catch.

The trip back over the bar was again deceptively easy. The picturebook scene of the fleet bobbing at moorings in Aunt Liddie's Cove framed in the low-lying sun, hinted at what keeps these men in the difficult business.

Our group was bone-weary when we finally beached the skiff. Bingy's eyes sparkled as he remembered a week early in the winter when cod was going for 96 cents a pound and one boat brought in 180 boxes.

And the answer as to what to do when the price of fish was down kept coming back: "Ya jes haveta catch more."

It's a hard hard life, but none of the Chatham fishermen would have it any other way.