The start of the saltwater fishing season in these parts is heralded by the arrival of mackerel, hordes of which allegedly migrate north along the Maryland and Delaware coast every spring.

It's feast or famine, fishing for these bloody denizens of the sea. In my experience, always famine. But reports of the chaotic, wild and frenzied nature of a successful mackerel expendition kept me coming back to the rolling Atlantic.

This year, at least, came a bonanza.

Capt. Dale Parsons runs the Keena Dale out of this humble seaside town, which is an easy three-hour drive from Washington, if there is such a thing. His family has been running headboats here for 45 years, but only in the last decade has it pursued the early mackerel.

"Some boys from New Jersey that were fishing for them told me, 'You ought to get your worms on and get out here; you can make a dollar,'" Parsons said, so he joined the fleet of big boats that brave April winds.

He has no shortage of paying customers. The first mackerel showed up off Ocean City a week and a half ago and reports filtered back to the hinterlands. Then it rained and blew and was generally so miserable that the boats couldn't get out.

Last Wednesday the skies cleared and Thursday the gale winds abated. When placid dawn broke there was a line waiting to board Keena Dale -- a line so long the people filled the boat before the captain even arrived and Parsons had to call in his backup boat, Thelma Dale, to carry the overflow.

Remus and Herbert Houston of Baltimore left home at midnight and arrived at 2:30 a.m. "so we wouldn't have to hurry," Herbert said. But when the two elderly gentlemen got to the dock, they discovered others already had staked out the coveted fishing spots in the stern, marking their territory by strapping fishing rods to the rail. The Houstons were too late. t

It was a fevered bunch, all right. "I just feel like I have to get the edge off," said Stan Jarnowski, who came down from Reading, Pa., complaining of cabin fever.

Two Charles, Charles Dominick and Charles Readinger, brought with them from their central Pennsylvania homes two 50-gallon green plastic trash cans to fill with mackerel. Such cans were common, in fact. When one fellow tossed his Snickers wrapper into one, the owner chastised him: "That's not a trash can, you know."

But what about the fishing?

Parsons stopped within five miles of the jetty that marks the mouth of Delaware Bay and tooted twice on the ship's horn. The cabin emptied as fast as if someone had shouted "Fire!"

To catch mackerel you use a mackerel tree, a curious rig with several hooks. A silvery diamond jig with a treble hook anchors the rig. Above it are two-inch rubber worms, each with a hook, placed every eight or 10 inches for three feet up the line.

The shiny jig attracts the first mackerel. Once hooked, its frantic efforts to escape attract others, which then strike at the rubber worms. That way a fisherman can catch three or four fish at a time, which fills up trash cans in a hurry.

For awhile after the Keena Dale began her first drift all was quiet. Then she slid over a school and suddenly there was chaos. Lures and hooks and flashing mackerel were flying everywhere, fishermen shouted for the two mates, lines tangled, there was the weired sound of expiring fish flapping on the wooden deck.

In five minutes it was over.

Not good enough for Parsons, who wanted the boat full. He was hearing reports over the radio that a bunch of boats was catching 200 mackerel to a drift 10 miles south off Fenwick Island. There were great shoals of mackerel there, the radio said. He tooted the horn and headed out.

The Fenwick Island fleet appeared like a small, floating city bathed in sunlight, twinkling in the sparkling sea. "This," Bob Sylvester said to his young son Troy, "is a day prepared for us."

Parsons tried three or four drifts before he found the shoals of mackerel. A large, black headboat named Big Jim lay off to port. Watching it, you saw animated people hauling silvery fish in by the dozens.

Then Keena Dale hit the same waters and the same frenzy took over. This time it went on for a quarter of an hour. I dropped my silver jig to the bottom and felt the bump of a mackerel; I started reeling in and there was another bump and another, and still another. I couldn't budge the fish.

I shouted at the mate, "Somebody's snagged me on the other side."

"I don't think so," he said. "Just keep reeling."

He was right, of course. In the clear green water moments later I could see the shiny fish, like spokes on a wheel gone mad, darting and crossing each other's paths. I hauled them aboard and they flapped on the deck. "Get your rig back in the water," someone shouted.

In an hour's time just about everyone aboard had all the mackerel he wanted and more. "My cooler's full," Sylvester said. "I don't want any more. But I can't stop fishing."

By 4 o'clock quitting time only the hard core still were at it. Others, who had started their day long before dawn in getting to Lewes, were stretched out in the cabin asleep. Others were seasick, the wind having picked up from the south and created rolling, five-foot seas.

Parsons, who charges $18 a person for his fishing trips, expects mackerel fishing to stay hot for two or three weeks. "They're still below us," he said. "We're still going south to get to them."

He said the mackerel run usually sustains the fleet until the start of sea trout fishing in May, the height of the year for Delaware Bay anglers.

But mackerel can be gone overnight. "They're migrating," Parsons said. "They'll stick around to feed as they go, but if you want to see something more, wait till the bluefish get on their tail."