The pecking order of saltwater fishing runs from the sublime -- such as fly fishing for tarpon on subtropical flats -- down to the occasionally preposterous, which would be headboats.
Headboats are large vessels that take whoever shows up out to the fishing grounds. They charge by the person, and if you ask the captain how many customers he carries he might say, "Forty-three head." Ergo, headboat.
Chesapeake Bay long has been a sad stepsister in the headboat department, taking a distant back seat to the glory areas of Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J., Ocean City, Norfolk and the giant fleets of the New York Bight.
There's a reason. Headboats principally pursue bottom fish such as croakers, spot and flounders, which for years have not been plentiful in the bay. Now the development of the bluefish and sea trout fishery in the lower Chesapeake has led a resurgence.
Headboats are booming at Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River, a two-hour drive from Washington. Sunday, three of the big Point Lookout party boats were on the bay, and by day's end they had disgorged scores of contented passengers whose coolers bulged with big blues and the occasional trout.
On the queen of the fleet, the 72-foot Bay King II, the 50-odd anglers were so pleased that when Capt. Doug Scheible emerged from the wheelhouse after docking they gave him a round of applause.
Headboats are the great mixing bowls of the angling world, where doctors might fish alongside card sharks, and women and children tangle lines with hard-core meat fishermen. On the Point Lookout boats these diverse types learn to help each other when bushels of ground-up chum lure ravenous blues around the boat and chaos erupts.
Scheible calls it "organized mayhem." He was on the bridge Sunday when flood tide started and he realized a bluefish blitz would begin shortly. He told Smitty the mate, "As soon as somebody gets a fish on I'm going inside and lock the door."
A joke. When the fishing broke out the stocky, red-faced skipper was in the heat of it, gaffing fish, sorting out tangles, lading chum over the side and shouting encouragement. A good thing, because even with four mates working the action was frenzied.
"Oh! OH! OHHHHHHHH!" shouted a woman in the stern as her fish came aboard. "It's BEAUTIFUL! I can't believe it. My first one in 20 years. aOh! We're coming back. We're coming back next weekend."
"Honey," said her male friend, "You're going to be in Seattle next weekend."
"I'll cancel my trip."
Headboat etiquette requires that each angler have an identifying mark on his fish. The blues are marked with a knife, tossed into a big ice chest and sorted out at day's end. My mark was two slashes on the tail.
A woman in the bow had trouble getting the technique down. All around her people were catching blues but she couldn't buy a bite. When she finally did latch onto an eight-pounder she was excited. As Scheible's son, Dale, gaffed it she cheered.
Dale waited for her to calm down, then asked, "What's your mark?"
"I don't have one," said the woman. "Just write 'Helen' on it."
If there is such a thing as a perfect day aboard a headboat, Sunday on the Bay King II was it. It started off badly, got worse, looked for awhile like a total washout and then was miraculously saved. It wound up with a flourish so intense that even after the chum was gone and the only bait was leftover heads and tails, the blues kept coming. They were biting when we left.
It was a close call, though. From 8 in the morning until 1 p.m. Scheible toured, stopping at various spots but luring in only one or two fish. As despair settled in the radio barked a message from Capt. Tom Drury aboard the Barbara S, a smaller boat from the Scheible fleet.
The Barbara S was into the blues, had loaded up and was ready to head home. Before Drury left, Scheible pulled up next to him, took over the Barbara S's chum slick and from then on it was wild and woolly.
Fishing at Point Lookout generally follows a pattern. The big fish come first, May being an excellent time to catch 10 and 12 pounders. By mid-June smaller fish in the four to eight pound range abound. Generally the fishing is excellent until around mid-July, tails off some in the dead of summer, then resumes ferociously in late summer and fall.
The two other headboats are Norman Bishop's twin New Jersey-built vessels, El Toro and Lucky Lady. The Bay King runs out of Scheible's Fishing Center in Wynne, Md. Bishop runs all-day and half-day trips out of Point Lookout State Park. All-day trips on both operations are $18 a head, including bait. Bishop's half-day trips are $11.
Bay King II leaves the dock at 8 a.m. El Toro leaves the park at about 8:30 and Lucky Lady's half-day trips from the park depart at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Bishop's boats also are running night trips at 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and the Bay King II will join the night fleet chasing sea trout on Saturdays, beginning June 6.