What's it like having a white marlin or three cruising around behind your boat?

"I've seen it many times, but never when it wasn't sheer bedlam," said Joel Arrington.

At Hatteras Village, about 50 charter boats go offshore in pursuit of marlin. On the Early Bird, a fast 50-footer made of juniper wood, Capt. Emory Dillon can be complacent one moment and shrieking the next.

"Left rigger," he fairly screamed from the flying bridge. "LEFT RIGGER!"

Moments earlier, an unusually large white marlin had come crashing into the six baits, which were skipping across the water directly behind the boat.

On this day, 30 miles offshore in 900 feet of water, the marlin elected to strike at the baits closest to the boat. There fisherman and the mate, Ross Clark, here and after referred to by his nickname, Flash, went nuts.

"Flat line," Flash shouted and all three fishermen raced to a rod in the stern. The marlin smacked that bait but didn't take it.

"Short rigger," Flash yelled, and everyone raced to another rod.

"Left rigger," said the captain. "LEFT RIGGER!"

At the precise moment there were suddenly two white marlin working close to the boat, looking angry and like nothing else in the fish world. Their dorsal fins broke the water. As Early Bird moved ahead at about eight knots, the marlin hung behind the dancing baits, idling.

When they decided to strike they lit up like neon, then with an incredible display of speed and power zoomed sideways, like trains changing tracks, and hit the doomed baits.

The fisherman is supposed to see the strike coming, race to the appropriate rod, pull it from its holder, feed the bait to the fish, snap the reel into gear and jerk back three times with a mighty force as the fish takes, thus settling the hook in the marlin's bony mouth.

Usually what happens is the confused fishermen spend 85 percent of the time running around in circles bumping into each other. If they are very lucky, a marlin hooks itself.

"Left rigger," screamed the captain."LEFT RIGGER!"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an immense silver shape begin to break the water 50 yards astern, to the left. My mind broke away from the cruising, bait-busting pair behind the boat and I watched an 85-pound white marlin shoot out of the blue sea and hang in the air, six feet of glowing, angry billfish. It hit the water with a thunderous splash.

"Gee," said my mind. "I've never seen a marlin free-jump like that before."

"Left rigger. LEFT RIGGER!"

And finally my gaze swung to the farthest left rod, the heavy 80-pound test rig we'd set up in case a blue marlin happened by, and I saw the rod tip dancing a Saint Vitus' dance. Line stripped from the reel. I grabbed the rod, set its aluminum butt in the gimbled fixture of the fighting chair, sat down and engaged the biggest white marlin I'd ever seen.

Meanwhile, Arrington and his son Adam were concentrating on the pair behind the boat, and when the next strike came, the hook was set and Adam began his battle.

Marlin doubleheader.

This is the zenith of sport fishing on the East Coast. No fish has the strength or acrobatic genius of a marlin; no fish is as prized a conquest.

"Get ready now," Joel Arrington had said as the day began. "This is serious, mucho-macho, he-man stuff."

The big white with which I was hooked up did his dancing early, setting off in a series of five or six tail-walking leaps. It did not break the surface after that, opting instead to fight deep and hard.

The fish went down, forcing me to pump and reel, until the sweat rolled off like rainwater and my forearms refused to work.

It took 25 minutes, during which the marlin was twice next to the transom, but took off again in bursts that stripped line from the reel and lost back most of what I'd gained.

Adam, meanwhile, was wrestling his fish on 30-pound test line and getting a show.

I could hear the others oohing and aahing as the smaller marlin leaped and danced 40 feet off the stern, but when I looked up all I'd catch was boiling water where the fish had touched down. Meanwhile, these lapses cost precious line in my own fight.

The fighting chair swiveled uncontrollably. I couldn't see for the sweat in my eyes. The big fish jerked the rod left, then right, so that line would scrap the inside of my wrist, burning the skin.

"Help," I said.

"No help," the others said. "You do it yourself."

Flash, the mate, helped. He encouraged me, and eventually the swivel, marking where the wire leader joined the fishing line, was at the tip of the rod.

"He's ours," said Flash, and began bringing the tired fish the final 30 feet, hand over hand.

The idea was to get the marlin to the boat long enough to admire and photograph it, then release it. These fish are not good to eat, and I'm not rich or vain enough to want to put one on a wall. So we were going to let him go.

But the fish took care of that itself, glaring up at Flash and, with a jerk of its head, dislodging the hook. It was an official catch and release, the criterion being getting a hand on the wire leader.

Adam's fish came to the transom shortly after, kicking and flailing. Flash grabbed it by the bill, dislodged the hook and sent it back overboard as well.

And that was marlin fishing. "You guys did everything you could to let those fish off," chuckled Dillon. "I guess some days they're just meant to be caught."

They were the 11th and 12th white marlin caught aboard Early Board this young season. Dillon and Flash also have one blue marlin to their credit, which rankles them. They expected more of both species by now, but it's been a slow-starting year.

Although Ocean City, Md., still bills itself as the white marlin capital of the world, billfisherman generally believe the area off Cape Hatteras offers the highest yield of white marlin per unit of effort anywhere in North America.

The season runs through September and into October, with the best results coming in the final months for six weeks off Oregon Inlet, just below Nags Head. Charter boats there sail out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. At Hatteras Village, they go out of Holiday Harbor Marina or Teach's Lair Marina.

Charter boats here charge about $300 a day plus fuel, a total of close to $400, and carry up to six people. In addition to marlin, they often catch tuna, wahoo, king mackeral and dolphin.

Dillon stopped near a weed line during the course of our day. Dolphin came pouring out from under the weeds and we spent an hour casting tiny spoons and jigs to these colorful, hard-fighting and wonderful-eating fish. We caught a couple dozen and lost at least as many more that broke off on the light tackle.

Marlin fishing obviously is something few can do very often. It's high-stakes, expensive business and there are plenty of days when nary a marlin is seen.

But it's quite a payoff when the payoff comes.

"There's only two kinds of marlin skippers," said Dillon. "A hero and an S.O.B. Today I'm a hero."