The loudest early-morning sound on the ocean was the spish of beer cans being opened. So when the strike finally came, when 60 fishermen had their rods bent almost simultaneously, the effect was like an alarm clock ringing in church.
"Here they are, boys," yelled a fisherman doing an impromptu jig on the deck of an Ocean City head boat bound for a day of successful fishing. "It's the holy mackerel."
The Captain Bunting, a 65-foot charter boat carrying offduty firemen from Havre de Grace, Md., a construction contractor on crutches from Silver Spring and enough beer to pickle the British Navy, had ambushed a school of mackerel on its spawning run to Boston.
For most of a blue-skied day, the men, women and children who had paid $20 each ($10 for children under 13) to fish the Atlantic for the green and silver mackerel were kept so busy catching them, they might have filed a job action if they had been hired to do the work.
"Lord have mercy," said Monty Hawkins, the 21-year-old mate on the 23-year-old fishing boat. His job was to clean the decks, keep the peace and untangle the mess of crossed lines that resulted when fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder started catching fish that swam from side to side. "Mackerel is about as hectic and nasty a job as you can get."
Hawkins had the only discouraging word to be heard on the Bunting last week. The anglers, many of whom had left homes in Pennsylvania, western Maryland and Washington hours before dawn to stake out coveted spots on the Bunting by 6 a.m., were delighted.
"I was afraid I might miss the mackerel," said George Butterfield, a building inspector for the city of Baltimore, who had undergone heart bypass surgery just three weeks earlier. "Lying in that hospital, I was hoping I'd be up in time to be here."
The annual spring mackerel run is especially beloved by salt water fishermen for two reasons. It is the first fish of spring and it is easier to catch than your pet goldfish. Lines are baited with plastic worms on as many as four separate hooks. Find a sea captain who can find the fish and you'll be eating mackerel for months.
"This is a good tourist fish," said Orlando Bunting, the 68-year-old captain of the boat that bears his name. "Anybody can catch a mackerel; all you have to do is drop your line."
Bunting has been a head-boat captain since he graduated from high school in Ocean City in 1933. He is the last of six Bunting brothers, all of whom were charter-boat captains. He says he still gets a thrill out of finding a school of hungry mackerel for his customers, many of whom have been coming back for so many years that Bunting calls them the "old reliables."
"I've been fishing with Orlando Bunting since he was 17 years old," said Emory Cole, pushing a lock of white hair under a green fishing cap. "Ask him about the time it was so foggy we hit a buoy and put a hole in the boat. Well, we went out fishing anyway, and caught this marlin,see . . . "
Cole had positioned himself near the back of the boat, where the distance between the water and the rail was shortest. Many a fish has escaped a hook just a foot or two from capture, and old-timers such as Cole were taking no chances. But the fish this day were so eager to come aboard that even 6-year-old Stephen Lee, who spent much of the morning reading a book, "Fish Do the Strangest Things," could not shake them off his line.
"When you pull them in three at a time, there's nothing wrong with that," said Robert Jackson--one of seven firemen from Susquehanna Hose Co. No. 5 in Havre de Grace who stood at a railing on one side of the boat.
When the fishing was most frenetic, the firemen worked as a team. While six of them fished, Fred Berg untangled lines and opened beer cans. Every 20 minutes or so he would yell, "Time to change the shift." His mates would tell him to quit complaining and keep the beer coming.
Periodically, the Bunting and the mackerel lost contact with one another. When that happened, the captain would start his engines and move to a spot where he and his electronic Fathometer figured the fish had gone. Other head boats and small pleasure craft would move in other directions. But as soon as one of the boats began catching mackerel, the captains would see the flash of the sun off the silver underside of fish being brought aboard, and all the boats would regroup into one fish-catching armada.
"Did I ever tell you about the time we had water up to our ankles and icicles hanging off everywhere . . . ?" began Cole during one of the Bunting's fish hunts. While Cole told his story, Walter Garloff, 77, unwrapped sandwiches for himself and his 26-year-old grandson Kip Findley.
"I started him fishing," said Garloff of his grandson, who teaches school in Lebanon, Pa. "Now sometimes I teach him and sometimes he teaches me."
By the end of the day, so many fish had been caught that they filled all the coolers and plastic trash bags and spilled onto the deck of the boat. "Oh the blood and the gore," sighed Hawkins, the mate on the Bunting, who would be cleaning the boat hours after the fishermen had hauled their catch from the dock to their cars in a wheelbarrow.
"The doctor told me to walk a mile a day," Butterfield said. "I figured I could skip one day and go fishing."