The beach was so dark at 3 a.m., bats were crash-landing into dunes and sand crabs were using seeing-eye fleas to find their way. But after a 5 1/2-hour drive, it seemed criminal to sleep while bluefish were waiting for us in the surf.

"The bluefish are out there," said Artie Coppola, as he rigged his 10-foot surf casting rod with hooks big enough to snag a small cruise ship. "Let's see if we can't catch some monsters."

When the bluefish begin running up the Atlantic coast, even mild-mannered folk are prone to strange impulses and manic delusions. There is something about a school of bluefish, their razor-sharp teeth tearing into everything in their path, including each other, that seems to provoke a kindred response in their hunters.

"Bluefish are the piranhas of the Atlantic," said Coppola, a 22-year-old from Bethesda who has been fishing the Outer Banks since he was bait-size. "Sometimes you can stand on the beach and see waves that are red with half-eaten minnows and blood. They are so voracious, I love them."

The Outer Banks is a great place to catch a case of the blues. Because these barrier islands jut into the Atlantic farther than any other point of land on the mid-Atlantic seaboard, you can catch bluefish here from the shore that you need a boat to reach anywhere else.

If you want to chase the big ones, there are headboats and private charters for rent. But there are also a hundred miles of beach where you can surf fish for free. And for a $2.50 to $3 admission charge, there are eight public fishing piers, from Kitty Hawk to Cape Hatteras, that provide lights, cleaning tables, tackle, bait and fishing action 24 hours a day.

In the spring and fall, when the blues are feeding offshore, the Outer Banks becomes the world's longest fishing party. Local newspapers run pictures of fishermen standing over beaches littered with their catch. Radio stations provide news flashes on angling conditions. And the owners of motels, restaurants and fishing supply stores reel in a seasonal catch as impressive as anything pulled from the sea.

"We've been coming down here in the spring and fall for the last five years," said Carl Hanel, who was casting from the Kitty Hawk pier this weekend with his wife Ann. The couple from Forest, Va., has been a fishing team since they were married 43 years ago. They claim to have fished every lake, river and pond in the Old Dominion. But ask them about great days, and they talk first about North Carolina.

"Last year we caught 400 fish in one day here--blues, spot and trout," said Hanel as he and his wife staked out a spot by the wooden railing, 20 feet above the Atlantic.

The fishing piers reach 600 yards into the water. But at times you will find half the anglers crowded onto a 30-yard stretch. Let one person catch a few fish while everyone else is being skunked, and a mass migration to that spot begins. It is then that lines get tangled and new friends made.

"I'm using the same lure he is, but I'm not catching the fish he is," said Hanel, who had moved close to Alvin Lodish, a 31-year-old Justice Department lawyer and fishing novice.

Lodish caught seven bluefish in almost as many casts. That kind of performance does not go unnoticed on a crowded fishing pier, especially not when you announce the arrival of each one with mock exaggeration.

"This guy is big enough to play in the NBA," said Lodish, as he unhooked a three-pound blue.

Hanel's wife watched Lodish catch a few more fish, then declared: "He must have paid his preacher before he came here."

Within a few minutes, however, everyone was busy pulling in his own fish. Another school of blues was cruising the surf line, leaving mayhem and manic anglers in its wake.