On Sunday, Capt. Fred Feller on the headboat Sea Sport out of Virginia Beach found a big pod of mackerel in the ocean and for about 10 minutes it was mayhem for everyone aboard.
"They hit 'em real well for a little while," Feller's wife Bobbie said, "but the fish are still scattered, and after that it was hit and miss. They stayed out there all day, though, and they came home with a good catch."
Feller was fishing 20 miles south of Virginia Beach, as far north as migrating mackerel have come, so far. But within a few weeks, when the sea warms from yesterday's 39 off Ocean City, Md., to a magical 43, the great schools will move up the coast and we can all go catch them.
The middle two weeks of April usually are prime season for mackerel off Ocean City and Lewes, Del., the ocean fishing ports closest to Washington. Their arrival marks the start of saltwater fishing in the mid-Atlantic, and what a start it is.
Anyone who has hit the mackerel run on the nose the way Feller's crew did briefly Sunday will tell you it's an experience never forgotten, with fish coming aboard four and five at a time, lines tangled, the boat rocking away, coolers full to overflowing and fish flopping loose all over the deck.
But people go for years without hitting the run right, mostly because they are impatient and go too early in the season, are lazy and wait too long, or pick the wrong day, when the wind is howling and everyone gets seasick.
So, how do you plan to hit the mackerel run right?
You don't. The first thing is stop planning. Do not make another plan. Do not charter a boat with the idea that April 10 is the day to go mackerel fishing because if you do, April 10 surely will be a horror.
Instead of wasting time making mackerel fishing plans, plant snow peas. Prune your bushes. Anything to keep your mind off fishing.
Learn how to wait, and read the signs of spring. Write down the phone numbers of the Talbot Street Pier in Ocean City and Fisherman's Wharf in Lewes, and get familiar with the people who answer there so you feel confident when they tell you the fish are in thick, that it's really true.
Then, when the season is at its height, wait another day or two as necessary, until the eve of the perfect weekday, when a gentle wind blows from the west, the sun promises to shine all day, the temperature is mild. Then go. This is a day you will never forget. Accept no obstacles to this day.
The very best time I ever hit mackerel was a few years ago when unwitting editors sent me to Rehoboth Beach in April to cover some hearings on proposed offshore burning of toxic wastes. After the first hearing, I slipped down to Talbot Street Pier just about dusk and found people still cleaning one- to two-pound mackerel from the trip that had landed at 3 p.m.
The weather forecast was for temperatures in the 70s and the ocean was calm, as flat as a dish. "You'd better not miss it," said Lloyd Lewis, who runs the dock. "It's the best you'll ever see."
"Boss," I said by phone that night, "no story on offshore burning of toxic wastes would be complete without a firsthand look at the area in question. Normally, the cost would be prohibitive, but, incredibly, I have found a boat that'll take me there for only $22."
I didn't say it was the headboat Capt. Bunting. It was mayhem out there, all day long.
The only type of boat to go mackerel fishing in is a headboat -- one of the fleet of 50- and 60-footers that leaves from Ocean City and Lewes every decent day once the mackerel run starts in earnest.
They charge by the head. You need no advance reservation. Just turn up at 7 a.m. or so and claim a spot. Everything you need is aboard, including food (of a sort) and rental tackle. Go on a weekday. Weekends are crowded.
The alternatives are to take your own small boat (suicide in the ocean in April), or charter a sportfishing boat, which is expensive and crazy because you have to pick a day in advance, and the weather is unreliable.
Mackerel have an undeserved reputation as poor table fare. Fresh mackerel filets, buttered and broiled, are sweet as fresh corn on the cob. But they don't keep well in the freezer. Too oily. If you catch 50 or 60, which isn't unlikely if you pick your day, eat what you can fresh and give the rest away, or get them smoked. Smoked mackerel is superb.
If you can't wait another minute, drive to Virginia Beach and go with Feller, the skipper who took Jimmy Carter tuna fishing almost a decade ago. He runs out of Virginia Beach Fishing Center, $20 a day, every day but Tuesdays and Thursdays. On weekends, better call ahead for a reservation. The number's in the book.