Philip Allen was 15 minutes into the first bluefishing trip of his young life when there came a great tug on his line.
He had just enough time to say, "Hey!" before monofilament started zipping off the reel. A 14 1/2-pound bluefish was somewhere on the Southwest Middle Grounds with a hook in its mouth. The fun was on.
Thirty-two fishermen were aboard Capt. Doug Scheible's Bay King II that cool, windy, brilliant morning last week, and the first thing the bluefish did was try to round up the other 31 lines.
"Fish on!" someone shouted and Scheible's nimble mate, Jimmy Swisher, hurried aft to lend a hand. It was a job. Allen had medium-light spinning tackle, which meant the bluefish was in charge.
"Let him run, you can't stop him," Swisher advised while he tried to round up all lines either potentially in the way or already fouled.
"Raise your rod tip and let the boy go under," Swisher told one man, "and you drop yours down. Now hand me that rod and I'll take it around this one. Get your head down. Now, son, you walk behind this man and in front of this one."
Bit by bit, Swisher danced the bewildered teen-ager through the maze of lines and people across the transom of the big, wooden 60-footer, since that was the way the bluefish was going. Then he directed the youngster toward the bow as the blue ran forward.
The last I saw of Swisher and Allen they had made it to the bow by weaving in and out of the anglers lining the port rail, handing the rod around stanchions and deck fittings and anything else in the way. They disappeared, came back, disappeared and came back again, like a ballroom dance team. Swisher, 41, stayed at the boy's side until a cheer went up to signify the fight was won.
"The fish ran that boy back and forth across the bow three times," Swisher said later, "but when it was over, he wasn't tangled with a single other line."
By day's end, a dozen more large blues 12 pounds or better, along with a few dozen smaller ones, had been boated on the Bay King II and not one that I know of was lost due to avoidable mess-up, which was remarkable, given the conditions.
"If you pay for boys, you get boys," said Scheible, the skipper, by way of explanation. "I hire men for my mates. They make good money on this boat and they earn it."
On the surface, what Scheible does sounds like mission impossible. He chums for bluefish, meaning he lures in schools of hungry blues by ladling freshly ground menhaden into the water off the mouth of the Potomac River, to simulate the leavings of a feeding frenzy. Anglers dangle their baits in the chum slick and wait for strikes, which often come in bunches.
This is a fine sportfishing technique, but hardly practical for a headboat that carries up to 50 people. The potential for chaos among a crowd of strangers of indeterminate fishing skill simultaneously fighting bluefish up to 15 pounds side-by-side on a 60-foot boat are mind-boggling.
"And you ought to see some of the rigs they bring," added Scheible, whose clients turn up with fly rods, cane poles, trout rigs, trolling rods and surf rods.
But Scheible and his mates manage. So it goes on headboats, which get the name because they charge by the head and carry anyone who turns up before daily departure time with the fee.
Generally, headboat crowds are rough-and-tumble, but the mix on the Bay King II was varied and interesting. There were a couple of computer whizzes from the big Washington auditing firm Price-Waterhouse, a soccer coach from Manassas, a pressman from Washington, a bearded fellow reading an Elmore Leonard whodunit and a boatbuilder from southern Maryland. There were blacks, whites and Orientals, folks from the city and folks from the sticks, kids 10 years old and old men, side by side.
The only woman was Gail Swisher, Jimmy's wife, who ran the galley and infirmary. She did a good job of bandaging the outdoor writer when he sliced up his hand with a bait knife. About noon, she commenced cooking, and a wonderful odor of fried beef and onions drifted out onto the deck.
Here we were, in the middle of the week, on a bright, breezy day, on a big, seaworthy boat, with land so far away it was just blips on the horizon. The gulls screamed, big fish were biting, folks smiled in the sunlight, and here came the mate, wondering if by chance there was anything you wanted to eat.
It's a hard life.