MANAHAWKIN, N.J. -- It was a day unfit for man or beast, with a cool southeasterly wind clipping along at 20 knots, pushing the tide into Little Egg Harbor like a whitecapped river in flood.

But these marshy New Jersey bays are famous for their fluke fish. A fellow would be crazy to come all this way and not wet a line.

Off we went, the 17-footer crammed with seven people, including four kids aged 3 to 16. Pushing into the wind sent sheets of spray over the bow on the mile-long ride to the fishing grounds.

At the fluke spot, the idea was to drift at the speed of the tide, so a minnow on a hook below washed along the way a lazy bait fish might ride the current. Flatfish on the bottom, hanging around the channel edge hunting an easy meal, would be deceived.

But when it's blowing half a gale, the boat scuds across the water like an empty paper cup. It's hard even finding bottom with the sinker, let alone detecting the gentle tap-tap-tap of an interested fish.

Hopeless, I kept thinking. At such moments you look for help from above, and so it came.

It started with three or four seagulls diving, but quickly the sky went dark with the noisy creatures, wheeling and caterwauling a few hundred yards away. Anyone who fishes salt water knows what starts gulls behaving like that -- bluefish on a feeding spree.

"Pull 'em in," I said, and the kids rolled up their lines. I bit off the fluke rigs and rooted through the tackle box, searching for silver lures, anything shiny.

One boat already was closing in -- a 13-foot Boston Whaler with a kid at the controls. He was stoked. His hair stood straight out as he raced along.

In a feeding blitz, blues attack from below, forcing terrified minnows to swim up to avoid the slashing schools. But it's a two-edged sword. As soon as the minnows hit the surface, gulls swoop in to pick them off.

The clever fisherman, spotting the birds and the churning below, hurries to a spot upwind or uptide and lets nature bear him silently into casting range.

The kid in the Whaler knew that. We pulled up alongside and drifted down together. My first cast was true, but the blues slashed and chopped and couldn't bite the lure.

Too big. I changed and threw again. Hookup!

Before long, the anglers came charging in like the gulls. Unfortunately, few understood the etiquette; they charged their boats full-tilt into the heart of the school.

Spooked, the blues went down and moved off. You had to wait and give chase again when the gulls signaled they'd surfaced anew.

But what fun while it lasted. The kids' eyes were big as egg yolks. In short order we had dozens of strikes and put four fish in the boat, plenty for the family barbecue that night, and the spray was still flying, the fish splashing and the wind howling.

A bluefish feeding frenzy like that is as raw and urgent as any natural phenomenon you'll likely see, and not soon forgotten.

Our own Chesapeake Bay is a prime spot for breaking blues, but, although they were going great in New Jersey last week, the bluefish have been oddly inactive feeding on the surface in the Bay so far this season.

But the big schools should be churning up the Chesapeake any time now, down at Point Lookout near the mouth of the Potomac, at Sharp's Island at the mouth of the Choptank, off the mouth of the Patuxent at Solomons Island and around Parker's Creek just south of Chesapeake Beach.

Calvin Tyler of Tyler's Tackle Shop in Chesapeake Beach said he's seen some good schools already. Although there's been a recent lull, he said, "it gets better the further along in the season."

Here, then, The Washington Post guide to breaking bluefish:

Go early or late. The best time to catch blues breaking is just after dawn or around dusk, although late in the season they'll break off and on all day. The calmer the weather, the better the prospects.

Take binoculars. All the better to scan the sky for gulls.

Fast boats pay off. The perfect vessel to chase breaking schools is a small, fast skiff. Bass fisherman Glenn Peacock had a field day at Point Lookout last summer in his 17-footer with a 150 horsepower motor. He got to the breakers first every time.

Long casts. Stay as far away from the churning action as you can, lest you spook the school. And cast to the edge of the school. Otherwise, so many fish are likely to strike at your lure, one or more will cut the line before you get the fish you hooked out of the pack.

Silver. Take silver-colored spoons, particularly lures like the bent Crocodile spoon favored in Florida. And bring several sizes, from one inch long to three or four inches, as the fish you chase may be anywhere from a pound apiece to eight pounds.

Phone ahead. Tackle shops like the Tackle Box in Lexington Park, Tyler's in Chesapeake Beach, H.M. Woodburn's in Solomons and others close to where you plan to fish should know if blues have been breaking in the region. If they say no soap, take the day off and mow the lawn. It probably needs it.