CRISFIELD, MD. -- With 30 years experience in the trade, Capt. George Roy is dean of Crisfield's small clan of a half-dozen or so black partyboat captains who carry anglers on scarred old boats for $20 a day, perhaps the best fishing bargain in the east.

But life for the dean gets no easier with the passing years.

Roy puts in a hard day every day, rising before 2 a.m. to get to his fishing boat, Capt. George, at 2:20. By 2:30, he's piloted her over to City Dock, where he's busy until dawn drumming up trade among patrons who roll in bleary-eyed from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark.

By 6, he's bound for the rich waters around Tangier Sound, and then it's move and move again, anchoring, pulling up and reanchoring 20 times or more, seeking the best places for spot, flounder, croaker and sea trout. On good days, he's back at the dock a little after 4, but, if the action is slow, Roy will stay out until 5 or 5:30 to accommodate his clients, making it a 14- to 16-hour day, seven days a week, April to October.

In fall, he takes life easy, oystering. Daylight comes later, so he can sleep in until 4. And because the state bans oystering on Sundays, he gets a day off every week.

How has it all affected him?

Roy is 54 years old and looks 44. He's tall, strong, clear of eye and full of cheer, even in the darkest hours before dawn. He grew up on a hardscrabble Eastern Shore farm and has worked this way "ever since I was old enough to know what work was," he said. "It's hard, but I can't say it's done me any harm."

Roy was one of many refreshing discoveries made during two days wandering the Crisfield partyboat scene, which attracts working-class fishermen from the cities.

They come here in vans and overstuffed cars with fishing rods strapped to the roof. They come with coolers full of food and more coolers to pack out their catch, from institutions like the House of God Inc., in Delran, N.J. They come in the dead of night, too enthusiastic to sleep, to claim spots along the rail of one boat or another and huddle in the darkness, waiting for dawn.

"I have one woman, Miss Mary, who comes down from New Jersey once a month on {government} check day," said Roy. "She told me, 'Capt. George, I'm so tired.' I said, 'Why don't you sleep?' She said, 'I can't sleep when I'm going fishing. I get too excited.' "

They come from neighborhoods like south Philadelphia, where people still sit on stoops to escape the summer heat.

"It's chilly down here on the water," said Doney Lewis, perched in the stern, waiting for the rosy-fingered dawn and bundling against a bitter breeze. "Not like home, sitting on the porch."

They arrive as early as 11 p.m. to claim the best fishing spots, and then grab an hour or two of sleep, if they can, in their cars or on the vessels' plain wooden benches. Rarely does anyone stay in a motel.

They leave Baltimore at 10 or Newark at 11 or Washington at 12, and their headlights cleave sleeping Crisfield as they creep down the main drag three, four or five hours later.

Roy and his fellow skippers are ready and waiting.

"Plenty room here," says gray-haired Capt. Doug Harris, rushing a newcomer and waving him into the parking spot nearest his Tiderunner II. "Let me help you with those coolers," counters Roy, hustling for trade.

If the black headboats of Crisfield seem anachronistic, so they may be, but throwbacks to the days of segregation they are not. "We have white customers," said Roy. "Sometimes, it's as many as half and half on the boat."

But the breakdown in Crisfield generally goes this way: Black skippers run the headboats, which require no advance reservations and take 30 or more customers on a pay-per-head basis, and white captains run the charterboats, which take prearranged parties of anglers, usually six to a boat, for a daily rate.

Blacks often charter with white skippers and whites sometimes ride on the black-owned headboats. Every crowd is different, which is one of the delights of fishing on a partyboat, but it's hard to imagine a jollier crowd than the one that coalesced on the Capt. George last week.

There was Charlie Beckern, a retired Philadelphia city worker who has perfected a fishing technique that permits him to sleep until he gets a bite.

"He's been doing that all day," laughed Roy from the pilothouse. "He sits up there in the sun, nodding off. When he gets a strike, he wakes up, reels in and baits up again. Next time you look, he's nodding off again."

There were three women from New Jersey who want to, but can't, quit. "We come every Wednesday, but this is our last trip," said Edna Harper, who was perched in the stern at 2:30 a.m., waiting for daylight. "Goodbye, George."

"Oh, we say that every week," confided her traveling companion, Frances Summers. "But we always come back, as long as the fish keep biting."

And there was the great, blustering, middle-aged fellow who came parading up the dock with his arm around a handsome young woman. He was all bravado until she caught a big fish and a photographer snapped her picture.

"You didn't get me in that, did you?" he howled, ducking behind his neighbor.

The boat rocked with laughter. "Mr. Lovebird in the morning," hooted Roy, "but a man comes along with a camera, he wants to disown her."

Then there was Neal Westcott of Baltimore, retired from Bethlehem Steel, who fishes twice a week with his wife, Nancy, and who has fished with Roy for 30 years.

Over the decades, Westcott has refined the ability to identify species by the way a fish bites, so he quickly knows whether or not to get excited.

For a good fish like a sea trout or spot, Westcott abandons his seat and stands up. But his sixth sense occasionally fails him, and nothing makes him angrier. "Shoot," he said, or words to that effect, as a horrible mud toad broke the surface and the boat echoed with his neighbors' laughter. "And I stood up for that."

Best of all about the Capt. George was the informality -- everyone kidded everyone else's mild misfortunes -- and the concern of the crew that everyone catch fish.

Many headboats discourage anglers from bothering the captain by plastering signs like "Crew Only" on the wheelhouse. Roy acts as if he'd be offended if you didn't stop in.

His door is always open and there's a battered chair to flop in. Westcott spent a few hours asleep in it. And whenever Roy moved from spot to spot, the cabin would be crowded, and peals of laughter emanated.

As for catching fish, "We want to make sure people have a good time because we depend on repeat business," Roy said.

But unlike most headboats, the Capt. George has no bait or tackle for sale and no rods for rent. What if someone brings the wrong stuff?

"Oh, we keep things around and just give it away if you need it," said Roy, rooting through accumulations of junk for spare hooks, sinkers and leftover bloodworms he keeps in a cooler.

In fact, the bloodworms sold in Crisfield are pathetically bad and have been for years, Roy said. When Roy's mate, Reginald Chandler, saw one fisherman's pathetic supply of Crisfield worms, he offered a box of his spares.

"No charge," he said. "We don't hustle nobody out here."

The fishing? Well, it's not what it was a month ago, Roy said, when you could fill up a cooler with delicious jumbo spots, catching them two at a time.

"We're hoping for a good run of trout into late October," he said, and that would pretty much wrap up the season. Last week, most anglers went home with a couple dozen spots, a half-dozen or so small trout and the odd croaker, flounder, sea bass or bluefish.

But at $20 a head, it's a deal even when you don't fill the cooler.

For those who insist on measuring success by the size of their catch, Roy had a level-headed suggestion: "Bring a smaller cooler."

Headboats leave Crisfield City Dock every day at 6 a.m. There can be anywhere from two to a half-dozen or more waiting for customers, depending on how the fishing has been. No reservations are needed. For further information, call Crisfield Fishing Center.