RIDGE, Md. -- It's been a long, hard summer for Capt. Doug Scheible and his headboat, Bay King II, but things finally are looking up.

The trouble started in May when big bluefish failed to show for the annual spring run, and it ran right through June into July, when mid-sized blues pulled a no-show too.

When you're running a 60-foot partyboat specializing in chumming for blues for 50 or more paying customers, it's hard to have much fun if the guests of honor fail to appear.

Now, bluefish at last have arrived in force, but Scheible's customers evidently have grown so used to hearing bad news, they've all but stopped calling. "We're running plenty of days with just 12 or 15 people aboard," said Bay King mate Ed Stivers. "It's a shame because we really have the fish now."

The blues turned up in hordes at the mouth of the Potomac about three weeks ago, said Scheible, who's been running fishing parties here for decades. Actually, he believes the fish had been around since early summer, but it took a while before they grew big enough to catch.

The toothy blues now rampaging around Point Lookout are mostly in the one- to two-pound range, prime eating size and great fun to catch on moderately light tackle. And they are plentiful.

"They got in here so thick the other day," said Scheible animatedly, "that they were all clustered around the boat where I was throwing chum and they'd come clear out of the water to eat it before it hit the surface.

"It was the most amazing thing -- you didn't even have to get your bait wet to catch them, just ease it down the side of the boat and they'd jump up and grab it."

Scheible's observations were supported by veteran angler Bill Brener, who said he had the bluefish hordes up to the transom of his private boat, Char Lady, milling around in the chum slick the other day too.

"You could see them in the chum line," he said. "I started throwing a little floating plug {lure} out and they were all over it, and you know how much fun that is. Mostly they were smaller fish, but there were some four-pounders mixed in."

Like Scheible, Brener was struck by the prodigious numbers. "Literally, on good days you can catch as many as you're willing to take home," he said.

For the record, that privilege now is open in the Chesapeake region to Marylanders only, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission having instituted 10-bluefish-a-day limits in their waters in accordance with new federal bluefish conservation guidelines.

Maryland intends to put a 10-bluefish-per-person limit in effect too, but won't get through the paperwork until next season. Which leaves the Free State as the last place on the Bay where the old principals of free plunder on bluefish still apply.

"We hope people aren't going to take unfair advantage of that," said Howard King of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

But don't bet on it. Stivers said a group of West Virginians aboard one of the Scheible charter boats recently took 363 bluefish home. "They stood there on the dock and cleaned every last one of them too," he said, "so at least we know they didn't go to waste."

Scheible hopes that as news of the rebirth of the blues gets around, he'll start filling up the boat with anglers the way he did in the glory days of bluefishing hereabouts -- the mid-1980s.

Meantime, he's had to scratch for ways to keep business afloat while waiting for the fish to come on. One imaginative angle he explored was replacing his old Saturday night fishing trips with a sunset cruise and shrimp feast up scenic Smith Creek.

Employing fresh shrimp trucked in on ice from North Carolina, he cooks up batches on board, five pounds at a time, and dishes them out to customers clustered around folding tables on deck, all-you-can-eat style.

It's one of the more intriguing uses on record for a battered headboat, but these are trying times. Stivers and the crew have their work cut out transforming the wooden vessel from a blood-stained, chum-coated fisherman into a sparkling floating restaurant in an hour.

Somehow they pulled it off last week, and even had time left to dunk themselves in showers and put on clean clothes to serve the evening crowd.

Scheible has a simple attitude about shrimp. "Everyone overcooks 'em," he said. "We don't."

Instead, he dunks the tasty morsels briefly in a boiling vat of water, vinegar, spices and salt -- just long enough to firm up the flesh. "When they float to the top," said Scheible, "they're done."

The sweet smell of shrimp boiling, the gentle strains of guitarist Joe Norris strumming on deck ("Hi, I'm Joe, and I'm the entertainment tonight"), and the glimpses of herons, ospreys and ancient oaks sliding by alongside make you soon forget you're on a headboat, and the quality of the eating fare ought to have drummed up a decent trade for Scheible by now.

But even the shrimp feast has proved a dud. Last week, only four folks showed.

"I don't know what I've got to do to get people out here," sighed Scheible. But fiscal flop or no, he's keeping the shrimp feast. Why?

"Because I like it, that's why," he said. And after all, he's still the captain.

Bay King II leaves Scheible's in Ridge at 8 a.m. daily for bluefishing; fee is $28 a person, rod rentals available. Saturday night shrimp feast runs 6-9 p.m., $25 a person. Call (301) 872-5185.

One other headboat, the El Toro, operates in the same area, leaving daily at 8:15 a.m. Rate is $24, rod rental available. Call (301) 872-5815.