If mackerel are proving elusive, patience is best school of thought


OCEAN CITY -- Good things come to those who wait. And wait and wait, and wait.

Here we are, 25 of us, approaching the first lump of the Bass Grounds 7 1/2 miles off Ocean City's 90th Street scouting for Boston mackerel.

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, the 60 anglers aboard the 80-foot headboat Miss Ocean City were reeling in fish constantly, but by late evening came wind gusts of 40 knots. This morning the winds are gone, but so are the mackerel.

So, for Capt. John Bunting in the topside pilot house, it's the formidable problem of fish scattered by the heavy seas whipped up during the night, but mercifully flattened by daybreak.

If only Bunting had known the seas would calm. Weather forecasts warned of continued winds, so he had advised anglers who phoned ahead to wait another day. That well-meaning advice cost him about 25 passengers at $25 each -- add another $4 for rod and reel rentals.

Eight times we stopped to jig flashy colored hard plastic Norwegian worms amidst mackerel schools flashed on the screen of the electronic fish-finder, but only a few macks were interested. "They're on the move, and won't bite until they settle down," said Bunting.

In three hours of meandering in waters from 65 to 80 feet above the Atlantic's floor, only 25 macks have come aboard. When fishing is right, a good man can catch that many alone, but the turbulence of the sea prompted the large schools to break into smaller packs of fish that appear to have lost their appetites.

The excitement of only his second day of offshore fishing in his life begins to wane for 7-year-old Alec Hutchinson of Leesburg. On his first trip in Florida, he didn't catch anything either.

But with mackerel it can go from feast to famine and vice-versa as quick as a fellow can drop a rig over the rail.

Another splotch of yellowish green appeared on the fish-finder's screen, Bunting cut the big diesels and ordered the lines dropped. "They are about 10 feet off the bottom," he said over the loudspeaker. "Drop the rigs to the bottom, reel them up 10 feet, then start jigging."

Seconds later, at the stern Baltimorean Barney Classen reeled in a rig of four worms, each with a fat mackerel thrashing on a hook. The fellow next to him had three fish.

An excited Alec was reeling in a triple-header -- and 14 more would follow for him before the fish moved on not to be found again. Angling excitement. Only those aboard a headboat drifting over a school of hungry macks can appreciate what it's like.

"Shake the fish off fast; keep jigging and catching," Bunting barked from the topside rail. "If you keep reeling in fish the others will stay under the boat where you can catch them. They're curious like dolphin."

With the skyline of Ocean City in the background, we kept reeling in fish for 20 minutes. At the bow, Baltimoreans Francis Connor and Ed Wenzlaff were chucking mackerel into a 30-gallon plastic garbage can, also an occasional herring -- and a dog shark of about 15 pounds that wanted Wenzlaff's rig.

Wenzlaff wanted that shark too; it's the species the English prefer for the fish part of their fish and chips. He would steak it out and fry it. "You can't tell it from mako shark," said Wenzlaff.

At the other side of the bow, Jose Miranda of Chevy Chase was battling three mackerel and a 30-pound dogfish on his rig. One has never witnessed headboat bedlam until he has seen an impossible-to-manage shark weave in and out of other lines in a fight to stay in the ocean.

Five other lines got tangled, and eight macks were lost in the confusion -- including two on Miranda's rig. Another angler decided to target sharks with a piece of cut mackerel, but Bunting nixed the idea. "We're trying to get away from them," he scolded. "We're after mackerel."

And in that long drift more than 500 macks came aboard. The day was saved for Bunting, whose phone number is 1-301-289-7936.

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