One of the most compelling fascinations of saltwater fishing is the great unknown - the factor of never being sure what kind of creature might show up at the other end of your fishing line.

On any given day, on any given cast, you might find yourself battling the catch of a lifetime. This is especially true for offshore anglers who ply the deep blue.

For validation, note that just last week two giant sharks set new state records in Maryland with an 876-pound mako and a 642-pound thresher brought to the scales in Ocean City. Even short sojourns offshore can yield encounters with all kinds of sea critters from whales to dolphin to squid to flying fish.

Over the years I've made numerous offshore forays, some unremarkable, others very memorable. The latter includes catching and releasing a white marlin in Ocean City's famed White Marlin Open back in 1987; catching, tagging, and releasing a blue marlin off the coast of North Carolina; boating a limit of dolphin fish (aka mahi-mahi) off the Outer Banks; taking numerous night trips from New Jersey ports that yielded limits of bluefish; and boating both yellowfin and bluefin tuna. I can also recall a few solo trips in my own boat where I was surrounded by porpoises, observed a huge ocean sunfish lolling on the surface, and watched an angler on a nearby boat battle a fair-sized hammerhead shark.

But you don't have to head off into the mighty Atlantic for saltwater thrills - the back bays can supply their share of action as well. I found new evidence of this recently when I fished the Isle of Wight Bay behind Ocean City. On one five-hour trip I managed to catch 32 flounder. That's a lot of fluke action, but the downside was the fact that only two of the flounder stretched beyond Maryland's 18-inch legal limit - meaning that I had to throw 30 of those 32 fish back into the bay. I was close to filling my three fluke daily limit, with one fish measuring out to 17 7/8 inches - with mouth open he broke the 18-inch tape, but closed, fell just about an eighth of an inch short - so I tossed him back into the brine.

I briefly boated about six other fluke that were borderline keepers, but all of those also hit the tape in the 16 to 17 inch range - legal a few years back, but throwbacks today. At one point I had a hefty fish on the line, pulling so hard I imagined it must be a 20- 25 inch fluke. With the rod in one hand and net in the other, I tried to coax it to the surface at the side of the boat. Inexplicably the line suddenly went slack and the fish somehow slipped the hook before I ever caught a glimpse of it.

But the oddest thing that happened that day occurred when one of my rods suddenly coiled over and line began screaming off. I grabbed it from the rod holder and started reeling and pumping. For a moment I thought I had snagged the bottom of the bay. But then I felt the unmistakable wriggling of a fish at the end of the line and it took off like a proverbial bat out of hell. Unfortunately that reel was fitted with fragile eight pound monofilament and as soon as I attempted to tighten the drag, the line snapped like a piece of brittle glass. I don't know what was at the other end and I never will, but there's no end to the speculation.

The most likely explanation was that I had hooked into a big ray. I did that once before in the back bays, but I managed to bring all 50 pounds or so of the lumbering beast to the boat where I unhooked and released it. Somehow this mystery fish that made off with my terminal tackle just didn't act like a ray, so I have to think it was something else - maybe a shark? In any case, it provided a few nanoseconds of unadulterated excitement before breaking off - just wish I had stronger line.

Next week my wife Patti and I will be heading north to Gustavus, Alaska, where we'll try our luck on halibut, salmon, and a few other cold water Pacific species. We'll also throw in a visit to Glacier Bay National Park with its storied whale and bear watching for good measure. Look for a few more fish stories when we get back.

The fluke are biting right now in the lower Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware Bay, and the back bays of Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. If you book a trip expect to catch some summer flounder, but be prepared to throw lots of them back.

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