Featured Photo: A bayside bluefish tailwalks across the surface as it tries to shake free of a popper. Photo by Tom Lynch • angryfish.tv
It’s Off to the Races!
If there is one saltwater fish migration that I could set my clock by, it is the arrival of bluefish in the spring. Bluefish appear in New Jersey’s back bays around the same time every season, as they return from their southern and offshore wintering grounds.
Last season, the first bluefish showed up off Central New Jersey on April 24. The bulk of the migration always arrives around the first week of May—and I can bank on that.
The first arriving bluefish are usually small 2- to 4-pounders, but after several days these are quickly followed by 6- to 12-pounders, commonly referred to as racers. This term applies to both their appearance and their behavior. When they first arrive, bluefish have long, slender bodies that seem out of proportion to their much larger heads, and when feeding, they race around the back bays and shorelines devouring anything in their path.
Bluefish Life and Legend
Bluefish have a wide range. They are native to both the American and European-African coasts. They can be found all along the Atlantic seaboard, in the temperate and warm waters of the western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to Uruguay, off the West African shelf, in the Mediterranean and Black seas, in the Indian Ocean, and off Tasmania and Australia.
Bluefish rarely exceed 20 pounds and 40 inches in length, but the IGFA all-tackle world record is a monstrous 31-pound, 12-ouncer caught January 30, 1972 in Hatteras, North Carolina, by James M. Hussey. Male and female bluefish grow to about the same size, reach sexual maturity by 2 years old, and live for up to 14 years. Their preferred temperature range is from the upper 50- to upper 60-degree range. Thus they arrive later in the spring and disappear earlier in the fall than the striped bass.
Many old-timers believe that the bluefish population varies off our coast because the fish migrate in a circular pattern around the Atlantic Ocean. They cite the years of 1939 to 1949, when there was an absence of bluefish along the Atlantic seaboard, but off the coast of Africa, blues were in great abundance. It wasn’t until 1949 that the bluefish reappeared outside the Manasquan Inlet up to five miles out.
West Side Story
When the bluefish arrive in New Jersey, the ocean temperatures will usually be in the low 50s. This is out of their comfort zone, so they will seek out the warmest water available by heading west into the back bays.
Incoming tidal waters in the spring bring in much colder ocean water, which drops the water temperature about 10 degrees on the eastern side of a bay, driving the blues to the western ends of the bays to seek out the better conditions.
In these areas, spearing are the dominant bait, but plenty of killifish, grass shrimp and adult bunker and herring will also be present. The bluefish entering the bay are hungry, very hungry, and will gorge themselves on whatever they can find. Racer bluefish will remain inside the bays for about three weeks before heading back out to the ocean as it warms.
If you have ever fished the flats in the Florida Keys, you know the thrill of spotting fish and casting to them. In the spring, bluefish will provide a similar opportunity. I have had many days—particularly during late afternoon outgoing tides—when big bluefish were on the surface porpoising and finning. It is quite a sight to see a blue’s dorsal fin silhouetted against the setting sun. The only other time I have seen this behavior is when I am tuna fishing offshore in the summer and the bluefish are spawning.
Finning bluefish can be found over dark-bottom mud flats, as these areas absorb the sun’s heat and warm much more quickly than the surrounding areas. On these flats, massive topwater blitzes can erupt at a moment’s notice. Often, this takes place in water 2 feet deep or less. Shorebound anglers have an advantage if they can access these locations since stealth is key. Shallow-water bluefish can be surprisingly spooky. In a boat, a cautious approach must be taken. Turn the engine off and then position your boat so it will drift toward the fish and into casting range.
Bluefish will also congregate around warm-water discharges from power plants or where creek waters dump into the bay. Power-plant discharges can warm the bay waters as much as 10 to 15 degrees. The closer you can get to the discharge, the warmer the water will be. Creek mouths will also be warmer than the surrounding bay waters as warmer ground runoff from spring rains dumps into the creeks and warms them up.
Bluefish can be found roaming around the mouths of inlets, usually during the last several hours of the outgoing tides, especially at the end of a sunny day. Near day’s end, bay waters will have warmed to their highest point, and the outgoing tide will flush baitfish toward the ocean, attracting the blues.
Keep the Tackle Light and the Barbs Crushed
Bluefish are an extremely hardy fish so catching and releasing them on light tackle will not cause any undue harm. Most of the time, the damage to a bluefish occurs while trying to remove the hook from its toothy jaws. For this reason, it’s wise to replace a plug’s tail hook with a single long-shank J-hook. Crushing the barbs will also make it easier to unhook the thrashing bluefish. Also, since a bluefish attacks its prey from behind, biting off the tail to immobilize the baitfish before circling around for the kill, you can remove the belly hooks from your plugs entirely when targeting blues. There are handful of effective adjustments that anglers can make to topwater plugs.
The author’s preferred poppers for back-bay bluefish. It’s a good idea to replace the plug’s tail hook with a single long-shank J-hook.
One of my favorite ways to catch bluefish is with topwater plugs or flies because the blues put on a show chasing down these artificials on the surface. Any surface plug will work, but a few of my favorites are the Spro Prime Popper 50, Yo-Zuri Mag Popper, Gibbs Polaris Popper (1-ounce size), and the Smack-it and Smack-it Jr. From the shoreline or the boat, I like to fish these artificials on a 7-foot medium-fast action St. Croix Legend Inshore spinning rod. This rod is extremely light and has a great feel for working artificials. For popper colors, I stick with three basic colors; white, yellow, or chartreuse, as these colors never fail to infuriate bluefish.
For topwater flies, Bob’s Bangers in the same colors are my first choice. When fishing these flies from the boat, I like to employ the bait-and-switch by casting out a hookless popper working it across the surface to bring the bluefish into fly-casting range for my client. When the bluefish, come close enough to reach with the fly rod, I pull the popper out of the water, and the fly-fisherman drops his fly in the space left by the popper. Usually, an instant hook-up results.
Since bluefish make quick work of monofilament with their razor-sharp teeth, use wire leaders or heavy mono to keep your artificials attached to your line. If you choose to use monofilament, try 60- to 80-pound-test fluorocarbon, as this line is more abrasion resistant than regular monofilament, and is also less visible in the water. For wire, use single-strand stainless steel, titanium or tie-able plastic-coated or uncoated wire. For single strand, use 8 to 12 inches of wire, attaching it to your plug with a haywire twist. Tooth Proof single strand by American Fishing Wire is a popular brand among Northeast fishermen.
To make things much easier, I use tie-able wire, which can be tied using conventional knots such as the improved clinch, Albright knot, or the perfection loop. I like the Rio Powerflex Wire Tippet or Tyger wire in 30- to 50-pound test.
Respect Your Catch
So much is said and written about the striped bass being the prized trophy of the Northeast waters that bluefish are often neglected and given a bad rap as a garbage fish. So why would any self-respecting angler want to target them? The answer is simple: for pure fun. Bluefish are one of the most aggressive species to ever inhabit the salty brine, and when they are on the end of your line they will surely let you know that.
Besides their great fighting ability, bluefish are easy to catch and will strike indiscriminately at just about anything that is thrown in front of them. Their nature is to feed to gluttonous proportions, which makes them the ideal species to introduce a kid to a great fishing experience. Also with a 15-fish daily limit, one can come home with a lot of fillets for the table. With the right recipe, bluefish make a fine dinner.
Take care in releasing any bluefish not slated for the dinner table. They can be safely handled with a lip gripper like a Boga Grip, and as they swim away to continue terrorizing back-bay baitfish, be thankful we have such a great fighting fish readily available for us to enjoy.