Outdoors: Bluefishing is a bloody but sensational experience

·8 min read

“These saber-toothed blues are killing us. I just had two $80 squid bars shredded then ran four miles south to get away from them. We put out some fresh-rigged tuna baits and moved less than 500 yards were hooked up to a pair of alligator blues.”

That skipper was 64 miles offshore from me and hiding from blues, while during the past three days all I could scratch up was a single 3-pound chopper while working productive casting water along the craggy shorelines from Newport, Rhode Island to Westport Harbor.

My recollections over decades of fishing is that bluefish have always been spotty. There were seasons when they were prowling every piece of prime striper habitat, then the next day you couldn’t find a single yellow eye within miles.

Although this is strictly an anecdotal observation, I have always been aware of blues frequenting the offshore waters.

That information came from harpoon sword fishermen and lobstermen who caught them and then used their solid, oily heads, which are prime lobster bait, in their offshore traps.

When the tuna fishing moved closer to shore, we heard complaints from the people who made those trips griping about the blues being on those grounds and tearing up their tackle.

Bluefish on the offshore grounds is not a new phenomenon and I don’t believe that is the reason there are fewer blues inshore today.

If you want something to think about, just read the stories about Liberty and Freedom, the two stripers that were fitted with grays sonar tags in New York harbor last year.

Both those fish didn’t head east along the shore towards our New England, as is the case with most of the post spawn stripers moving along the New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island shorelines, until they get to Newport, Sakonnet, Westport and the Cape Cod Canal. Those two tagged fish headed offshore to the canyons. Those two 40-inch stripers left their native habitat where they were the major predators and headed to an environment where they became the prey.

Blues, particularly larger unrestrained specimens, come aboard and begin to wreak havoc by flinging their heads and smashing hooks into anything they encounter. The author did not have time to jump atop the motor box before an alligator stuck this big swimmer into the sole of his boot. One teen-sized blue struck the motor box too hard; we fished around it until back at the dock we used a carpenter's hammer to extract the hooks from the mahogany. Can you imagine one of those hooks in your calf? The author has witnessed that firsthand and it’s not a pretty sight.
Blues, particularly larger unrestrained specimens, come aboard and begin to wreak havoc by flinging their heads and smashing hooks into anything they encounter. The author did not have time to jump atop the motor box before an alligator stuck this big swimmer into the sole of his boot. One teen-sized blue struck the motor box too hard; we fished around it until back at the dock we used a carpenter's hammer to extract the hooks from the mahogany. Can you imagine one of those hooks in your calf? The author has witnessed that firsthand and it’s not a pretty sight.

Despite all the accepted marine science of the electronic age, there is a lot more about the fish that we don’t know.

The fishermen of my generation have enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the bluefish, from the days of their first forays to our grounds, to their amazing population explosion, up to their near desertion the past two seasons.

At first they were most welcome, but when they began to destroy lures and live baits, they provoked the ire of those who at first welcomed them with open arms.

My 18-year-old grandson Lleyton never slipped and fell in pre-dawn herring runs trying to capture a few live baits to feed a striper, then after all that effort, had a bluefish slash in and cut that precious bait in half. He harbored no preconceived notions about the downside of a species that fights harder than most other inshore species and is very good on the grill or the smoker if the angler takes care of his catch.

He cut his teeth on stripers, the fish he loved to tempt with his topwater poppers. They would crash the plug, create a surface explosion, then dive and fight it out below in their difficult and gnarly habitat.

His first bluefish was quite an extraordinary, yet delightful, surprise.

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That chopper did not follow or boil behind his popper. It came up from behind like a missile, leaped out of the water and came down, mouth open, seizing his plug while producing that unique sound of the crunching of teeth on hard plastic.

His reactionary set infuriated the fish that took to the air, tail walking and head shaking.

Cranking for all he was worth as the yellow-eyed demon charged the boat, he turned to me, smiling from ear to ear.

The look on his face said, "what the heck is going on here?"

He had heard his dad and I discuss this topwater action, but there was nothing like that firsthand experience.

Unfortunately, that bluefish never came aboard.

That first bluefish, about an 8-pound specimen, ran off, turned back again and spit the lure back at us like a slingshot.

Lleyton looked at me with a wry grin and said, “Wow. That seemed personal.”

Two casts later, a blue marauder of the same year class inhaled the rear half of the big Tsunami Talkn’ popper and put on a similar display.

The boy was up to the task, and after another vigorous battle, the fish was brought alongside, where we noticed that only the snap and head of the plug were protruding from the chopper's razor-sharp dentures. The water was streaked with blood as the rear hook was lodged in the gills, indicating this fish was destined for the smoker.

That hazy morning when my grandson was introduced to blues evoked fond recollections of similar introductions to blues for his dad and his uncle.

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The difference was the youngster was using much-improved tackle.

The love-hate relationship with blues goes back to an era well before most of our readers were born or even fishing.

When the little blues first arrived on our shores in the early 1960s, they were welcomed with open arms.

Just imagine the contrast between catching a 10-pound striper versus a 10-pound blue, and you will understand the excitement of adding another gladiator that was more than willing to crush an artificial lure and give you all you and your tackle could handle and usually quite a bit more.

The same anglers who welcomed blues with open arms soon transitioned into bluefish detractors when the eel, herring or pogie they were live lining for stripers were cut in half by the yellow-eyed hacking machines.

Anyone who thinks bluefish are a sure bet to attack at all times has not put their time on the water when blues are languid, binged out, selective or just plain temperamental.

I never take a bluefish bite for granted and have used numerous methods to make them strike my lure when they just trail and buzz others casting similar lures from my boat.

Back in the days before commercial scent was available in bottles and sprays, we made our own “scent” with herring and pogies. Even a single pogie provides enough oil and gurry to make a persuasive attractant that will last an entire trip, and it drives the blues crazy.

Anyone serious about catching blues, which includes anglers like me who enjoy smoked and grilled bluefish and the pâté we make from our catches, holds various opinions.

Sorted out, it comes down to several factors.

First off, there is nothing quite like the attack of a bluefish on a surface bait.

I remove the rear treble from all of the lures I intend to toss at blues. They are kept in a separate Plano box ready to deploy. I attach a heavy split ring and a 5/0 wide gap live bait bucktail hook to the business end of all of those plugs. The single hook insures solid hook-ups and removing the belly treble will save you time and effort, not to mention enhancing the protection of your person and the bluefish you may intend to release.

When we were running big plugs on wire at Cuttyhunk, we carried a weighted priest, a short heavy bat with which to stun the fish so we could get the hooks out without having one wielded at us by a green bass or wild-eyed bluefish that came free of the gaff.

I recall jumping onto the motor box to avoid having a sharp treble stuck in my foot as an alligator thrashed around the cockpit until it finally buried a hook into the oak corner board on the motor box.

I’ve always been aware that bluefish have never received the respect they are due unless they were in short supply.

While I’ve clubbed, cursed, and ground them for chum, I’ve bled, filleted, and served them to appreciative family members and unsuspecting guests who thought they were delicious.

A bluefish does not come into the cockpit and into the cooler without leaving its mark. They spit and splash blood and gurry everywhere before they are bled and safely on ice.

Every time I slip on bluefish blood and gurry or mop the deck after a bluefish encounter, I no longer curse these gamesters but give thanks for their presence.

We have gone from an unrestricted catch to our current three-fish-a-day bag limit in hopes of preventing the further decline of this important gamefish species.

I hope the current guidelines protect and enhance the status of these pugnacious game fish and helps in their recovery, but all the guidelines in the world do not take into consideration the extraordinary role that nature plays.

These nomads do not spawn in known rivers or bays but out in the open ocean, where the miracle of their procreation is cast to the wind and tides that carry the precious seed of their future to our inland waters, where they sustain and develop the precious resource that miraculously becomes our bluefish.

I urge you to be grateful for every single bluefish you encounter. They are a gift of the incalculable wonders of nature.

Charley Soares writes regular columns on fishing and the outdoors for The Herald News in Fall River, Mass.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Charley Soares Outdoors The bloody but satisfying business of bluefish