- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
As we drove to the marina, Dad assured me that the rumors about bluefish were exaggerated. Here I was, a frightened 8-year-old, terrified by recent news report of beach-goers being attacked by schools of marauding blues. Hey, this kid wasn't a bit keen on the notion of battling hordes of fanged demons that delight in slicing and dicing human flesh, the safety of a boat notwithstanding.
Dad and I trolled a variety of lures and spoons for nearly an hour, the sun changing at dawn from soft red to bright orange to white heat, quietly burning away the mist along the northern shores of New Jersey. When a rod in the right holder suddenly twanged like a tuning fork, I retrieved it and the game was on.
A bluefish in the 12-pound class zigzagged in a fast and furious run, my line spewing a contrail of water where it met the surface. I played the fish well enough, but cringed at the image of bringing aboard something that was going to bite me. At that point in time, the thought of the fish getting away didn't seem so bad. But Dad soon netted the beast and I gazed at it with the respect one gives a tarantula.
But after catching 10 more blues that day, my fear of impending death was over. Instead, a newfound appreciation for the tenacity and pulling power of bluefish was born—an affection that is still going strong four decades later.
When bluefish are attacking schools of baitfish they can be hooked most easily with noisy lures, such as popping surface plugs and rattling lures. Photo courtesy of Ken Wachendorfer
Bluefish hunt in hordes, attacking baitfish with considerable zeal and tearing them to bits. It's not hard to spot a hungry pack of blues, especially when feeding near the surface—the water churns with bursts from the carnage, and birds often circle above to get in on the leftovers. On clearer days, birds may even follow a school of bluefish in anticipation of feeding opportunities. A school of smaller blues is usually indicated when birds swoop and touch the water for morsels, but when bigger fish are around the birds act more cautiously. Dad once cleaned a 25-pound bluefish and inside its gullet was the beak and feet of a bird!
Also, watch for oily colorations on the surface. When bluefish macerate schools of menhaden, mullet or herring, the oily residue of their meals can be observed for short periods of time. Move in and make some casts, particularly if you observe a pattern where one slick is newer than others—it could reveal the direction that the school is moving.
A good skipper keeps an eye out for surface action, schools of baitfish and circling gulls or terns. By quickly "running and gunning" rather than blind trolling, your odds of locating schools of blues increases dramatically. Once a school is found, set out baits or lures to intersect the moving horde and do it quietly; the less noise, the less chance of spooking and dispersing the school.
Oftentimes a school moves through without any telltale signs. If blues have been hitting in an area, try blind trolling or blind-casting to see what happens. Chumming also works well for bluefish, particularly during summer when schools aren't as large and they're not as actively migrating as in spring and fall.
Tackle And Techniques
A captain willing to "run and gun" to where bluefish are feeding can provide anglers with a great day of fishing. Photo courtesy of Ken Wachendorfer
The fact that bluefish roam nearshore waters makes them a great target of opportunity for surf fishing. Get a long rod (10 feet or longer) so you can keep the line above breaking waves, tie on a pyramid sinker, wade out a ways to cast, then set your rod in a holder and play the waiting game.
Use stout rods and 15- to 20-pound spinning gear when there's the likelihood of battles with big fish. Since bluefish have teeth like miniature stilettos, you'll need a leader of at least 2 feet of heavier monofilament (40- to 60-pound) or even wire. I prefer 2/0 to 4/0 hooks with baits such as squid, mullet, menhaden and herring. Small live bait such as a menhaden has about as much chance of survival as a lamb amidst a pride of tigers.
Jigs, spoons and similar lures work well, but I've had especially good luck with popping surface plugs or rattling lures that draw attention—especially in murky water. I once couldn't buy a strike with diving lures, but as soon as I started gurgling the water with a popper, blues couldn't stop hitting it. My theory is that poppers and other noisy lures agitate bluefish and provoke strikes even when the fish aren't hungry.
Blues usually set the hook themselves due to the ferocity of their strike. Just let the line come tight and start pumping and winding.
Right Time And Place
As with migrating birds, bluefish off the U.S. coast move from the Gulf of Mexico and Florida to points north in spring such as New England (they're not found on the Pacific coast). The migration is reversed in autumn, sending bluefish to warmer temperatures as water starts to get colder.
Calm days are good because it's easier to see schools of baitfish dimpling the surface-a likely target for feeding bluefish. The best zone for bluefish is from the surf to about 8 miles offshore, especially if you can locate schools of baitfish with a fish finder.
Unfortunately, bluefish have their indifferent moments. I remember all too vividly one day fruitlessly casting as one giant bluefish school after another passed right under my boat while fishing off Miami. I could have slapped them in the heads with a back-scratcher they were so close, yet not a one had the slightest interest in the live pilchards I offered or the noisiest lure in my tackle box. It seems that when they have travel in mind, they don't want to unpack their suitcases.
Blues fight hard, make quick runs, turn on a dime and offer plenty of head-shaking fun. If you haven't had the pleasure of going toe-to-fin with a bluefish, you're missing out on great times.