By Mike Marsh
Trolling for king mackerel can be a boring affair, especially when the fish are not biting. It was on such a slow day that I happened to glance over the stern to spot a fish soaring above a spread of live menhaden baits.
At first, all reels were silent, making me wonder why the fish had not taken a bait. But half a bloody menhaden tossed into the air dispelled the notion that he had not struck. With a treble hook pegging the head half of the menhaden to his jaw, the bluefish sounded.
The reel screeched before I could holler, “Fish on!” My brother, Curt, snatched the bending rod from its holder, snapped off the warning clicker and began to fight the fish.
The fight was punctuated by streaking runs and multiple leaps during which teeth chattered against metal like nightmarish castanets. Once the fish was at the gunwale, it still had the strength to leap again.
“Wow, what a manly fish,” Curt said. “But that’s no king mackerel.”
Curt had no prior experience with saltwater fish except for the odd king mackerel and shark before battling the bluefish. But this experience was so exciting that he was shaking while the thrashing fish showered the inside of the cooler with ice. I explained that although it was no king mackerel, the bluefish would provide an excellent substitute for our evening meal.
While some anglers may argue, fresh bluefish provide fine eating. Grilling or frying bluefish provides a culinary feast. Still, while most saltwater anglers once told N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries creel census-takers they targeted bluefish, the toothy and toothsome fighters have moved far down the list of preferences.
One reason may be the absence of the big “choppers” that mysteriously disappeared from nearshore waters. Another may be the availability and accessibility of higher profile game fish. To king mackerel anglers, blue fish are nuisances, devouring live bait supplies and gnashing wire leaders into uselessness. They avoid concentrations of big blues and willingly tell bluefish anglers where they are located over their radios.
Evidence of feeding is prominent. Birds will be circling above an unfortunate school of baitfish. The birds will be squawking and diving (at risk of losing webbed feet to an indiscriminant bluefish) into the water for their share of wounded forage. This is a large and loud sign that bluefish are around, and it doesn’t require Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation to deduce the location of feeding bluefish.
Fortunately for anglers who appreciate them, bluefish strike many baits and lures. Because of their durability, metal spoons and lures are prime bluefish ammunition.
Spoons trolled along the edge of a school of bluefish will always elicit strikes. Wire leaders or tough mono leaders above 30 pounds in test weight are required to prevent lure loss when trolling or casting for bluefish.
Metal tube lures are sometimes used for trolling, but more often for casting. Their design helps cheat the wind for long casts. Red, chartreuse or blaze orange heads atop a white body are choice color preferences for tube lures.
Hard-plastic lures also work well for catching bluefish as long as the color is molded into the lure. Bluefish quickly ruin coated finishes. When bluefish are feeding on top, a floating popper or stick bait draws the most spectacular strikes of all lures and also requires the least amount of casting and reeling effort.
Lead-head jigs work well when the fish are running deep or if the wind is stiff. Plastic grub tails are demolished by bluefish, but certainly work well for catching them. Natural hair is second in durability, often lasting through several fish. Tinsel dressing lasts a bit longer and adds flash, while many styles of synthetic hair offer the highest longevity when used for blues.
In the natural bait department, bluefish will eat many things, including cut baits, dead baits, shrimp, squid and live baits. However, in spite of their aggressive feeding habits, bluefish can be a bit finicky in avoiding hooks when striking.
A mullet or menhaden hooked through the mouth may be struck by bluefish, but can leave the angler reeling in only a baitfish head. Use a long-shank hook, and insert it through the mouth of the bait, out the gill and then bury the point near the anal fin. The hook, hidden alongside the body, snags the bluefish as he cuts the bait with his jaws. Special jigs with dual hooks, one for the head and one for the body, are also deadly for catching blues with minnows.
When live baits are used, paired treble hooks are the best bet. One is set in the nostrils, the other at the rear of the dorsal fin.
For cut baits, a single hook buried in the bait is sufficient for catching bluefish. The smaller bait size and the absence of the head provide a better target for a bluefish to engulf.
Gear for bluefish runs the gauntlet of tackle selection. For trolling, revolving spool or spinning tackle is popular. For casting, spinning rods are used by most anglers. However, as baitcasting reels become increasingly user friendly and increase their line capacity, they have become more popular among anglers casting for bluefish.
Flyfishermen find that bluefish are among the easiest of all saltwater fish to catch because of their aggressiveness and visibility. Poppers, resin-bodied flies, crease flies, Clouser flies and jigs are the best fly rod offerings. Using a short section of titanium leader ahead of the fly has become a popular way to avoid fly loss, while providing a minimum of interference with casting due to leader weight.
While in recent years many anglers have fretted over the lack of the big choppers, there may be good news. While NCDMF has no conclusive figures about the bigger fish, they report that bluefish as a species is recovering because of a fisheries management plan helped by recreational bag limits. The current bag limit of 15 fish of any size is an increase from the former bag limit of 10 fish. Many sport-fishermen do not keep bluefish, adding to the spawning stock through routine releases.
Anecdotal evidence of large bluefish seems to be increasing.
Captain George Beckwith reported catching huge choppers well into the summer during 2002 while fishing in Pamlico Sound near Oriental. The fish were striking d
ead and cut baits meant for other species. But once anglers caught on, they targeted the big fish and had a blast.
Anglers near Wrightsville Beach reported catching bluefish weighing 10 to 16 pounds from the Intracoastal Waterway, Pages Creek and the Wrightsville Beach Jetties during early summer and early fall. Most of the fish were caught on live baits drifted along the bottom for flounder or cast from anchored boats and intended for red drum.
Surf-anglers reported catching many large bluefish throughout the fall and into the winter at Cape Hatteras and nearby beaches. They used cut menhaden and surf tackle and were catching the bluefish mixed with schools of red drum.
At Oregon Inlet, anglers jigging and trolling for striped bass through the winter of 2003 were catching huge bluefish mixed in with the stripers. Jigging spoons, cut baits and trolling spoons were snagging the big blues. Some anglers were trying for the big fish with fly tackle when the wind was not too rough.
The small to medium-sized “snapper” bluefish were in relative abundance everywhere. Artificial reefs off all the state’s beaches will hold lots of bluefish again this fall, as will the interior reefs. On the southern coast, AR 378 (Phillip Wolfe Reef), AR 382 (Dredge Wreck Reef) and AR 370 (Meares Harris Reef) always hold lots of bluefish. Farther north, AR 360 (Topsail Reef) is a good bet as are the many natural rock bottom formations in the area such as Dallas Rock. Off Barden Inlet, AR 315 (Atlantic Beach Reef) is also a good bet. Off Oregon Inlet, AR 160 (Oregon Inlet Reef) is worth a try. The interior reefs of Pamlico Sound, AR 296 and AR 298, hold lots of bluefish in fall.
There are many other places that attract bluefish. While normally, bluefish are free-swimming, young-of-year fish swarm at inlets, rivers and bays. Docks located along the Intracoastal Waterway in Morehead City, Topsail Beach and Wrightsville Beach are often guarded by a complement of snapper bluefish. Generally, the nearer the high-salinity water of the ocean, the more likely a boat dock is to attract bluefish.
The Cape Fear River always holds bluefish. Newly completed dredging operations have moved the salinity line farther upriver and bluefish can be caught as far up the river as Wilmington. Rocky islands and points in the Cape Fear are good places to try for bluefish. The Bald Head Island Shoals area is another good bet.
On the northern interior, bridges across Alligator River, Oregon Inlet and at Mann’s Harbor attract bluefish. Bridges, or anywhere else there are lights at night, concentrate bluefish in incredible numbers. As baitfish and squid are attracted to the lights, bluefish follow the easy feast. Topwater poppers are top choices under bridge lights.
Jetties are great places to catch bluefish. The rock jetties at Wrightsville Beach, Fort Fisher and Fort Macon are some top spots for fall bluefish. Jigs and cut baits are popular for catching bluefish at the jetties.
Surf-anglers have good luck all along the beach strands. However, the prime spots for the biggest bluefish have always been the beaches of Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras national seashores.
At Carolina Beach, the northern tip of the beach or “North End,” has been subject to increasing regulation. It should still be open for driving access this fall and is a top spot for catching bluefish.
Located at the southern tip of Pleasure Island is the Fort Fisher Recreation Area. Driving is allowed on the beach and lots of bluefish are caught from the area. At Snow’s Cut, there is easy access to the Intracoastal Waterway from the New Hanover County Recreation area and Carolina Beach State Park. Anglers have only to park and walk to the bank for easy fishing.
Bluefish anglers should not overlook the many commercial fishing piers as among the best places to catch bluefish. Pier angling provides an opportunity for anyone to catch bluefish without having to use a boat, dune buggy or specialized surf-fishing tackle. Any largemouth bass fishing rod can be used for catching bluefish from a pier. When casting from piers, anglers use heavy metal casting spoons and metal tube lures for catching bluefish. These lures are easy to cast by standing on the pier deck or bottom rail, dropping the rod tip under the deck and making an underhand cast. This prevents treble hooks from possibly snagging a fellow angler or bystander.
Holden Beach Pier at Holden Beach, Kure Beach Pier at Kure Beach, Johnnie Mercer’s Pier at Wrightsville Beach, Oceanana Pier and Triple S Pier at Atlantic Beach and Cape Hatteras Pier at Frisco are some top piers. Although every pier hosts a run of bluefish in the fall, the best piers for bluefish seem to be located near inlets or river mouths.
Pier anglers are faced with the dilemma of using light tackle to make long casts and the long-odds prospect of landing a large bluefish, which can break or cut through the light line as it jumps and gnashes its teeth. A hoop net or gaff tied to a rope will help land large bluefish. A companion lowers the net or gaff to the water and the angler leads the fish above it. A quick lift and the bluefish is hauled upward to the pier deck by the rope. An alternative is leading the fish to the surf, passing the rod down to an assistant on the beach and walking down the pier steps to the sand to work the fish through the waves.
Landing a bluefish from boat, beach or pier always requires caution and the correct gear. If long wire leaders are used, gloves should be used for “wiring” or lifting the fish by the leader to prevent cuts. While cotton or plastic gloves work better than nothing, special Kevlar gloves should be used to protect hands from knife cuts.
For safe hook removal, many anglers simply drop large bluefish into an ice chest and clip the leader. Smaller fish can be shaken loose above a fish box or above the water for a live release. Using single-hook rigs or lures make releasing bluefish easier than using those equipped with treble hooks.
Needle-nosed pliers, forceps or a de-hooking tool with a long grip work best for removing hooks. When grasping the hook with a tool and the fish’s body with a glove or towel at the same time, the fish is immobilized. When a small bluefish is swung aboard, its antics and thrashings endanger everyone within range of the toothy fish-pendulum. Therefore, it should be dropped directly into a fish box or dropped to the deck. If the fish is dropped into an ice chest, the line can be used to pull the fish’s mouth to the corner. Using the lid and corner of the chest as a vise, the fish’s head can be immobilized for easy hook removal using a tool.
Bare hands should never be used for removing a hook from the mouth of a live bluefish because they snap powerfully, quickly and are capable of slicing flesh with the least amount of contact.
Large bluefish intended for the table should be gaffed. Gaffs provide safe “handles” for guiding thrashing fish into a fish box. General-purpose landing nets can be used for smaller fish. However, flimsy landing nets are easily sliced through by large bluefish and also tend to grab the hooks. Thick r
ubber or coated nets provide some protection from bluefish teeth, but are no guarantee the fish will not eat its way free and drop on the deck.
For Pamlico Sound information, call George Beckwith Jr., Down East Guide Service, (252) 249-3101. For pier fishing information, call Holden Beach Fishing Pier, (910) 842-6483; Kure Beach Fishing Pier, (910) 458-5524; Triple S Fishing Pier, (252) 726-4170; Oceanana Fishing Pier, (252) 726-0863. For surf-fishing opportunities, call Cape Lookout National Seashore, (252) 728-2250.
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