June 25, 2013
As I stood near the console and watched my friend Steve Conn free-spool his line from the bow spot I heard a sudden noise that sounded like a small wave crashing on a beach. I spun around in time to see the residual whitewater left by an aggressive predator — one of many such breaks that dimpled the sea that calm day last summer. As I peered into the steely-blue depths I saw the only remnants of what had been a fleeing herring. Countless iridescent scales sparkled beneath the surface like bright stars on a clear Montana night.
My momentary daydream snapped when Steve called out from the other side of the console. "I'm on!" he said as line melted off his reel, which was whining like a tire spinning on ice. "It feels like another big bluefish."
Along with a few other boats, we were drifting at about 4 knots on a huge conveyor belt of seawater called "Plum Gut." The Gut is a sometimes-treacherous half-mile-wide tidal rip at the eastern entrance of Long Island Sound. On windless days like this one — the only sensible and safe times to venture here in a moderate-sized craft like mine — you may encounter 2- to 3-foot standing waves along the rip line, even though the water up-tide of the rip is perfectly flat. It's these types of rips scattered all along southern New England, and especially off mid- and eastern Connecticut shores, that attract predators like bluefish and striped bass, and which also make the technique of diamond jigging so effective.
THE BITE IS ON
The much-anticipated annual invasion of big bluefish, striped bass and even the occasional weakfish along our coast, all fattening up before their annual autumn migration is on. While blues inhabit the same waters as stripers, they are easier to find and fool, especially during the daytime. Here is a look at one of the best lures, techniques and types hotspots for catching summer bluefish and other predators in our area.
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
With respect to handling performance, diamond jigs are extremely efficient because of their naked chrome-plating-over-lead construction. They are simple, clean, inexpensive and tooth-proof. Diamonds require no hooks to re-bait, no chewed-up surface plugs to discard and no mauled bucktails or soft plastics to replace. Unlike a swimming plug with multiple treble hooks dangling from it, a diamond jig's body also makes a sturdy and safe handle with which to lift and unhook feisty fish.
For fishing performance, it doesn't get much better. Diamonds can plummet in the strongest currents or flutter downward like wounded prey, yet they wobble irresistibly like a fleeing baitfish when retrieved. During white-hot action, like when working a school of blitzing bluefish as Steve and I were doing last summer, jigs have a speedy turnaround time. As soon as you can wrestle a diamond's single hook from the maw of a scrappy gamefish you can quickly dump them both overboard to swim again.
Generally speaking, experts recommend using the smallest jig possible given the wind, current and depth. In relatively sheltered inshore waters like along Connecticut's shoreline towns of Branford, Guilford, Madison, Old Saybrook or East Lyme, a 4- to 5-ounce diamond is a perfect choice because it weighs enough to easily reach bottom, and its smaller size resembles local forage like squid, round herring, silversides, butterfish, peanut bunker and tinker mackerel. But for large rips, like those accessible from Connecticut and Rhode Island but located over the New York line, including the Race, Sluiceway or Plum Gut, you may need jigs as heavy as 8 to 12 ounces to reach bottom where the fish hold.
"Usually," says Capt. Kerry Douton, owner of J & B Tackle in Niantic, CT, and captain of the famed Dot-E-Dee charterboat, "the smaller the diamond jig the better it produces. But a lot of guys mistakenly go the other way. They try to use something really heavy so it falls quickly. But lighter is better. I don't like to use huge diamonds. Many fishermen in places like the Race go to 16-ounce jigs, and there's no reason for it. We use 8-ounce diamonds with superbraid line, and they fish really well in the deep water. But inside Long Island Sound you're able to use only 4 to 6 ounces in most spots."
Whether squidding or jigging, a diamond's drop is just as important as its retrieval, a fact that sets the experts apart from the novices. Because of a diamond's density and special shape — tapered on both ends and wide and angular in the middle — it can flutter sideways toward the bottom or plummet tail-first. You can achieve the slower horizontal fall by a fast drop of your rod tip or by quickly releasing line, thereby almost eliminating line drag. But if you give the lure a small amount of resistance by slowing the free-spool release or rod tip drop, the slight pull keeps the jigging positioned vertically, which actually straightens and speeds its decent. The drop technique you use depends on the type of fish you're after and/or the current speed.
DIAMONDS FOR BLUES AND BASS
Rips form when a strong current sweeps over structure like a reef, ledge or shoal, and most southern New England rips hold bluefish and striped bass all season. These are the types of spots where diamonds really shine. If you don't know of any reefs or rips in your area, check your charts for contours where the water depth rises and falls abruptly. Some reefs are marked by navigational aids and are easy to find while others aren't. The unmarked reefs, however, are often more productive because they receive less fishing pressure.
Once you arrive at promising structure, motor up-tide of the rip line while watching your depthfinder. At the point where the ledge levels off, stop the boat and let the current pull you back toward the reef. Immediately drop your jig overboard and start working it, which you should continue doing until you reach the crest of the reef or rip line.
"The best approach for bluefish holding near the bottom," says Capt. Kerry, "is using the 'squidding' technique. Free-spool your jig until it hits bottom. Then immediately engage your reel, retrieve the jig about ten quick turns, drop it back down and hit again. You do that until you get too much line out because the jig gets [diagonally] away from you or you reach the rip. Then you reel all the way in and start over again. Fishing is often better near the ends of the tide, especially for stripers, which helps keep the jig under the boat. Maintain a vertical drop whenever you can. Try retrieving the diamond a bit slower for bass than for bluefish."
Captain Al Anderson of the charterboat Prowler out of Snug Harbor, Rhode Island, uses a slightly different technique, which is very productive when bluefish are dispersed through the water column.
"When squidding for bluefish," says Capt. Al, "once the jig bounces the bottom, I recommend a steady retrieve all the way to the surface — that is key. Use a moderate speed but not too fast. That way chances for cutoffs from bluefish swiping at the lure are reduced. Allowing the jig to tumble and then jigging it back up with rod lift may find bluefish missing the lure and parting the mono leader with their razor-sharp teeth."
Besides rips, squidding is also effective for blues, striped bass and weakfish working bait schools roaming over a flat bottom. Most anglers see fish breaking on top and start slinging topwater plugs at them, but the bait is busting because predators are driving them up from the depths and trapping them against the surface. It's fun and sporting to watch a big blue crash a top-water plug, but if it's numbers you're after, then diamond jigs will out-fish surface plugs by a considerable margin.
When you spot a blitz, motor just ahead of the activity and cut the motor. But don't plow into the school because you'll drive down the fish. Let the wind or current push you back toward the action while squidding beneath the surface frenzy. These schools are like icebergs: Most of their mass is located below the surface, and that's where you should fish a lure.
When targeting bass, some experts refine their squidding technique by slowing the retrieve and initially only taking about five turns off the bottom. Then they pause for a second and then take another three or four turns before free-spooling the jig back down. But Capt. Al likes direct jigging for them.
"For stripers only," he says, "a 4- to 5-foot upward sweep of the rod at moderate speed is all that's needed, followed by slack line as the jig falls. No reeling is involved. Most strikes come on the drop. Those anglers who don't provide enough slack for their lures to flutter down receive few if any strikes. A common mistake is overly vigorous jigging. Strike zones are typically small, so jigs should be worked close to the bottom where stripers are holding stationary."
Some styles of diamond jigs come factory-rigged with treble hooks. When targeting bluefish, striped bass and weakfish, you should replace trebles with 8/0 singles. Single hooks snag bottom less frequently, reduce harm to the fish, make catch-and-release easier and are safer when unhooking a feisty fish in a bouncing boat.
To rig a typical diamond jig, tie about 36 to 40 inches of 80-pound mono abrasion leader to the lure. Expensive Fluorocarbon material isn't necessary for blues and bass at these depths. The seemingly long leader not only handles the fish on the hook but also the free-swimming "buddy" bluefish that graze the leader while swiping at the lure. For bluefish, I just tie on with a standard clinch knot, but when targeting bass I'll switch to a loop knot to accentuate lure action. Attach the main line to the leader using a black snap swivel. Most captains, including me, don't use a wire leader because it increases visibility and restricts lure action.
Capt. Kerry fishes high-quality conventional reels without a levelwind mechanism. He says that levelwinds restrict the speed of the drop in swift waters of rips, thereby letting the line "float up" diagonally before the diamond hits bottom. He prefers reels with good gears and drags made by major manufacturers like Penn and Shimano in sizes equivalent to a 2/0 to 3/0. He loads these with 30- to 40-pound Dacron backing and then top-shots them with 150 yards of 30- to 40-pound spectra "superbraid" line, which allows him to use lighter jigs. He attaches his reels to 6-foot, 6-inch to 7-foot, medium-heavy rods in the 17- to 40-pound or 14- to 30-pound range.
Steve and I returned to the boat launch that afternoon tired from reeling in lots of medium-sized bluefish and a few bonus striped bass. We had one of each in the cooler headed for the gas grill. We were once again convinced that when the action on predators heats up off southern New England, you should keep a variety of these deadly gems in your tackle arsenal.