Fishing for bluefish was off the charts last season -- and all indications are this should be another great summer as well. Here's where you should try!
Bill Goodman came all the way from California to catch bluefish (and stripers) off New Jersey. Do you think he had a good time?
Photo by Gary Caputi
Last year we were blessed, or if you don't like them, you could say plagued, by an abundance of yellow-eyed, toothy critters with bad attitudes roaming the waters off central and northern New Jersey. There were loads of medium-sized bluefish on inshore lumps all season long, which were joined on and off by even bigger bluefish.
Bluefish provide a great treat for party boat patrons and private boat fishermen with craft large enough to get a few miles off the beach. There were bluefish of every conceivable size at one time or another along the beaches from May through November, which made them readily available to fishermen in even the smallest boats, including kayakers. Surf-fishermen got into the bluefish-catching fray as well.
It didn't seem to matter whether you fished on any of the numerous party and charter boats out of ports from the middle of the state north to the New York Bight, or if you fished from your own boat or if your feet were planted firmly on sand, bluefish were available in numbers not seen in a long time!
Now if you're not familiar with this ubiquitous brawler of the sea -- and I can hardly imagine anyone who has fished in the salt who is not --bluefish have been, if not the primary, one of the top two or three species sought by Jersey anglers going back to the turn of the 20th century. Back before the modern era of fishing, bluefish were caught by the garbage cans full with little regard to preserving their eating quality. Tossed in burlap bags or open buckets to bake in the sun until the boats returned to port, blues were considered poor table fare and, unfortunately, many were simply wasted.
Fortunately, those days are gone and anglers are releasing the overwhelming number of bluefish they catch. Many anglers have found that if they take care of the bluefish they catch, they are surprisingly good to eat. Interestingly enough, we have released such a high percentage of the recreationally caught bluefish in recent years that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) have seen fit to hinder our conservation ethic by transferring some of the "unused" recreational quota to the commercial quota, so netters can keep their catches high. It has become a bone of contention when you consider that their own stock assessment scientists still consider bluefish to be overfished!
After spending nine long years on the MAFMC as a representative from New Jersey, I am convinced that fishery managers know less about bluefish than probably any other fishery they manage. They are open-ocean travelers that go wherever the conditions are best and where forage is available. Ocean currents, seasonal water temperatures and other factors that we simply do not understand dictate their wanderings.
Some years back, biologists and managers were claiming the biomass was so low the stock might collapse. They based these assumptions on the fact they weren't seeing the typical numbers in their surveys here in the Northeast; but in fact, bluefish were being caught in good numbers in places farther south or offshore than was typical. They had simply strayed from their typical migrational patterns at that time. The past few years, the Northeastern states have again seen a general increase in the abundance of bluefish and that means one thing for us -- great fishing!
UP SANDY HOOK WAY
Captain Ron Santee, skipper of the 72-foot party boat Fisherman (732-872-1925) out of Atlantic Highlands Municipal Marina, was thrilled with the bluefish action and fishing in general out of his port in 2004.
"We didn't start bluefishing until July, since I prefer to run afternoon into evening trips for them and the evening fishing gets better as we get into summer," Santee said. "We kicked the season off with flounder and stripers in April and we ran every day for four months solid. The weather was very cooperative. Once we started bluefish trips, we fell into what had already shaped up to be a great year for them."
Captain Santee's clientele like his bluefish trip scheduling, which let's them enjoy the afternoon sunshine, watch a beautiful sunset over the beach and get in a little nighttime action before they pack up and head back to the dock -- with time to spare to hit the sack and get up for work in the morning.
"Leaving the dock at 3 p.m., almost any day we could stop right inside Sandy Hook Bay and jig the smaller, cocktail blues," he advised, "but most of the anglers I carry enjoy fishing for larger fish and that means we pass up the bay and make the short run to the Mud Buoy. There we would set up the chum slick and drift back baits for them. The fishing action was consistent, almost like clockwork. My log shows we caught pretty much all the fish my patrons could want on 95 percent of the trips during the year and that's a far cry from years past."
The Mud Buoy held nice fish for Santee and the other Highlands boats. Most of the blues went from 5 to 8 pounds, with some teen-sized fish thrown in for sport. "The anglers we carry today are not like the ones my dad and granddad took out," Santee said. "They are on board to have a good time, catch some fish and bring a few home to eat. They could care less about filling a burlap bag full. Back in the old days, guys would get off the boats with 50 big bluefish and try and sell them when they got back to the cities. A good deal of them ended up in the trash, the flesh ruined by not icing them down. I'm pleased to say that mentality is long gone.
"Some of my patrons really like to eat a few or even the 15-fish limit . . . they bring coolers and bleed and ice them on the spot, so they have some very nice fillets when they get home. Bluefish, especially the 5- to 6-pounders, are good eating if you care for them immediately."
The captain did mention that while they always seemed to get a few teen-sized fish on most trips they didn't see as many really big ones until the fall and by then the crowds for the bluefish trips were starting to diminish and the requests to switch back to stripers had him changing over. While bass fishing in the fall, his patrons did catch some very big bluefish jigging or on eels and clams meant for linesiders.
Captain Al Shinn runs the well-known 120-foot Miss Belmar Princess (732-681-0030) out of the Belmar Municipal Marina; he comes from a long line of party boat captains. When we talked about the bluefishing last year, he didn't waste any time singing its praises.
"It was one of the best seasons we've had for them in many years," he said. "It was like the old days when the fish showed up early and hung around until the last hurrah late in the fall. In recent years, we usually had to run south of Shark River Inlet, our home, to get fish, especially in the summer months. The run could take us all the way to Barnegat Ridge and ever farther. Not last year. The fish were all over the traditional spots just north of our inlet. Spots that were made famous for their bluefishing decades ago."
The places Shinn was talking about are familiar names like the Farms, 17 Fathoms and even the outside areas of the Shrewsbury Rocks. The Rocks run from the beach off Sea Bright out a few miles. Private boaters were catching them on even small lumps like the Klondike and Manasquan Ridge throughout most of the season, but the party boats tend to go to larger structure areas where the concentrations of fish better suit their passenger carrying capacity.
"We never had to go far to find them and the fishing was literally nonstop from May right on through. We were day-fishing with chum and bait from May 10 on and we added a schedule of night trips starting in June," he reported. "The fishing was so good during the day that the number of people showing up for night trips suffered, but it was just great to have fishing that steady."
What Captain Shinn meant by steady was there wasn't even a lull in the action in July when bluefish tend to disappear for a few weeks and move offshore to spawn. During that time frame, the daytime fishing usually suffers, but the fish were there and biting after the sun went down.
The blues were consistent in size throughout the year, too. The majority of bluefish caught on the northern spots were 5 to 8 pounds, which is a nice average. However, Shinn said there were weeks when the same spots would get covered up with really big fish. During those blasts, the pool winners were always in the high teens and they had fish during the year that were pushing the magical 20-pound mark.
When Capt. Shinn was asked to look into the crystal ball and predict what he thought the bluefish action might be like in 2005, he threw me a curve. "I don't know for sure, but if it's half as good as it was last year, I'll be thrilled and so will my passengers!"
Capt. Shinn also mentioned that while most of his patrons simply fished cut bait, mostly bunker backs, in the slick, he had a growing number of anglers who only used jigs. They usually did as well, if not better, than the people using bait.
I caught up with Captain John Larson, skipper of the 90-foot catamaran, Miss Barnegat Light (609-494-2094), at the dock in Fort Myers, Florida, where he takes the boat for the winter months to run trips to the Dry Tortugas for snapper and grouper. (He comes back to New Jersey in May.) Although he was feeling a little under the weather at that time with a cold, he was quick to praise the bluefishing in New Jersey waters last year.
"We start running for blues out of our berth in Barnegat Light in mid- May, sometimes even a little earlier," Larson said, "and last year, they arrived early and stayed late, keeping us busy. In fact, the fishing was so good that our patrons started getting a little tired of it. Sometimes too easy isn't always the best thing."
Larson didn't have to run very far to catch bluefish, spending the majority of the season fishing just one spot: the Barnegat Ridge. "The fish moved right in and never left all year," he reported. "The only problem we ran into from time to time was a few commercial boats setting their gill nets right on top of the Ridge, which meant we'd have to move to different structure. Sometimes they would take so many fish in a few days that the fishing would slow down until more fish moved into the area. That didn't take very long, though, and I guess everyone has to make a living."
The fish on the Ridge varied from 6 to 10 pounds throughout much of the year. They were biting on day and night trips. The Miss Barnegat Light ran for them seven days a week and also did evening trips on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. "We quit on Labor Day and started running canyon tuna trips," Larson said. "With the speed of this boat we can get offshore in 3 1/2 to four hours, so we run for tuna every day the weather allows during the fall."
ALONG THE BEACHES & IN THE BAYS
With the strong run of menhaden this past spring, bluefish were being seen in Raritan and Sandy Hook bays as early as mid-April. Some of these were big bruisers, too. The number of fish wasn't large enough for head boats to target, but they were the scourge of the private boat striper fishermen, light-tackle guides and smaller charter boaters. Anglers fishing with clams in April and early May caught a few blues. When the water warmed in May, bluefish arrived in great schools joining the bass in feeding on bunker and the baits the anglers were using.
The spring run was also great in the more shallow bays like Barnegat, where small-boat fishermen caught abundant 2- to 7-pound bluefish on poppers and fly rods starting in early May. This is fun fishing where you use very light tackle and catch bluefish in water that is barely 2 feet deep.
Light tackle guide Captain Terry Sullivan of Flats Rat Charters out of Pt. Pleasant (732-899-6245) said he spent many days in late summer and early fall with fly rod clients. That's when they were catching loads of bluefish right along the beach from the deck of his Contender center console. "They're great fun on light spinning and especially on the fly rods," he said. "They chase flies and poppers so well and jump and run so hard that a lot of my customers enjoy catching them as much as stripers."
The fall run along the beaches was permeated with bluefish of all sizes from tiny ones chewing up the peanut bunker to big bruisers smashing the mature menhaden, herring and mackerel late in the season. At that time, bluefish could be caught on almost anything from jigs and poppers to bunker spoons and umbrella rigs.
Will the 2005 season be another banner year for bluefish? I'm not afraid to make a prediction and if I'm wrong, you can always write to the editor and tell him my psychic powers need a little fine-tuning. So here goes.
The winter is shaping up to be relatively mild early and colder late, similar to last year. The fall water temperatures in January were about the same, too. Those conditions prior to the 2004 season were favorable for bait production and an early invasion by bluefish. Also notable were strong numbers of small baitfish moving out of our estuaries again this past fall, which bodes well for a strong forage base in 2005.
Another important factor that is still in place: the state law that has protected mature menhaden from industrial commercial harvesting in state waters the past few years. So bunker should be abundant again, too. There were blues of all sizes available in 2004, lots of small ones inside and along the beaches, loads of medium-sized ones a little farther off, which is a good sign as far as population dynamics is concer
ned. Add it all up and I'm going to guess that the bluefishing is going to be excellent again in 2005. So get your tackle ready for what lies ahead!