October 04, 2010
Anglers in Chesapeake Bay and out in the open ocean are enjoying some of the finest bluefish action in years. Read on for top places to try near you!
Bluefish are determined feeders and fighters -- an ideal combination that'll bring a smile to any avid angler's face. Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Gary Diamond
The 2002 fishing season was without a doubt among of the most unpredictable in recent history, especially when it came to bluefish. Recreational catches of bluefish have fallen precipitously since 1981, which according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), amounted to nearly 95 million pounds. The low point in recreational landings was recorded in 1999, when anglers throughout the species' East Coast range boated a scant 9.5 million pounds. There was a slight upsurge in the estimated recreational catch in 2002, which when the final tally is in, may hit 18 million pounds.
Bluefish are a migratory pelagic species found worldwide in most temperate, coastal regions, except the eastern Pacific. Along the U.S. Atlantic coast, they're found from Maine to Florida, often ranging well into the confines of major estuaries to feed on their favorite forage species, Atlantic menhaden.
By mid-May, massive schools of slammer blues will have congregated at more than a dozen inshore lumps near Ocean City, and off the shores of Assateague Island, locations where the bottom rises to within a few fathoms of the surface. The lumps are magnets for a variety of forage species, which at this time of year usually consists of large schools of Atlantic menhaden that are migrating north.
While there's nothing in the ocean meaner than a slammer bluefish on the prowl, there are some species that actually chase them down and eat them. Shortly after the blues arrive at the lumps and bumps, schools of foraging bluefin tuna will appear at the exact locations. Yes, a 100-pound bluefin tuna has no qualms at all about chasing down a 20-pound blue and swallowing it whole. Now, there are two big kids on the block. This attracts throngs of recreational anglers, some exclusively in search of tuna, while other are looking to battle both species.
THE JACK SPOT No one is quite sure how the Jack Spot got its name, but one thing's certain, this is a popular lump for bluefin tuna and bluefish anglers alike. This vast uprising from the ocean floor rises to within 8 fathoms of the surface, while the surrounding depths plummet quickly to as much as 19 fathoms. Until a few years ago, the lump was clearly marked with a large buoy that could be seen for distances of up to 10 miles. Unfortunately, budget cuts have forced the U.S. Coast Guard, which is the agency responsible for maintaining the markers, to remove the buoy.
The Jack Spot is situated approximately 25 nautical miles due south of Ocean City Inlet and lies just over 12 miles from the beach of Assateague Island. The distance from the launch ramp at Chincoteague is also about 25 nautical miles, which puts the structure about halfway between the two inlets.
If the wind is blowing from the southwest, which is frequently the case at this time of year, the trip in a small to midsized boat is best made from Ocean City. You can easily duck out of the weather by running a few hundred yards off the beaches of Assateague Island until you are due west of the Jack Spot, then head east until you reach your destination.
Most anglers opt to anchor directly on top of the lump and establish a chum slick consisting of ground menhaden and other ground-up fish parts. The chum can be purchased at most area tackle shops and is supplied frozen in either 5-gallon buckets or 1-gallon blocks. If it's available, the most productive form of chum is fresh-ground menhaden, but it can be difficult to locate, especially along the coast.
Chumming is an art. The secret to success is to put only a small amount of chum in the water, but at a consistent rate. The rate will vary with tidal flow, but essentially, one soup ladle full every 30 seconds seems to be the most effective, both in the ocean and Chesapeake Bay. This method of chumming is usually sufficient to attract large numbers of fish, but does not provide enough to satisfy their insatiable appetites. Consequently, the slab of menhaden you toss overboard that's attached to your line and conceals a deeply imbedded 5/0 hook, is wolfed down like a steak dinner.
When conditions are right at the Jack Spot, you'll see thousands of dorsal fins zipping through the slick. Granted, a slab of fresh-cut menhaden will produce all the fish you can handle, but toss a large topwater plug among all those dorsal fins, skip it across the surface as fast as you can, and you'll be amazed at the explosive strikes that will take place.
BASS GROUNDS As the season progresses, more blues will migrate to locations a bit closer to Ocean City Inlet. Situated just 12 miles east of the inlet is another vast hump rising from the ocean floor known locally as the Bass Grounds. Some grizzled headboat captains claim the location was named for the large schools of black sea bass that used to congregate at nearby wrecks. An artificial reef was later placed at the same location, a lump that rises to within 4 fathoms of the ocean's surface.
By early June, bluefish ranging from 12 to 15 pounds can frequently be seen foraging on schools of fleeing menhaden and other forage species. Most anglers prefer trolling red surgical hose eels, and large silver spoons just beneath the surface at speeds of 3 to 5 knots. These speeds are just fast enough for the lures to act erratic and to attract the attention of a bluefish looking for an easy meal. The blues will usually stick around at this location until mid-August, then head north to Delaware and southern New Jersey.
PARKING LOT Nothing makes an avid tuna chunker angrier than having a school of marauding bluefish move into his chunk slick. This occurred often last summer when hundreds of charter and private boats gathered at this popular offshore fishing spot to chunk for trophy bluefin tuna ranging up to 300 pounds. No sooner had fishermen established good slicks then bluefish to 20 pounds would suddenly show up.
"If you got there at the crack of dawn, you could usually catch a couple of big bluefin tuna before the rest of the fleet and the bluefish arrived," said Captain Ted Ohler, skipper of the Strike III out of Ocean City. "There were a lot of days when I left the dock at 3 a.m. so I could be fishing by sunup. Even then, there were usually a few other boats in the immediate area. If we were lucky enough to catch a couple of big tuna by 8 a.m., we would usually spend the remainder of the morning catching slammer bluefish on light spinning gear. That way, everyone on the boat had fun catching big fish on light tackle. I even had a few customers who insisted on tossing big streamer flies into t
he slick. They were having a ball catching and releasing bluefish; but one angler got a big surprise when a 100-pound-plus bluefin tuna grabbed his streamer fly. It took less than three seconds for all the line and 100 yards of Dacron backing to completely evaporate."
CHESAPEAKE BAY Two years of extreme drought raised the Chesapeake's salinity levels to an all-time high, while at the same time enticing myriad exotic species farther up the estuary then at anytime in history. Weakfish and bluefish were caught near the Susquehanna Flats, a popular location for anglers in search of tidewater largemouth bass and stripers. Several anglers reported catching red drum up to 30 pounds more than a dozen miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at Sandy Point near Annapolis.
SOUTHWEST MIDDLE GROUNDS "We're having an incredible run of 6- to 10-pound bluefish and there's no one out there fishing for them," said Captain Bruce Scheible of Scheible's Fishing Center in Ridge. "The fish are stacked up at the Southwest Middle Grounds, and though they're scattered over a large area, we have been catching our limit on nearly every trip, then switching over to chumming for stripers. Sure makes for a good day on the bay when you can take six folks out fishing and come back to the dock by suppertime with the coolers filled to the top with bluefish and rockfish."
The Southwest Middle Grounds is perfect for bluefish. Similar to locations found in the Atlantic's coastal waters, this particular hotspot is a vast uprising from the bay's sandy floor. The lump is situated approximately seven miles southeast of Point Lookout in the eastern edge of the Chesapeake's main shipping channel. A dozen years ago, when striped bass fishing was limited to October only, Scheible chummed this location for bluefish using the same method described earlier.
It wasn't too many years later when increased commercial fishing pressure took its toll, causing the fishery to nearly collapse by 1995. Today, the fishery is still considered overfished, but according to ASMFC, it is making somewhat of a comeback and will be taken off the "overfished" list by 2004. The 2002 season seemed to reflect some of this, especially from July through September. Those 6- to 10-pound choppers made that long drive to the tip of Point Lookout State Park an enjoyable and exciting excursion.
When a school of surface-feeding blues is encountered, the best technique for catching them is to motor uptide or upwind of the school, shut the engine down and allow the boat to drift quietly toward the feeding fish. Motoring through the school usually results in nothing more than driving the bluefish away from the boat and scattering them over a large area. As your boat drifts toward the school, cast small spoons or surface plugs toward the edge of the school and begin cranking the reel handle as fast as possible as soon as the plug hits the water. There's no such thing as too fast for a bluefish.
HOLLAND ISLAND FLATS When there were loads of boats chumming at the Southwest Middle Grounds, Scheible would often head northeast from Point Lookout and run about 12 miles to buoy 72, a location that has always been popular for anglers chumming for striped bass. While striper fishing ranged fair to good at this location last summer, the flats just east of the buoy held large numbers of bluefish ranging 6 to 10 pounds, fish that were frequently overlooked by striped bass anglers.
"I usually fished here late in the day, when most of the boats chasing rockfish had already headed back to the docks," said Captain Mike Murphy of Tide Runner Charters out of Lower Hooper Island. "After we caught our limit of rockfish, which is just two fish per person, we spent the rest of the day chasing flocks of birds and having a ball catching bluefish at Holland Island Flats. Most of the time, we had the entire place to ourselves and caught all the fish we could handle. When the action was a bit slower than I would have liked, I headed across the bay to the Targets. We had schools of similar size blues there from mid-August until late October. Most of the time, we took them on jigging spoons cast to the breaking fish, but there were times when a big, white streamer fly was really the perfect lure, especially if the blues were feeding on bay anchovy. A 10-pound bluefish on any kind of fly rod is a real challenge."
In years past, bluefish were often maligned for their eating quality because of their oily texture. However, when striped bass became scarce, many anglers learned how to properly prepare blues, and later developed some great-tasting recipes that will tantalize your taste buds. The secret to success is to ice the bluefish down immediately upon landing it, making sure it's buried in the ice. This alone will produce a better tasting bluefish, or for that matter, any other species of fish.
The fish should always be skinned and filleted, and all dark meat should be carefully removed. Then rinse the fillets thoroughly with cold, fresh water and place them in an airtight plastic bag in the refrigerator or cooler. Skinning and filleting the fish removes much of the fatty tissue, which is where a good deal of the fish oil resides. The dark meat of any fish, at least as far as the family cat is concerned, is unfit to eat.
The easiest method of preparation is to place the fillets on a broiler pan sprayed with non-stick cooking oil and bake them at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes, or until the meat easily flakes. Then coat the fillets with a 1/8-inch-thick layer of mayonnaise, sprinkle on some Old Bay Seafood Seasoning, and place them under the broiler until the mayonnaise begins to brown and bubble. Delicious!
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