Now's the time when excellent bluefishing can be found along the entire length of our state's expansive coastline.
Photo by Tom Migdalski
By Gary Caputi
When the dog days of summer are upon us, the inshore angling action tends to become as lazy as the weather. Fishing for striped bass slows to a crawl in most areas and what little weakfish sport there is takes place in backwater bays under the cover of darkness.
So what are you to do if you want to get into some fish that will burn line off your drag? Hard-fighting brawlers that will strike bait or lures with abandon and then jump and run, putting a smile on your face and leaving you with sore arms. You need look no farther than one of the spots we're going to cover that are frequently inhabited by bluefish throughout July and August. You'll need a boat to get to them, but in most cases, not a very large one, or there are plenty of party boats available that sail day or night for summertime blues.
IF LAST YEAR IS AN INDICATOR
In the three years prior to 2003, summer bluefish action had been lackluster. Depending on what area of the state you call home, these seasonal residents played pretty hard to get. That was not the case last year when bluefish arrived early in Jersey waters in all sizes and shapes from 2-pound juveniles to 15-pound-plus bruisers. Many of these fish stayed throughout much of the summer.
During the fall, anglers fishing from boats and the beach were getting beat up consistently by bluefish that were in such large schools it was almost impossible to get through them to catch a striped bass or two. I can well remember a lot of mornings running my boat slowly down the beach and being in awe of the schools that lit up the screen on my color sonar unit for miles.
The prime motivating factor for the influx of bluefish last year was the incredible amount of baitfish in our waters following an unusually cold winter. Menhaden, a bluefish favorite, were found up and down the beaches in vast schools. The choppers were on them more often than not. By midsummer, lots of peanut bunker and silversides were available to fatten up small to midsize bluefish. The winter of 2004 was a close replay of 2003, cold with significant precipitation, which seems to precede a season of baitfish and bluefish abundance. So let's not waste anymore time with conjecture and check out a few of those places that tend to hold nasty choppers willing to do battle when most of the other game fish are away on summer vacation.
CAPE MAY: NEAR AND FAR
During the summer months, bluefish can do a disappearing act in the South Jersey area, but last year they settled in for a longer spell than usual. When they are hanging out down this way, you can either stick close to the beach and break out the light tackle or head farther off and take a shot at some real choppers. It all depends on the size of your craft and your comfort level for ranging offshore.
The most well-known inshore spot in the area is Five Fathom Bank, which consists of several high spots of varying sizes that rise to as shallow as 20 feet out of surrounding water of 39 to 50 feet. The largest lump has a navigational buoy situated on top at GPS coordinates 38 53.8/74 37.6, which makes it easy to find, but any nautical charts of the area will have it clearly marked.
The other major lumps run north and south of this position. Five Fathom Bank will usually hold smaller bluefish, which is fine if you use the right tackle. Bring along the light spinners or plugging gear, some chum and bait, and you'll probably catch a lot of fish.
If you don't mind heading farther offshore, you stand a better shot at catching big bluefish on the Hampshire or East Lumps, both high spots located about 20 miles southeast of Cape May. They rise to about 55 feet on top out of surrounding water that averages about 80 feet. These spots are usually the haunt of trollers rather than light-tackle enthusiasts, but they do give up larger fish.
One of the party boats that run night bluefish chumming trips out of Cape May during the summer is the Miss Chris, and there are plenty of local charter boats available for hire. Check the Cape May Chamber of Commerce for a listing at (609) 884-5508 or their Web site at www.capemaychamber.com.
GET THE BARNEGAT BLUES
The long stretch of beach between Barnegat Inlet and Cape May is not known for holding bluefish through the summer months, but once you get to this famous Jersey port, you have a large selection of party and charter boats and a huge fleet of private craft that fish out of the inlet on a regular basis.
The prime bluefish spot last year was Barnegat Ridge, which is actually two large ridges separated by about a mile of deeper water. The North Ridge is located at GPS coordinates 39 42.0/73 46.9 and is an expansive piece of real estate. The South Ridge is found at GPS coordinates 39 38.6/73 47.0 and is about two-thirds the size of the North Ridge. Both are capable of holding many large schools of bluefish. Located on the southern end of the South Ridge is a deep hole called the South Ridge Dropoff at 39 38.2/73 46.8, which is a good place to look for bluefish when they are not holding on top of the structure.
On days when the temperatures soar and there are a lot of boats pounding the area, bluefish will sometimes slip off into this hole and can be coaxed out with a well-placed chum slick running off the edge of the ridge into the hole. If you can locate a body of fish holding there, you might even be able to jig some up using diamond jigs or big bucktails.
Both ridges are most frequently fished using chum and bait, which affords the opportunity to use a wide variety of tackle from light to heavy. Bluefish schools containing a wide range of different size fish can be found transiting the area. During the summer, you never know if you'll hit small, medium or big ones. Wire line trolling can also produce well during the day with a variety of lures catching fish from plugs and spoons to the old-standby umbrella rig.
WALLOWING IN THE MUD HOLE
My good friend, Capt. Howard Bogan, skipper of the 125-foot Jamaica out of Brielle, probably runs more bluefish trips, especially night bluefish trips, than any boat on the Jersey coast. When you ask him about where to look for yellow-eyes during the summer months, he is most likely to tell you to pass up the inshore spots and head straight to the Mud Hole, where the bluefish are usually big and feisty.
"Manasquan Ridge, the Klondike or a number of smaller inshore pieces are likely to produce a catch of bluefish during the day and even more so at night," Bogan will tell you. "But I tend to go th
e extra 10 or 12 miles to the edge of the Mud Hole, run a search pattern looking for bait concentrations or schools of bluefish on the color scope, and then set up a chum slick and wait 'em out. You usually don't have to wait very long!"
The Mud Hole, which is a huge section of the old sunken riverbed of the Hudson, extends out toward the edge of the continental shelf where it forms the Hudson Canyon. It drops off from 20 fathoms (140 feet) into 30 fathoms (210 feet) here and is also known as a good place to fish for sharks, dolphin and school bluefin tuna in its deeper areas.
When searching for bluefish, concentrate on the west side of the 20-fathom contour between Little Italy and the Oil Wreck, both easily located on any nautical chart. One area that has been particularly productive is the Shark River Reef, a deep-water reef site that has numerous large vessels sunk there as part of the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program.
Most of these ships rest close to the 20-fathom curve and they tend to hold a lot of bait, which keeps the bluefish close by. When you arrive on the scene, spend some time searching the main wrecks with your depthfinder. If you don't have the numbers, purchase a copy of Shipwrecks of New Jersey's Artificial Reefs, published by the Artificial Reef Association, P.O. Box 16, Oceanville, NJ 08231. It is available at tackle shops or by sending a check or money order for $15 directly to the association address. Some wreck numbers are also available on the state reef Web site at www.state. nj.us/dep/fgw/artreef.htm.
When you mark fish, put the boat in neutral and drift for a few minutes to determine the direction of the prevailing current. Then motor upcurrent, drop your anchor and start chumming heavily to bring the blues up to the surface. Once you get them in your slick, back off on the rate of chum so you are only holding them there, not feeding them.
The Mud Hole can be very productive day or night during the midsummer months, but even when the fish shut down during the daylight hours, they can almost always be coaxed to feed at night.
ROCKIN' ON THE ROCKS
There are few areas really close to shore that are capable of producing good catches of bluefish in July and August, but the one area that seems to hold them is the Shrewsbury Rocks off the Sea Bright/Deal area of Monmouth County. This incredibly large outcropping of hard bottom was formed during the last ice age and consists of acres of rocks, high spots, deep gouges and irregularities that attract and hold baitfish, bluefish, striped bass, seabass, blackfish and on and on.
The Shrewsbury Rocks extend from the shoreline out beyond the Green Can Buoy located at GPS coordinates 40 20.4/73 56.3. Beyond that, it falls off into about 50 feet of water and then rises slightly east of the Gas Buoy at 40 20.5/73 55.5, where another wide area of relatively flat hard bottom extends even farther offshore. There are additional high spots just north of the Rocks proper that can also hold bluefish, and most are found on a good nautical chart or electronic charts for chart plotters.
The Shrewsbury Rocks, because of its proximity to shore and the number of boats that can often be found fishing here, is primarily a place to troll. Wire line with umbrella rigs or single tubes will produce bluefish of all sizes, but if you want to target the big bluefish, try putting out a large bunker spoon. If you are careful, trolling with Spectra line and large, deep-running plugs will also catch blues throughout much of the year.
If you decide to chum bluefish around the Rocks, it is best to move off onto the outer sections of the structure near deeper water and anchor. A few anglers night-fish for stripers here during the summer months because it is one of the places that hold a good number of resident fish throughout the season. They'll regularly have their live eels chopped in half or engulfed by bluefish.
17 FATHOMS STILL RULES
Captain Don Hager, skipper of the Sea Fox out of Atlantic Highlands, runs bluefish trips day and night when it's happening during the summer; he enjoys access to the entire New York Bight area from his home port. But of all the places he has to choose from, one consistently produces bluefish, especially on the night runs, and that's 17 Fathoms. This is another extensive area of hard-bottom structure with peaks and valleys that often hold lots of bait and schools of bluefish. It is located offshore of the Shrewsbury Rocks and runs to over 100 feet deep in places.
The bluefish action there can be great during daylight, but after dark, the choppers become absolutely ravenous. Successful fishing techniques include chumming both day and night, and trolling with wire or downriggers during the day.
There is another spot nearby that for years was the most consistent place to catch bluefish anywhere on the Jersey Coast, the Mud Buoy area at GPS coordinates 40 22.2/73 50.6. It is an area where dredge spoils had been dumped for many years, forming a large high spot where the water was a brown, stained color. Bluefish seemed to revel in the dirty water, but last year it didn't hold fish in the quantities it had in the past. It is still a good spot to have in your GPS to check out when the fish aren't at 17 Fathoms.
BY THE BAY
The last place on our tour of bluefish spots is a great one for small boaters who can't or don't wish to make the run out into open ocean waters. Raritan Bay is an extensive area of relatively sheltered waters that lies between Sandy Hook, the mouth of the Raritan River and Staten Island. Raritan Bay is filled with deep ship channels, shallow hard-bottom areas and manmade rock islands with old lighthouses.
The bay holds bait and game fish all summer long. Many mornings, before the boat traffic gets busy, you can find birds working over schools of roving bluefish chasing bait on the surface around places like Flynn's Knoll, Chapel Hill Channel or along the edges of Raritan Reach Channel. This can be fun light-tackle fishing with poppers, swimming plugs, jigs and bucktails.
Similar surface action can occur again in the evening when harbor blues will go on the tear again. When the fish aren't on the surface, break out the trolling gear and chances are you'll get into the blues on wire and umbrellas or on deep-diving plugs. If you anchor on the east edge of Flynn's Knoll on the outgoing tide, you can chum blues up out of the ship channels when nothing else is working. This is a large area, easily accessible from harbors, marinas and launch ramps located along the western side of the bay from the towns of Highlands to Leonardo.
THE TOUR HAS ENDED
These are the places where I'd head to find and catch bluefish during the height of the summer. If you have your own boat, all you need to access any of these areas is a good navigational unit, preferably a chart plotter that will provide you with internal charts to show you the way.
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