Beating the Bay State Blues
September 29, 2010
July bluefishing can be a challenge at times, but these ferocious battlers can be taken from shore or boat along the Massachusetts coast this month. Our expert explains how it's done.
Massachusetts' bluefishing can be hit or miss, but when we finally find them, they smash, gouge and destroy more terminal tackle than any other fish in our waters. Built like broad-shouldered fighting dogs, these saltwater pit bulls leave an oil-slicked water surface strewn with pieces of maimed baitfish when they go on a feeding rampage. "Powerful" and "mean" are appropriate adjectives, but "awesome" best describes their blitzes.
Migrating bluefish enter southern Massachusetts in May, with the main school moving through on the heels of mackerel, pogies or other baitfish. At every agreeable spot along the way, a portion of the school drops off and takes up summer residence, moving in and out of shallow water, depending on the forage. In July, bluefish generally spend their time in deeper water, though there is some spotty action inshore.
TROLL AND DRIFT In the bright summer sun, often the only way to find bluefish is by slow-trolling a swimming plug or spreader rig. Once a fish is hooked, cut the engine and drift while landing the fish.
If you spot surface action, motor upwind of the spot and drift toward it, casting surface plugs to the frothing activity. Never motor through breaking fish!
Nothing works better or is more exciting for working surface fish than a silver or white Zara Spook or a saltwater popper. As fish slash and boil, keep the plugs moving until you feel the weight of the fish pulling against the line. Then set the hook. Many fish miss the bait on their first pass, and striking back too soon with the rod will snatch the plug out of the action zone. Don't forget the wire leader. Without it, that $7 plug will be gone for sure, but there is no need to overdo it, either. A 6- to 9-inch leader is plenty and will make casting much easier.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
WHERE TO FIND THE BLUES The focus should be on deeper water in July, but don't pass up the shallow bays, especially on rising tides, even when there is no obvious surface action. Sometimes bluefish cruise into these bays looking for bait, and a shallow-running plug thrown tight against the shoreline will often tempt a strike.
When a bluefish is hooked in shallow water, there is a good chance it will jump, and there is probably no greater thrill in our corner of the salt- water world than fighting a big, slammer bluefish in the shallows with a light rod.
The catch limit on bluefish in Massachusetts is 10 fish. Many anglers release all but a few they intend to eat. To release fish safely, use a small hand gaff slipped through the fish's lower lip. The gaff will do little damage and will allow safe removal of the treble hooks.
Netting blues is an option, but there can be a problem when big treble hooks snag and twist in the net fabric. The best solution is to remove one or two of the treble hooks from plugs and mash down the barbs on the remaining ones. There will be fewer hooks to catch in the net, and if a hook lodges in someone's thumb, it will come out much easier and without too much damage!
HOTSPOTS FROM NORTH TO SOUTH Ipswich Bay, the waters around Plum Island and the entrance to the Merrimack River can be productive during July. Though bluefish are liable to appear anywhere, there are places with higher odds of success, such as the area where the Merrimack River meets the ocean at Plum Island. Begin a troll just inside the river's mouth, keeping the south jetty close by, and cover the area from the base of the jetty out to the first green buoy. This area is crowded and has a big rip tide, so keep the boat moving slowly, and be careful while trailing deep-diving plugs or heavy spreader rigs.
When trolling or casting won't bring fish up, many anglers anchor or drift with bait bouncing off the bottom. This is a productive technique when you know there are fish around. Electronic sonar always shows fish, either striped bass or blues, between these jetties.
When only a few boats are around, such as in the early morning, blues may blitz bait on the surface for a few minutes anywhere near the channel outside the jetties, providing opportunities for surface plug anglers. Watch for the usual signs of diving birds and boiling water.
Lots of blues are caught in the river channel near the big, red marker nicknamed "The Toothpick." Local anglers anchor in the current and fish with cut bait, primarily targeting keeper stripers, but they often catch blues.
Occasional July blitzes occur just seaward of The Toothpick and the sandbar jutting out from Plum Island Point. When you arrive early and find a low tide at dawn, with water just beginning to cover the sandbar, blues sometimes trap baitfish between the channel and the bar, and the action is fast and furious. A run up behind Woodbridge Island around high tide will occasionally reveal big blues feeding in the shallows.
From a small boat, you can fish anywhere in the river proper, but a more seaworthy craft is recommended if you plan to go outside of the jetties.
Outside the Merrimack, another good hotspot begins at the second green buoy outside the south jetty. Drag a deep runner or spreader rig along the dropoff that runs on a heading of about 210 degrees. The bottom drops from 10 feet to about 25 feet along the beach on Plum Island, providing a natural staging area for blues and stripers.
Probably the most consistent area for bluefish action north of Cape Ann is near Halibut Point, a place where anglers often find plenty of fish while trolling just outside the lobster pots from Lanes Cove to Folly Cove. The fish hit best when the tide is moving in, slack off during high, flat water, and then turn on again as the tide moves back out.
The most convenient landing for the whole area is the state facility at the Salisbury Beach Reservation on Route 1A. The park entrance on the right leads boaters to a doublewide, all-tide landing with plenty of parking. The landing is free, but the park entrance fee is $7 per day or $35 for a season pass. Only season pass holders can enter the park for fishing at times other than 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer. From this landing, anglers can work the Merrimack River mouth, the area outside of Plum Island and the 10-mile crossing to Cape Ann and Halibut Point.
Boatless anglers can surfcast along the beach around Plum Island Point down to the Refuge. The 7-mile-long beach on the Parker River Wildlife Refu
ge is normally closed through much of July to protect piping plover nests, but when it is open, it provides plenty of surfcasting action.
Call (978) 465-5753 for information on the refuge. Both beaches of Plum Island are reached from the Newburyport side of the river.
For local information in the Newburyport area contact Surfland on Plum Island at (978) 462-4202 or Bridge Road Bait and Tackle at (978) 465-3221. Newburyport's Chamber of Commerce (978/462-6680) can provide lodging information.
The Isle of Shoals, a cluster of small islands seven miles off Portsmouth, N.H., has the most consistent bluefish action north of Cape Ann.
Though these islands are technically in New Hampshire waters, many boaters travel there from landings in Massachusetts. Good numbers of fish begin showing up in mid-July throughout the islands. A recommended starting spot is the back (or east) side of the group. Unfortunately, the open ocean is not a place for smaller boats, but seaworthy craft can launch at many landings, such as Rye Harbor on Route 1A in Rye, N.H.
BOSTON'S NORTH SHORE North of Boston Harbor, the shoreline weaves in and out like a serpent. The nearshore waters are freckled with rockpiles and small islands that are prime habitat for stripers and blues. Though the habitat is now dominated by stripers, many anglers yearn for a return of the massive bluefish schools of the 1980s, when all people had to do was walk to the nearest public fishing pier or beach to find powerful slammers. Those were the good old days for blues, but the striper fishing was not nearly as good. Can there be a correlation?
Steve Lotito, owner of Al's Bait Shop on Cabot Street across from the Beverly fishing pier, said that most of the bluefish caught last July were smaller fish lurking among striper schools. Big schools of large fish never showed up, probably because the mackerel schools passed by very quickly. There were schools of smaller snapper bluefish in the Danvers River all the way beyond the Danversport Yacht Club, delighting light-tackle anglers who caught them with small, metal spoons and worms or small chunks of bait.
Lotito said that in July, anglers normally have good luck trolling the rock-strewn area east of Baker's Island outside Salem Sound. There are plenty of small islands closer to shore that, in good years, will attract bluefish, but Baker's Island is close enough to deep water and the open ocean to be dependable. He suggested working through the area inside the triangle formed from Baker's to Newcome Ledge to Satan Rock. This triangle is south of the deep Salem Channel and is filled with humps, holes and dropoffs that provide protective hiding places for bait and ambush spots for bass and blues. Lotito suggests slow-trolling through the area with spreader rigs, giant plugs or deep divers. Drifting or anchoring with chunks of herring is also productive, especially after schools of blues have been located.
Two landings conveniently service Salem and Beverly. Boaters focusing on Beverly Harbor and the Danvers River often select the Kernwood Bridge landing. Take Kernwood Street north off Route 114 in North Salem and head toward the river. The other state landing on Winter Island, past Fort Pickering, launches boaters a few miles closer to the islands in Salem Sound. On the Salem side of the Route 1A bridge, take Webb Street to Fort Avenue on Salem Neck. The landing is on Winter Island, past Pickering Light.
Egg Rock northeast of Nahant, though not particularly close to Beverly, is another productive spot. This area is most easily reached via the state launch area on Nahant Road, off the Lynnway in Lynn.
Bait, tackle and local information about current north shore bluefishing spots are available from Al's Bait and Tackle Shop at (978) 927-3312. There is a free 30-minute tie-up dock across from the bait shop next to the Beverly fishing pier.
Lodging and general information about the area are available from the Beverly Chamber of Commerce at (978) 232-9372.
SOUTH OF BOSTON Drew Kolek, fisheries biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, rated last year as no better or worse than other recent years for the area south of Boston. Early blues arrived in late May and stayed in their water through October. During July, most of the fish encountered are summer residents in small schools or are traveling with striped bass. During their tagging operations last year around the Elizabeth Islands, state biologists constantly jigged up blues with the stripers they were targeting.
For fishing inside Cape Cod Bay, Kolek suggested either using the state landing in Barnstable or driving farther out to the landing at Truro, off Old County Road and Depot Road at Pamet Harbor. The Barnstable landing off Main Street drops anglers into the protected Barnstable Harbor, with good bluefish action normally occurring near the entrance. Larger boats can work any portion of the bay from here, but anglers who drive to the Truro landing can more conveniently work the Provincetown area, which produced two 20-pound-plus bluefish entries in last year's derby.
On the south side of the Cape, many anglers launch at the state landing at Green Pond to access the productive Elizabeth Islands area. There is good action on both sides of the islands and in the gaps between them. From Route 28 in East Falmouth, take Davisville Road to Menauhant Road heading west.
An excellent public landing at Padanaram Bridge in Dartmouth provides access to Buzzards Bay, which can be good in July. Take Exit 12 off Route 195 onto Faunce Corner Road south. Go straight ahead for about six miles to a stop sign and make a left on Russels Mill Road. A mile later, turn right on Gulf Road. The landing, about two miles up the road, can handle any size boat and has plenty of parking. The sheltered Apponagansett Bay is just off the landing, and this area sometimes holds blues and provides quick access to open water and the islands.
Heading out of the bay to the south are Dumpling Rocks, one of the favorite local honeyholes. To the east, as you exit the bay, is Clarks Cove, which is also recommended.
Beach Action While July bluefish often hang in deeper water, shore-bound anglers can find action along many of Cape Cod's beaches and rock pilings, especially early or late in the day.
Kolek mentioned the beaches facing Nantucket sound as being good last year, especially in Contuit.
Chambers of commerce in many Cape Cod towns can provide lodging information and other general information. One of those chambers of commerce is the Hyannis Chamber of Commerce at (508) 362-5230.
A saltwater fishing guide for the state of Massachusetts, edited by Kolek, lists public access ramps, tackle shops and charter boats. The guide is available from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries at (617) 626-1520 or (508) 563-1779.
Whether you find bluefish by trolling a
deep-diving rig, drifting with chunk bait in the channels or watching for working birds, oil slicks or roily water that shows surface action, you're in for a treat. Blues respond to almost anything thrown near them when they are in the midst of a feeding frenzy, so you can throw almost any fly, plug, jig or bait and hook up successfully.
When hooked bluefish are at the boat, be careful, because these fish are powerful and can create dangerous situations. They do not attack people, but you should never allow a live bluefish to thrash around in the bottom of your boat. Their mouths will be snapping the whole time, and if your toes or fingers accidentally get in the way, the blues' razor-sharp teeth will do a number on them. Be safe and have fun!
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