Beating New England's Summertime Blues

Beating New England's Summertime Blues

After years of reduced numbers, bluefish are due for a dramatic return in the Northeast. Our expert has the story on where you can find the hottest action near you this month.

By Dick Baker

Mike McGoon and I had been fishing the surf along a mile of Plum Island shoreline since sunrise. We were tossing 6-inch plugs to every fishy- looking rip and eddy. We had taken a dozen 24- to 30-inch stripers, and it's safe to say we were happy fishermen.

About midmorning, McGoon cast his popper far out to what looked like a school of feeding mackerel. He twitched the popper a couple of times and a fish bounced it a foot in the air. He continued the twitching retrieve, and after the same thing happened two more times, he started to rip the plug toward him. That did it! On the next strike, his rod bent and his drag howled. McGoon yelled, "Blue!" and followed the fish for 100 feet down the shore where he finally surfed it to the beach on a wave.

It was a nice bluefish, about the same size as the stripers we had been taking.

"How did you know it was a blue?" I asked.

"Because of the way it chased the popper, but mostly because it ran faster and fought harder than the stripers," McGoon answered.

All New England saltwater fishermen are excited about the rebounding striper fishery and the likelihood of taking a 40-pound bass out of the surf, but few would disagree that, size for size, bluefish provide more thrills and excitement. So, it's no surprise that fishermen begin turning to bluefish as July approaches and New England coastal waters begin to warm.

Slammer bluefish like this hefty specimen can be taken from shore or boat along the New England shoreline this month. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Bluefish numbers have dwindled since 1985, but a recent Connecticut recreational angler report indicated that the 2000 bluefish catch was 1,195,365 fish (compared to 3,134,579 in 1985) and the 2001 catch rose to 2,145,658 fish.

Fisheries biologists expect good bluefishing in 2003. Let's be optimistic and hope that the 20-year bluefish cycle is on the rebound and waters like Narragansett, Buzzards Bay, Boston Harbor and even Downeast Maine will again host huge schools of slammer blues this season.

If you keep your ears open in bait and tackle shops, you will find good fishing and even the occasional bloody blitz.

Although it's a good bet that you'll find summer blues near any of the major coastline estuaries and bays, some research will reveal the best spots for successful summertime bluefishing. The following hotspots progress from Connecticut north to Maine, but keep in mind that much of the summer bluefish migration occurs in a northwesterly direction, not simply a northerly progression, along the shoreline. The bluefish life cycle is complicated, and July and August anglers will find hordes of yearling snappers and immature fish along New England beaches and harbors, while schools of mature fish will make random spawning runs to the continental shelf. Sometimes, big slammers will show up in Boston Harbor when snappers are still crowding the Long Island Sound shoreline.

The best bet for consistent action is the Connecticut River as it enters Long Island Sound at Saybrook Point. At this point the river has collected a massive flow, draining four states on its journey from New Hampshire. This flow, in concert with a variety of eddies and backwaters, attracts millions of alewives, shad, mackerel, silversides and menhaden. Big blues follow these baitfish far up into the river.

Shore-fishermen will find easy access at Ferry Landing State Park in Old Lyme. Take Exit 70 off Interstate Route 95. Turn right on Ferry Road and follow it to the end. For more information, call (860) 434-6043.

Boat access is best from the opposite side of the river at Old Saybrook. Take Exit 1 off Route 9 north. At the end of the ramp, turn right. The ramp is under Baldwin Bridge and I-95 off Ferry Road. This is a high-quality launch that can be busy on weekends.

Smaller boats can negotiate miles of the Connecticut River's tidal water in search of blues. In June and July, snapper blues will chase bait far up the river. Troll diving plugs while you look for surface activity.

A seaworthy boat will allow you to troll and drift bait beyond Seabrook Point and into the deep waters of the sound. Big blues prefer deep water, where they wait to make nightly tidal runs up the river.

There is no minimum size limit on bluefish in Connecticut. The season is open year 'round and the limit is 10 fish per day. For more information, contact Rod MacLeod at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Marine Fisheries Office, P.O. Box 719 Old Lyme, CT 06371; or call (860) 434-6043. Also, try the Connecticut Department of Economic Development, 865 Brook St., Rocky Hill, CT 06067; or call (203) 258-4200.

Narragansett Bay is a huge estuary with multiple channels, islands and tidal currents that attract bluefish from its entrance at Rhode Island Sound. Blues will enter the bay in early June, but schooling fish become more active by the first of July.

Beach fishermen should prowl the Breachway to Point Judith Pond. Wading and plugging is popular along this shallow shoreline, but drifting live or cut bait on an outgoing tide will produce blues as well as stripers. Narragansett Bay also has an abundance of fishing piers and jetties so shore-bound fishermen aren't at a disadvantage. When fishing from any shoreline area, keep in mind that bluefish prefer deep water and fast current. Ideally, fish from a shoreline that is in close proximity to a deep channel or tidal rip.

Boat access will be found off Route 114 in Bristol. Bristol Harbor provides a concrete ramp off State Street. There is another concrete ramp off Thames Street at the foot of Church Street. Boat access is also available to the Bristol Narrows at Colt State Park off Route 136.

Best bet is to troll deep-diving plugs between Point Judith and Beavertail Point at the outlet of the Providence River. Drifting live or cut bait also works well. You'll probably catch striped bass, too, but keep your eyes open for bird activity and bluefish breaking the surface.

There is no minimum size limit on bluefish and the season is open year 'round. The bag limit is 10 fish per day. For more information, contact the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife, Oliver Stedman Government Center, Wakefield, RI 02879; or call (401) 78


For accommodations, try the Rhode Island Tourism Division, 7 Jackson Walkway, Providence, RI 02903; or call (401) 277-2601.

Cape Cod always produces the season's first blues because it is the first New England shoreline the blues encounter when they begin their northwesterly journey.

The best and earliest blues will be found along the expansive beaches between Chatham and Orleans. At this time of year the blues will be near deep water and fast rips, so fish the ocean side of the beach and look for fast tidal flows.

The best fishing will be on an incoming tide at first light with a southwest wind. Plugs, poppers and hardware work well with medium- weight spinning or baitcasting gear loaded with 15-pound-test line. Drifting cut and live bait is always productive. A 2-inch center cut of mackerel on a No. 9/0 wide-gap hook drifted on an outgoing tide can sometimes produce trophy-sized bluefish.

There is a paved launch in Chatham at the Bridge Street pier. This is a half-tide access.

Boat fishermen can access the bigger blues that roam the open waters of Nantucket Sound. Trolling big plugs or drifting live bait along the Atlantic side of Middle Ground and Monomoy Point will produce slammer bluefish throughout the season.

As summer progresses, bluefish move northward, following the mackerel across Massachusetts Bay. There will be good fishing all along the Massachusetts coast, especially near the deeper harbors and major estuaries. But, for productive hot- weather fishing, try Ipswich Bay from Rockport north to Salisbury.

For the shore-bound fishermen, the three jetties at Salisbury Beach are a good choice. Salisbury is north of the Merrimac River and Plum Island.

The flow of the Merrimac draws tremendous schools of baitfish and the bluefish come to feast; so bring two rods: A medium-action outfit to throw 1-ounce Swedish Pimples for mackerel and a heavy spinning or bait-casting rig to drift live or cut mackerel. The best fishing is on the outgoing tide with an onshore wind. The easiest fishing is with an offshore wind that keeps the surf down.

A boat is a big advantage if you don't want your fishing to be limited to an hour or two of perfect tide, daylight and wind.

Bluefish will often put on an awesome show on the turn of the tide at sunset, but they will run to deep water after less than an hour, although they will continue to chase bait schools and will feed somewhere between the harbor and Halibut Point. Your best bet is to troll large diving plugs and take advantage of your fish-finder to find suspended blues and baitfish. Carry binoculars to keep watch for working gulls and terns, which signal surface feeding activity.

If you know the fish are there, but they won't touch trolled plugs, try some mackerel. Use them for chum and drift them (unweighted) on a No. 9/0 hook.

Ipswich has two paved all-tide ramps, one at the town landing on East Street and the other on Water Street (and it has a pier). Newburyport has a paved all-tide ramp at the Ferry Landing and another off Water Street. Salisbury State Beach features a paved all-tide ramp.

Massachusetts' bluefish season is open year 'round. There is no minimum size limit and the daily bag limit is 10 fish. For more information, contact Paul Caruso, MassWildlife fisheries biologist based in the Pocasset office, at (508) 563-1779; or try Brad Chase, fisheries biologist in Gloucester, at (978) 282-0308.

For accommodations, contact the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 100 Cambridge St., 13th Floor, Boston, MA 02202; or call (617) 727-3201

Despite its relatively few miles of Atlantic coastline, New Hampshire boasts one of the best bluefish attractors on the New England coast. At Portsmouth Harbor, it shares the Piscataqua River and the huge estuary system of Great Bay with Maine. On an outgoing tide, this river dumps a massive volume of water into the Gulf of Maine.

From the beginning of spring through summer, Great Bay and the Piscataqua River are full of alewives, mackerel and often menhaden. Small bluefish will then well up into the backwaters of Great Bay, while the deeper waters between New Castle and the Isles of Shoals will hold slammer blues from July through September.

Some blues are caught off the piers and local bridges, but this fishing is better suited to boat fishermen. Your best bet is to troll diving plugs through the harbor in a direct line with the isles. If your sonar unit reveals suspended fish, you can try chumming or drifting live or cut bait.

Boat access to Great Bay and the Piscataqua is best achieved at the paved ramp provided at Hilton Park on the east side of Spaulding Turnpike on the north end of the bridge that crosses Great Bay. This is an all- tide launch, but be forewarned that there are some hidden rocks at low tide.

New Hampshire's bluefishing season is open year 'round. The bag limit is three fish per day. There is no minimum size limit in effect.

For more information, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Bridge St., Concord, NH 03301; or call (603) 271-3421. For accommodations and supplies, contact the New Hampshire Vacation and Travel Bureau, Box 856, Concord, NH 03301; or call (603) 271-2343.

Shore-fishermen and boat anglers looking for great bluefishing should head north on Route 1 and get off at the Bath exit. This shipbuilding town is on the south side of the Kennebec River, which drains most of Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Nautical charts warn boaters to beware of the tremendous tidal surge that occurs at the river's outlet at Popham Beach in Phippsburg. An outgoing tide meeting an onshore wind can often produce huge standing waves in front of the old life-saving station.

Popham Beach, at the terminus of Route 209, provides miles of fishable shoreline. From the beginning of May through summer, fishermen wade this beach casting for mackerel, shad, stripers and, finally, bluefish. A couple of decades ago, this was a popular bluefish hotspot, but with the return of fantastic numbers of stripers, the blues are targeted by a few die-hard devotees. It's actually common to hear striper fishermen complain about losing an $8 plug to an "alligator" at sunrise.

The beach shoreline drops off quickly into the shipping channel and the bluefish leave the depths at random times. Often, blues will blast into a school of mackerel just out of casting range of the striper fishermen. A long spinning rod rigged with a heavy Atom popper can bring a big blue to shore from 100 yards off the beach. When a thick school of snapper blues feeds its way up the beach, it's amazing to watch the action progress, as nearly every fisherman on the beach will hook up with a fish. Fishe

rmen who take bluefish seriously carry big poppers and 1- or 2- ounce tins tied to a stout 6-inch steel leader.

Boat fishermen have the most consistent action here. It is common to see several boats anchored or trolling the deep water just off the beach. The stretch between Fort Popham and Pond Island can produce fish at all tides. Mackerel is the prime forage here.

Two all-tide boat launches are available. One is next to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. The other is off Route 209 in Phippsburg.

This is a catch-and-release striper fishery through July 1. No live or dead bait may be used and lures may have a single treble hook.

There is no closed season or size limit on bluefish in Maine, but the daily limit is three fish.

For more information, contact the Maine Department of Marine Resources, P.O. Box 8, West Boothbay Harbor, ME; or call (207) 633-9500. For accommodations, contact the Maine Publicity Bureau, 97 Winthrop St., Hollowell, ME 04347; or call (207) 289-5710.

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