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Sport Fishing Magazine: May 2006
MONSTERS OF THE NORTHEAST FLATS
Shallow-water bluefish challenge light-tackle anglers
By Capt. John McMurray
It was an exceptionally calm day, without the slightest breath of wind. A late morning sun began to bake the white sand flat as we quietly poled across a surface that was so glassy I felt a twinge of guilt to be disturbing it. Only the small, scattered dimples made by foraging bait fish marred the perfect mirror of living water. As I began to relax, letting it all sink in, Capt. David Blinken loudly whispered, “12:00, 12:00, 12:00!,” excitedly repeating himself several times. A few hundred feet in front of us were a half dozen protruding fins lazily moving across the surface. If I wasn’t in New York I would have sworn they were tailing bonefish. I fumbled for my rod. David, with eyes still on the fish, uttered a sharp “Shhhhh!”
With the sun behind us, we began to make out several large dark shapes cruising in line formation. David quickly pivoted the boat so I’d get a forehand shot. But instead of continuing on their path the fish broke course and began swimming in a large circle, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Repositioning the skiff David said… “We’re going to want to throw to the outside of that circle.” I did as David instructed. As soon as the fly gently landed on the water, I began a sharp/fast retrieve. Two big fish broke from the circle as soon as they noticed my fly, sniffing at it as I let it pause. David whispered harshly “strip, strip, strip!” I pulled on the line hard and the fly darted away from the fish. Then, all hell broke loose. A bluefish lunged at my fly with its red gill-plates flaring. The line immediately came tight and I gave it a good strip-strike, sinking the hook deep into the charging blue’s jaw. Startled, the fish ripped across the flat as the others spooked, sending saltwater spraying everywhere. I danced to keep the line from under my feet as it flew out the guides of my rod. A spectacular leap followed by a tail-walk across the surface ensued as I let out an uncontrollable “whoop.” And then the sickening feeling of slack line, followed by the agony of defeat. The big bluefish had ending the fight early by biting me off.
Yes, bluefish are toothy critters, and that may be part of the reason many anglers just don’t bother with them. Not only to they bite right through mono, but they destroy plugs and flies. Furthermore, most people feel that bluefish, especially the large ones, do not have the eating qualities a striped bass, weakfish or fluke. However, one thing is for sure. Bluefish have evolved into exceptionally vicious predators and they provide challenging sport for anglers willing to give them a go. Their sleek, streamlined bodies, with their large heads, yellow eyes and set of choppers that would make Jaws himself green with envy, give this fish an almost sinister appearance. Their behavior lives up to the outward show, earning them a reputation as one of the most voracious fish in the ocean. When the big ones are around, I am sometime reluctant to get in the water—but I do, because, when these big predators come into the flats they create some world-class light-tackle opportunities. Because bluefish, when on the flats, are very easily spooked, very difficult to fool and, once hooked, fight harder than anything else an angler will find in the Northeast’s skinny water, they provide one of the most challenging fisheries in the northeast. And, because of their large size and spectacular acrobatics, the reward for fooling one is great.
Racers in the flats
From New York to Massachusetts, large adult bluefish begin to filter onto white sand flats during mid-to-late May. The precise time, may vary based on the weather and water temps. These early blues are scary big (in the 30-to 40-inch range) but tend to be long and skinny with exceptionally large heads. Anglers in the Northeast have given these fish the moniker “racers” as they seemed to have raced up from the south without eating much.
There are a number of theories on where these fish come from. Jeff Buckel of the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, North Carolina State University, who has studied bluefish for many years, speculates that these fish are thin because of the calories they burned during their migration up from the south. Based on anecdotal evidence from commercial fishermen there has been some conjecture that some bluefish stocks winter over on the thermoclines on and around the continental shelf where food reserves are sparse during the winter. Whatever the case, every bluefish that I’ve taken on the flats in the early spring has had an empty stomach.
Odd behavior in the flats
Given the fish are thin, one would think that these bluefish come into the white sand flats to eat; however that doesn’t seem to be the case. During the spring these fish exhibit somewhat odd behavior while in a skinny-water environment. “There are “stringers” and “daisy chains”,” says Captain David Blinken, a longstanding flats guide in East Hampton New York. “Big bluefish will follow each other tail to nose in groups of 6 to 15. For unexplainable reasons they will break off and form daisy chain circles, much like tarpon do in the Keys.”
There is much debate on why they exhibit this sort of behavior. One thing is for certain though; it is not a feeding activity. Bluefish are well known for their ravenous feeding behavior, but when they get up on the white-sand flats it’s very difficult to get bluefish to eat at all. In fact, it takes a very specific presentation to interest them, which we’ll cover later.
Every guide and angler I’ve spoken with seems to believe that this is some sort of spawning behavior. However David Conover of the Marine Sciences Research Center, at the State University of New York who has done extensive work on bluefish says that this is probably not the case as it has been well documented that bluefish spawn far offshore and usually not until July. Expert Guide, Dave Skok who spends a lot of time targeting bluefish in the various shallow water hotspots of the Northeast, pointed out that this could possibly be some sort of pre-spawn behavior, as these big adult bluefish in the flats disappear in late June/early July and don’t reappear again until August. “They come in a big wave, and we get all this crazy weird activity. Then they disappear” says Skok. In other words, it’s a pre-spawning social behavior, or more simply put, flirting. Buckel further mentions that when the female begins to develop her eggs the adult males may sense this and be prone to follow her, hence the “stringer.”
Thomas Grothues of Rutgers Marine Field Station in Tuckerton NJ told me that this is a classic pattern of spawning behavior, but that it is more than likely a “going-though-the-motions process. He mentioned that these fish try to spawn whenever they find warm water even though it my not be successful. Coinciding with Conover, he pointed out that all the eggs are found offshore.
Why do they break off from these “stringers” and swim in circles? No one I spoke with can really explain it, other than that bluefish are schooling animals and that perhaps they just get caught in games of follow the leader when there is no apparent leader involved. Buckle also speculated that perhaps, because the water is on the colder side during this time of the year, and obviously the flats warm quicker than deeper water, this is some sort of thermo-regulating behavior. This theory fits as well because they only seem to be in these white sand flats during periods of clear skies and high sun. And they only seem to tail during calm, almost windless conditions. Of course, as one of my peers pointed out, this also may be the only time we can see and get to them.
The difficulty factor and techniques to get around it
Whatever the reason that brings big blues to the flats, they aren’t eating, and that makes them very spooky and very challenging. Captain Doug Jowett who fishes these cruising blues in the Cape every spring says “These fish are very tough. If you expect to hook one, you have to be very quiet and you have to be able to cast far and accurately.” Blinken adds that these fish are so shy when they get into the skinny water that they are not approachable via outboard or even electric trolling motor. Often they are in as little as one-foot of water. According to Blinken, they can only be approached via flats skiff and a push-pole, or by staking-out or anchoring and waiting for them to come within range. I have, however, had some success stalking these fish with my duel trim-tab mounted electric motors, but the fish must be in water deep enough to use them. Of course, anchoring the boat, and getting out and wading is the most unobtrusive and probably the best method to target them, not to mention the easiest.
Because the fish aren’t on the flats to forage, I’ve found that in many cases the only way to get them to strike is to annoy them to the point where they act out of aggression rather than hunger. This requires the use of noisy popping plugs, or foam boiler-maker type poppers for those using a flyrod. At the very least, such splashy noise makers will get an uninterested fish’s attention and can often inspire that instinctual urge to strike whether the fish is hungry or not. I prefer to use a 4-inch floating plastic popper with an internal rattle. The more noise it makes the better. It is very helpful if a lure floats and allows an angler to pause during his or her retrieve long enough to let weary fish to make up their minds. I’ve also found that just stopping the popper mid retrieve will sometimes induce a spectacular pouncing strike. Because these fish are so shy, when using a popping plug, it’s important to cast approximately 30-feet beyond the lead fish, and bring the lure back in front of or to the side of the school. If you cast too close, it may send every fish running.
Others like Blinken and Jowett seem to prefer a more subtle approach, particularly during the early part of the season. Sometimes the fish are so spooky, the mere drop of a plug will send them running. In those cases, using a flyrod may be the only method available. Blinken whose guide service specializes in flyfishing, recommends using a light, unobtrusive but large fly like a “Seaducer,” and discourages the use of flies such as the clouser minnow that make even the subtlest of plops when they hit the water.
Blinken recommends fishing “daisy chaining” blues just like you would fish tarpon that exhibit similar behavior in the flats. To entice such uninterested fish, one must lay a big fly up on the outside of the chain. A blue will usually break from the daisy chain and eye it. At that point, David says, just twitching the fly along, very slow, just enough so the fly puffs, can draw a strike. It is important to keep a tight line as soon as the fly hits the water. “If it’s loose, you’re done” says Blinken.
If you are stealthy enough, and you have a good Captain on the poling platform, you will get a number of shots. If the twitching method doesn’t induce a strike on the first try, try working the fly faster. As soon as the fish eyes the fly, David recommends stripping as hard and fast as possible. That will induce that predator instinct to eat something that is trying desperately to get away.
If you must use spin gear spin gear both Blinken and Jowett recommend using very small light weight floating/swimming plugs. Again, it’s important to throw 30-feet away from the fish and bring it past them, not through them. Vary the retrieve, sometimes ripping and sometimes reeling slowly to see what the fish like. Stick baits like the Zara Spook and the 9-inch Slugo fished on an unweighted weedless hook can also be effective here. The strikes you get will be extremely violent ones. Like small tarpon, once stuck these fish will go right into the air and tear line off the reel at a fast rate.
Rigging for success
Bluefish are toothy animals and will bite right through a regular mono leader. Traditionally, anglers have used multi-strand or single stainless-steel wire leaders. That works fine for ravenous feeding bluefish, but on a white sand flat it doesn’t make the cut. “Visible wire leaders turn wary bluefish fish off” says Blinken. Furthermore, they detract from a fly’s action. For that reason, Blinken discourages using any sort of wire. In its place he rigs his flies with a foot-long hard mono 50 or 60-pound shock tip. Still, Blinken concedes, some bluefish will manage to bite even through that.
Flats guides such as Jowett and Skok also discourage the use of conventional, cumbersome wire leaders, instead opting for new knottable leaders made by manufacturers such as American Fishing Wire and Tyger Wire. Those products are much less visible in the water than conventional wire leaders, and they don’t unduly encumber a lure, but let the fly or plug move and swing like it is supposed to. They also don’t weigh floating poppers down like conventional wire leaders are prone to do.
Big fish, appropriate tackle
Choosing tackle can be very important if you expect to land one of these monsters of the flats. In fact, you really must have exactly the right combination of quality light tackle but serious, up-to-the-job gear to be successful in this game. Anglers must have spinning gear that will allow them to throw a half to ¾-ounce plug a great distance, with enough backbone to put pressure on an exceptionally strong and fast fish. Seven-foot graphite medium-light action spinning rods work best here. Make sure to have a reel with a flawlessly smooth drag, as big bluefish really scream when they are hooked on the flats. A drag that hesitates and sticks will result in a lot of lost fish.
I highly recommend the use of a braid or synthetic line like Berkley Fire Line or Spider-wire in the 14 to 20-pound test range. Such lines will allow you to fit much more line, of the same line class, on a light spin reel than would be the case with mono. Often, you will need the extra line as flats-hooked fish are prone to go on extra long, extra fast runs. Furthermore, the newer braids are supple and allow for greater distance when casting. A three-to-four-foot 20-pound fluorocarbon leader before the wire or heavy mono tippet is also recommended as flats bluefish tend to spook at the sight of the more visible braided line.
If you plan on using fly gear 9 and 10-weights with a weight-forward floating line will suffice. I over line my rods by one or even two line-weights, to allow me to make quick shots with a large deceiver. The extra weight also makes it easier to turn over a large foam popper
Flies and Plugs
When I use spinning gear, three-and-a-half-inch Gag’s Graber Schoolie Poppers in any color are my first choice in lures, as I really enjoy the violent strikes a topwater bait produces. These plugs are small and light enough to not make too much of a disturbance when they hit the water, hence spooking the fish, but are loud enough to gain a fish’s attention when worked in a fish’s vicinity. They have a rattle in them as well, which helps to create a good amount of noise to inspire instinctual strikes. There are a number of comparable plugs on the market that work just as well. Keep in mind when choosing a popping plug for this sort of fishing that it must float as you may be required to pause during your retrieve. Color doesn’t seem to matter. It’s all about how much noise they make.
When poppers are too intrusive and seem to be spooking fish, I’ll switch over to a small swimming plug. Any of the 4 to 5-inch Rapala/Yo-zuri/Bomber type plugs work well here. I’ve had a lot more success with bright colors rather than natural ones. Plugs that have chartreuse in them work particularly well, but for some reason, yellow plugs (“chicken scratch” or “school-bus”) seem to outfish the rest.
If you plan on targeting these fish with a flyrod, I recommend 2/0 or 3/0 Edgewater foam body poppers tied on a 4/0 long shank hook. Splayed feathers for the tail help give it a bit more action then bucktail. I’ve found that the insertion of a cylindrical-shaped glass rattle in the foam greatly increases the noise making capabilities of these flies. Blinken prefers oversized Seaducers with white feathers and gold flash. He also ties them in grizzly and olive over green, plus the traditional red and white. Jowett claims that most of his success with these big bluefish on the flats comes from a beefed up white deceiver with an epoxy head. Cape Cod flats guide Dave Peros chalks up most of his success to the crease fly. Peros says the old style soft bodied sliders work well also.
What’s Going On With Bluefish?
Some years we have a lot of them around, other years they seem to be non-existent on the flats. Bluefish abundance seems to vary each year. According to Mid Atlantic Fisheries Council Management Council Assistant Fishery Plan Coordinator, Jessica Coakley, while bluefish numbers are not what they should be (the total biomass at the end of 2004 was estimated to be 92.3 million pounds, versus the 147.05 million pounds that would define as “recovered” stock), the stock assessment completed in June of 2005 showed that bluefish are not overfished and that overfishing is not occurring at this time. Charles Witek, CCA NY’s Government Relations Chair and former Mid-Atlantic Council member, points out that according to Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Management Plan, the stock must be recovered by January 1, 2007, although, late adoption of that Amendment may push the legally mandated recovery date back to some time in 2009. In either case, given that the population is estimated to be at only 2/3 of that needed for a full recovery, there’s reason to doubt whether a timely recovery will occur given the current level of harvest. When asked whether the fishery could be recovered in time under the current plan, Ms. Coakley provided no clear response, saying only that there was discussion between the Council and NMFS of when the recovery must be completed. There are also some reservations about the precision of the estimates in the latest assessment, which prompted the Stock Assessment Review Committee to advise that the conclusion that the stock is not being overfished be treated with “great caution”. Given such advice regarding uncertainly related to the bluefish stock, one would think that the Mid-Atlantic Council would be urging a precautionary approach to bluefish management, but no evidence of that has been seen to date; more than one state has increased its bag limit in recent years. But, as Witek notes “Bluefish are an extremely difficult fish to manage, due to their wide ranging travels and resultant lack of reliable data. The 2005 assessment barely made it through the peer-review process and is certainly less precise than managers would like. However, it represents the best available science, and managers should rely on it in setting harvest limits until a more precise assessment can be obtained.”