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Fishing Tips

BLUEFISH FACT & FICTION

Posted 5/6/2011

This toothy predator is, pound-for-pound, one of the feistiest game fish in the ocean and always up for a tussle with anglers.

As one of the most popular and readily available game fish along the Atlantic coast, the bluefish is one of the hardest fighting fish you can challenge with light tackle. Many children are introduced to saltwater fishing by catching that first snapper, another word for the young bluefish that migrate into bays and tidal rivers to feed on the abundant grass shrimp and small baitfish that live there each summer. Blues can be caught trolling, casting plugs, jigging, chumming and bait fishing. Each year millions are caught, and a high percentage are released making it one of the most sought-after species encountered by recreational fishermen. But most anglers know surprisingly little about this unique fish.

The bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) is a one-of-a-kind, the only member of the family Pomatomae. Considered by many to be an All-American game fish, it is actually widely distributed in subtropical and temperate oceans. South of the equator, it is found in Australia, where it is called a “tailor,” and on the East and West Coasts of southern Africa and up the entire West Coast of the African continent, where it is known by the name “elf.” Across the Atlantic and north of the equator, the species inhabits the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of North American where we call it by a variety of names the most common of which is bluefish. 

In U.S. waters, small-to-medium size bluefish are found in the Gulf of Mexico throughout much of the year. Large numbers of adults winter off the coast of Florida during the colder months, with two-to-five pound specimens making frequent feeding forays into coastal rivers and the Inter Coast Waterway. As spring approaches, these fish begin a migration north arriving off the Mid Atlantic states as early as April, and off New England by June. In years of high abundance, they travel as far north as Maine and Nova Scotia. Although the National Marine Fisheries Service classifies them as a “coastal migratory” species, they can range far offshore and anglers have encountered them trolling for tuna and marlin in the marine canyons off the edge of the Continental Shelf over 100 miles out. Late every fall, bluefish are caught on the bottom by anglers fishing for codfish in water as deep as 275 feet. What this tells us is that bluefish are highly adaptable, and capable of going pretty much anywhere in their search for prey.

This adaptability is seen in its penchant for eating pretty much anything nearby when the dinner bell rings – and it rings regularly. Adults will feed on almost any fish, large or small, from tiny sand eels to full grown menhaden. Alewives, herring, butterfish, mackerel, small weakfish and even young striped bass can fall prey to a big hungry bluefish, and anglers even catch them on worms and clams.

Much is not known about their spawning cycles, but it is believed that the fish off the U.S. coast spawn in numerous areas over a several month period in the late spring and early summer, coming together in large aggregations on the ocean surface 15-to-30 miles offshore. The mass spawning event produces billions of fertilized eggs that hatch quickly, leaving the larval bluefish at the mercy of the tides and currents.

But even under less than ideal conditions, millions of these baby bluefish find their way inshore and into Mid Atlantic estuaries where many are eaten by other predators like summer flounder, weakfish, striped bass and larger bluefish. The ones that survive grow rapidly and can be six inches long before they leave the estuaries in the fall.

The blues typically caught by anglers range from young-of-the-year snappers to choppers in excess of 20 pounds. The world record was caught off Hatteras, N.C. in January, 1972. It tipped the scales at just shy of 32 pounds. There have been wild rumors of bluefish as larger than 40 pounds being caught off the West Coast of Africa, although none that large have ever been verified. A teen-size bluefish is a handful on typical 20-pound class tackle, and a 20-pound bruiser will test your gear and angling skill. On light tackle bluefish are one of the gamiest fish in the sea, and they will scar up your lures and cut through you leaders with their formidable dentures.

Blues have a heavily-muscled, elongated body with a deep-forked tail, which helps them attain the speed needed to successfully pursue and attack baitfish in open ocean waters. They are extremely aggressive, and use their razor-sharp teeth and powerful jaws to chop large baitfish into pieces, hence the nickname “chopper”. If you’ve ever seen a bluefish feeding frenzy, where hundreds of them attack a hapless school of menhaden near the surface, it is a scene you won’t soon forget. They become so aggressive they have been known to gorge themselves, regurgitate their stomach contents, and immediately start killing and feeding again. This can also attract flocks of sea birds from above and less aggressive predators from below who also want to get in on the action or just pick up the leftover pieces. 

Along much of the Atlantic coast, bluefish are starting to make their initial inshore appearances of the season so break out the light tackle, poppers and jigs and get ready to enjoy some of the fastest fishing of the year between now and late fall. And be sure to watch out for your fingers when you handle them.