Chasing the Cool Weather Blues

Catching the cutups.


As they are with many other species, seabirds are always a good indicator of hefty blues below.

Ever reeled in half a trout?

Odds are good the other half of that trout was down the gullet of a bluefish swimming nearby.

No other species, not even sharks, are such aggressive, slashing feeders as bluefish. In fact, in the Carolinas, where the species gets huge, it’s not uncommon for schools of weakfish and other unfortunates to actually be driven out on the beach by the marauding slashers; the fish would rather risk suffocation ashore than sure death in the water.

Blues are nearly alone among gamefish in having a reputation for occasionally taking a bite out of humans, too. A decade or so ago, schools of big ones ran in among the bathers at Miami Beach and bit whatever they could get hold of, to the horror of the tourism bureau. And blues are noted for biting the hand that catches them, too; they’ll lie quiet until a finger comes within reach, then flip sideways and snap those razor-edged jaws like an alligator.

Add to this ferocity the species’ ability to run, jump and generally conduct itself in serious gamefish fashion and you have to wonder why more Florida anglers are not bluefish fans.



The big ones love high-current areas with jumbo mullet and shad abundant.
 

Part of the reason may be that bluefish are not particularly predictable. Though they travel generally with the migrating baitfish, north in summer, south in winter, they’re here today and gone tomorrow, unlike Spanish mackerel, which might hang on one bar for weeks so long as the food is there.

Lunker blues, 12 pounds and up, are gamefish on a par with snook or anything else Florida has to offer. The strike of a big blue on a topwater plug is a sight to see; I’ve had them actually chop balsa wood plugs in half, exposing the wire harness down the center. They’re fast and as powerful as jacks, and they throw in some spectacular, head-shaking leaps if you put a lot of pressure on them. The fight closely resembles that of the Pacific roosterfish—no relative, but they share the same spirit.

Blues on the Gulf side of the state don’t get all that large as a rule; a 5-pounder is a whopper. The species doesn’t like warm water, and it’s likely that as the fish mature they leave the Gulf for good and roam up and down the Atlantic shore where they can stay in water that’s around 68 degrees or so year around.


Want light-tackle fun when the mercury plummets? Tackle inshore blues on 4-pound-test monofilament.

However, they do put on a great show on the west coast at times. Once I was sitting on Chassahowitzka Point hoping for a redfish to bumble by when the water began to shiver and hump up the way it does when a school of big fish is on the move in the shallows. A school of blues came gliding all around the boat, maybe 500 of them, all close to 2 feet long. They hurried right past me and trapped a pod of mullet up against the shore and just cut them to pieces, blood and scales flying everywhere. They were gone by the time I got over there, but they left a lot of dead and dying mullet. Apparently there were more than they could eat, but they just couldn’t stop themselves.

In general, blues like the same sort of conditions that turn on jack crevalle; lots of bait, preferably with a shallow shelf, sandbar or shore to trap it against. They’ll frequently buzz over the grass just to make sure there’s no lazy trout hanging around, too, though I’ve never seen them on the true flats in depths less than about three feet. The big ones love high-current areas with jumbo baits like adult mullet and big shad abundant. There’s a good fishery in the North Fork of the St. Lucie River most winters, and they also hang around the Crossroads area at Port Salerno in chilly weather. In the last couple of years, 5- and 6-pounders have made the Indian River into a year-round home. I don’t think they migrate up most coastal rivers like jacks, however—they don’t have to because they’re not particularly cold-sensitive. Some of my favorite winter areas are the bars at the edge of the dredged ship basins toward the back of Canaveral Harbor; put the boat over the deep water and cast back toward the shallows at dawn with a topwater—and hang on. The fish here tend to be jumbos.


Thumbs don’t go here. You’ll want a handling device to dehook toothy bluefish.

Long Bar in Sarasota Bay is another pretty consistent bluefish hangout in cool weather, and they cruise the channel edges and the outer bars throughout that area, too. Ditto for the Bulkhead area near Anna Maria in lower Tampa Bay.

Blues travel with the bait schools that also lure kings, Spanish and other species, which means west coast fish start north around the Keys in March and wind up on the Panhandle by late April. On the East Coast, the adults go as far as the coast of Massachusetts by mid-summer; there’s a spectacular fishery for the monster 15- to 18-pounders off Martha’s Vinyard and Nantucket into mid-September. (Blues get even bigger on occasion; the all-tackle record is 31 pounds, 12 ounces, taken off Cape Hatteras in 1972. Good thing they don’t reach 500 pounds or not even great whites would be safe.)

Most of the International Game Fish Association records have come from North Carolina and Virginia, but many of those same big fish migrate to Florida in the winter. (Others are thought to winter offshore of the Carolinas.) The reason they are rarely caught here is that nobody concentrates on them when we have sailfish, tuna and wahoo to enjoy throughout the winter. The Florida record, 22 pounds, 2 ounces, was caught at Jensen Beach in 1973. A few anglers got into trolling big spoons on downriggers a mile or so off the beach a few years back, and they occasionally hit schools of blues in the 10- to 15-pound range, along with some nice kings, pretty much all winter.

Bluefish populations do, in fact, seem to be cyclical, perhaps rising and falling with baitfish populations, parasites or maybe even bluefish predators lik
e bluefin tuna. It’s recorded fact that numbers can be cut by half in a matter of a few years. In any case, many bluefish experts believe there is a 20-year cycle in bluefish populations, and that population last peaked in 1985. That being the case, this year may be the year of the bluefish.

Blues are one species that is not turned off by a cold, blustery day on the beach; it’s common for fish to come right up against the shore when a strong northeast wind pushes bait in close, and there are days on the piers at Sebastian and others up and down the coast when you can hit amazing action by whipping a big Krocodile or Hopkins spoon or other silvery offering out there a mile and cranking it back at warp speed.

Eating Blues

Bluefish on the table will never be mistaken for yellowtail snapper. To put it politely, they have a lot more “flavor.” But if you bleed them as soon as you catch them, then drop them on ice immediately and eat them that night, you’ll find them pretty good, in the same class with kingfish and Spanish, I’d say. Shake on a little curry powder and spray margarine and bake them until a fork sinks through easily. As with most oily fish, trim off the skin and the red line before serving. Give the fillets a squeeze of lemon and a shake of salt, and you may find the springtime blues disappear pretty fast.

 

When it comes to topwaters, anything big and splashy will do. Choose a bullet-shaped plug that weighs 2 ounces or more, so that you can really put some distance on it. You can’t fish it fast enough to take it away from a bluefish that wants it—give it the Florida whip times two and you’ll be about right. Blues also readily attack plastic-tail jigs, but you only get one fish per tail—better to stick with more durable lures if you’re targeting these choppers.

Blues also readily take dead bait on the bottom, and that’s a favorite tactic for visiting surfcasters from Virginia and the Carolinas; a 2-inch chunk of fresh mullet or pretty much anything else fished on a pyramid sinker big enough to hold in the wash will do the job.

They also love live baits, of course, including finger mullet and pilchards. Whatever the offering, it’s essential to fish it on a short wire to prevent cutoffs; No. 2 is okay for the little guys, No. 3 for Atlantic Coast fish. Forget using heavy mono, like you can with Spanish sometimes to increase the number of bites. Bluefish teeth fit together like serrated scissors, and they clip even 50-pound test with ease.


To most anglers, fishing for bludfish means surf rods, sand spikes and cold, winter days. In recent years, Florida anglers have also been catching helfty blues on trout flats.

You can actually smell feeding bluefish when they get into menhaden or other oily fish; the fish scent wafts off the surface and you can sniff it over a hundred yards downwind if you’re alert. Keep an eye out for bluefish slicks, too; when a big school is feeding heavily, the oils from the chopped-up baitfish float to the top and create a slick. And of course, the usual gull tornado can also be a tipoff. (It’s not uncommon to see one-legged gulls in areas where big blues are abundant!)

Blues also hang around the muds that pop up off Homosassa and other areas in late March and April and again in November and early December. The muds are thought to be created by thousands of grunts, snapper and other fish grubbing shrimp out of the bottom. The blues, along with some big kings, tend to hang around the edges of these muds and grab anything that comes out, including seatrout and Spanish mackerel.

Blues are even noted for taking chunks out of each other. It’s common to catch bluefish with healed, semi-circular wounds in their flanks; wounds just the shape of the dentures of their schoolmates. And blues always travel in schools where every individual is nearly identical in size. Biologists think it’s because big bluefish routinely eat little bluefish.

FS