May 16, 2011
They're small but they're sporty—and on some midwinter days, that's all that matters.
“These fish must be the spawn of Satan!”
Hook up with a bluefish school near you.
I was unsure if Suzie was referring to the sudden and savage strike, the fierce fight that followed, or the mangled mess that was once a lure hanging from the mouth of the juvenile bluefish that she tentatively held.
“How can such little teeth do so much damage?”
Again, I didn't know if she wanted an answer or had merely asked a retorical question. To say that our soft-plastic baits had been “damaged” was an understatement, as “destroyed” better described their condition. They were shredded and useless after being removed from the vise-like grip of the juvenile bluefish.
“It's the fish oil that's in a bluefish,” I started. “Like hydraulic fluid, it allows them to clamp their jaws shut and keep them in a locked position.” I didn't know if she would believe me or not, but I figured that if I said it like I knew what I was talking about, maybe she would fall for it.
I received no response but, instead, one of those looks that said, “How stupid do you think I am?”
I didn't really know; it was our first time fishing together. I soon learned, however, that she was quite an adept angler. I met Suzie Reihl at a garage sale I had the month before. She walked over and picked up my best rod, flexed it and waved it around, and pronounced that it was hers. My interest was further perked when she asked if one of the numerous cast nets hanging from bicycle hooks in a ceiling joist was for sale. They were not, but I offered that if she could cast one so that it made a circle, I'd sell it to her...and I soon owned one less shrimp net. I asked if she wanted to go fishing sometime and a cold day in the heart of winter presented a great opportunity to find some ICW bluefish.
Like teenagers at a smorgasbord, they eat anything that looks like food.
Later in the spring, the bluefish that we were catching will migrate up the Atlantic coast toward the New England states in gargantuan schools. Along the way, they will encounter pods of baitfish also moving north and a feeding frenzy is certain to follow. Like a teenage boy at his first smorgasbord, they are willing to eat anything that looks like food. Juvenile bluefish rapidly grow in size, both in length and in girth, as they attempt to satisfy their insatiable appetites.
In the fall, the now mature bluefish move back down the coast to winter in our waters. From a distance, you can see birds diving into the ocean's cooling waters but as you get closer, you'll notice water churning as bluefish chop their way through a bait pod. The birds do not swoop to pluck individual baitfish that have fled from the blues but, instead, they seize the floating remains. If you take closer note, you will see that the birds are careful not to linger on the surface for fear of losing an appendage. And then it suddenly stops as if someone has turned off a food processor. After they have devoured a pod of baitfish, the school of blues goes down and returns to its nomadic wandering. That's the way it is offshore.
It's a similar situation inshore, except that smaller bluefish are present. During the winter, juvenile “choppers” roam up and down the Intracoastal Waterway continually searching for a baitfish bonanza. If it's too windy to get offshore, or you just want to bend a rod with minimal effort, these aggressive little blues can make a day for you. This time of year Florida is just about surrounded by them, from northeast Atlantic waters on around to the Gulf side. If there's a midwinter feeding frenzy on coastal waters, it's liable to be blues.
As the young bluefish move between inlets, they feed voraciously on finger-size fish. Deciding what lure to throw is a no-brainer. These fish eat anything that fits into their mouth—and if it doesn't, they'll attempt to chop it down to size. Any of a number of hard-plastic lures between two and four inches will catch the smaller bluefish, with topwater baits yielding some very exciting strikes. Their serrated teeth do leave a mark on hard plastic lures and your bait will never look shiny and new after just one blue.
Watch out for those teeth: even small bluefish can put a dent in your day.
You also run the very substantial risk of having your line cut and your favorite bluefish lure lost. Heavy mono helps, but the number of strikes will decrease as your leader becomes more visible. You can go to wire for a leader, but we are only talking about 1- to 3-pound bluefish in the ICW. They are terrific sport on light tackle and you will want to keep it that way. Wire will certainly save lures, but once again, the number of strikes will go way down.
Besides smaller hard plastics, I have had a lot of success with small, shiny metal lures such as spoons and tail-spinners. You can cast these surprisingly far, considering their small size. The downside is that many of these lures have a treble hook that can be difficult to remove from a small bluefish, even with needle-nose pliers. Many experienced bluefishermen use their pliers to pinch the barb against the shank of the hook. This greatly aids the hook-removal process. You might also snip two of the treble points, or just replace with a single hook.
I like to use spoons and spinners when I am searching for bluefish where I suspect them to be but I'm not sure of their precise location. By fan-casting over a wide area, you can cover quite a bit of water quickly and speed up the process of locating subsurface blues. From the front of the boat, make a long cast straight ahead. If you do not get a strike, continue to make long casts alternating from side-to-side, such that you cover a circle of water around the boat. If you get a strike at any point, focus on that area and move in that direction. If nothing bites, reposition the boat beyond your original casting range and, like the blades of a rotating fan, continue casting.
Birds remain careful around feeding blues, lest they lose an appendage.
If you spot a pod of passing dolphin, be sure to make a cast behind them. I have frequently found bluefish following dolphin in the Intracoastal Waterway in the winter. I would only be speculating as to why they are doing so, but I am sure that it has something to do with an easy meal.
My favorite go-to place to find baby blues is near an inlet. You can count on the ever-flowing, bait-rich waters to hold the interest of roaming blues. The shoaling that takes place tends to channel the baitfish, and bluefish, in turn, move in and chop their way through them.
Once I locate a school of blues, I invariably switch to small, soft-plastic baits like a 3-inch paddle-tail mounted on a 1/ 4-ounce jig. A number of lure manufacturers make these kinds of baits and they do so in a variety of colors. I experiment with color selection to find what works best on a given day, but as a general rule, I have found that brighter is usually better for the juvenile ICW blues. The downside is that you will have to replace the soft-plastic bait after nearly every fish. The life expectancy of a soft bait in a school of blues is no better than that of a piece of raw hamburger tossed into a pen of Dobermans. The upside is they're a lot cheaper than hard lures, of which you'd invariably lose more than a few due to cutoffs. Don't forget to check your line for fraying after each fish; it wouldn't be a bad habit to re-tie your jig each time that you put on another plastic tail.
Suzie and I found the bluefish in a deepwater trough behind a shoal near an inlet. We were on the last portion of an outgoing tide and baitfish that had been in only a few inches of water fled to the trough as receding water turned the shallow shoal into an emerging island. The blues were facing the lip of the shoal and from their staging area in the deeper trough, they would race forward and seize one of the fingerling-size fry as it moved into the deeper water.
A wide variety of artificial baits works fine on blues, especially something with a little flash.
We stayed in the middle of the trough and cast our jigs over the blues to the edge of the shoal. We used a steady retrieve, bringing the jigs back like baits coming off the shoal. After only a couple of cranks of the reel handle, we'd get slammed by one of the countless juvenile choppers lying in wait.
After releasing several, Suzie suggested that we keep a few, adding that she had a couple of great recipes and wanted to reciprocate for the fishing trip by cooking our catch. The next dozen or so went on ice and we enjoyed them for a second time later that evening. You have got to love those baby blues!
Care and Cooking
Bluefish are good for you. They have a high concentration of the essential fatty acid Omega 3 which helps prevent heart disease by keeping arteries open, lowering blood pressure and lowering cholesterol (especially the LDL or “bad” cholesterol). They also taste good, if you care for them properly. Immediately after catching your bluefish, bleed by cutting the gills and making another incision near the tail to the backbone. Place the fish imme-diately on ice in your cooler. For best results, use the smallest pieces of ice available, as the more surface area of ice that there is, the colder the cooler will get.
Clean chilled fish with a sharp, flexible fillet knife. Do this as soon as possible after getting ashore (by regulation, bluefish must remain whole while on the water). As with all species, a chilled fish with firm flesh will clean much more easily than one that is warm and mushy. If you are going to grill the small bluefish, you may want to leave the skin attached, as it will hold the meat together. Be sure to return washed fillets to ice, sealed in plastic baggies to avoid direct contact with fresh water, and keep them chilled until ready to cook. Soaking the fillets in milk for an hour or so before cooking helps eliminate any “fishy” taste—but if you bleed, ice and cook within a day or so of catching, this probably won't be necessary.
The following family recipes were provided by Suzie Reihl, as passed on to her by her grandmother.
1 lb. of bluefish fillets
2 beef bouillon cubes
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 clove minced garlic
1 can (20-oz.) whole tomatoes
1 package (10-oz.) frozen okra
1/4 tsp. ground thyme
1/4 tsp. hot pepper sauce
1 bay leaf
Cut the bluefish fillets into 1-inch cubes and set aside. Dissolve the bouillon cubes in 2 cups boiling water and set aside. In a Dutch oven, sauté celery, pepper, onion and minced garlic in hot oil until tender. Add tomatoes, okra, bouillon water and seasonings. Mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf, add bluefish cubes, cover and simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
Herb Baked Bluefish FilLets
1 lb. of bluefish fillets
2 tbsp. melted butter
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. dill weed
Pinch of dried sage leaves (crumbled)
Pinch of thyme leaves (crumbled)
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 tbsp. chopped parsley
Arrange bluefish fillets in baking dish (single layer). In a separate bowl, mix other ingredients well and brush over bluefish fillets. Place baking dish into 400-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until fillets flake easily with a fork. Serve with lemon slices.