Last September, east of Block Island, Rhode Island, the big bluefish showed up. Some giants. The fish hung around for two weeks feeding on sand eels and halfbeaks, then vanished as quickly as they arrived. I made four trips into the fury, catching fish to 19 pounds. It was the kind of fishing that you hope maybe one day happens again.
There is something about the fight of a blue. The fish are familiar to so many of us, almost commonplace, that it’s easy to forget how strong they are. Often the fight starts with deep pulls, where the fish goes broadside to the line, unmovable, staying down. Then the fish runs out, the drag gives line, and soon the blue comes up and breaks clear, head shaking, mouth wide open. And each time this happens, if the fish is a good one, no matter how long it’s been since our last big blue — a day, a week, a year, a decade — we all say the same thing: “Damn, these fish are strong.”
I came of age with the bluefish. It isn’t striped bass that I think about when I look back. I was your basic boy. During summer, I had perfected the art of doing nothing. This wasn’t difficult in the early 1980s. We ran loose, an open calendar, but we often got bored, really bored. No Snapchat, no TikTok. No YouTube influencers. Bluefish bailed us out, gave us something to do.
This was right around when the striped bass moratorium was in place. It was blues or bust. But the bluefishing in the ’80s was good, exceptionally so. My brother and I caught blues every way we could — on wire line, on poppers, under bunker schools, trolling Rebels on handlines, fishing off jetties and beaches. This was mostly in Rhode Island and around Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Bluefishing was, at least what I remember, all the rage in the Northeast. Then the striper population rebounded, and anglers started to scorn bluefish, some vehemently.
When I was a student at University of Rhode Island in the 1990s and got into surf fishing for striped bass, blues became almost a nuisance, a fish that wasted my time, chopped eels, broke leaders, destroyed plugs. Then one night, standing in my waders, I hooked something that gave me all kinds of trouble, running out line, turning against the tide. I couldn’t move it. When I finally had the fish beat and led it into the shallows to get my headlamp on it, in the narrow beam of light, swimming slowly over the cobble bottom, I saw it was a huge blue, a blue that fought with every cell in its body, with all its DNA, all that history. That fish snapped me back.
We think of blues as inshore fish. But I think much of the fish’s strength comes from its habit of going offshore, swimming out in the deep. I think that’s where the bluefish develops its personality, its fierceness. Big blues have a mystery to them — no one really knows much about them. Where they go, what they do. Any fish that has a nearly worldwide distribution must have some unanswered questions about it.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I spent a fair amount of time making trips on squid trawlers out of Point Judith, Rhode Island. It was fairly common to run into a few blues out in deep water all winter. We would catch bluefish on the bottom in 600 feet, mid-January, off Hudson Canyon. I remember holding one under the deck lights, the roll of the winter sea. The blue looked oceanic, with the countershading of a bigeye tuna — metallic silver on its sides, almost blinding, and along its back, its dorsal edge, a black as dark as night.
I have no idea where those blues hailed from last September, but they had that same deep countershading that the winter blues had. And they were strong. My son and stepson could only manage a fish or two each. We had the fish on diamond jigs in 70 feet of water. I even brought out some non-fishing friends. I have no idea what they really thought about it.
We often want our friends and family to see the ocean as we see it. Of course, this is foolish. But the blues did their part: They created chaos, destruction. A bluefish blitz is not a time of calm, not a time for reflection, contemplation. That comes later, well after the last drop of the jig.
Read about the other fish in our "Who's the Toughest?" survey here (updated as fish are added):