Art by Flick Ford
Fast, Strong, Tenacious
My long-departed friend and mentor Russ Wilson used to tell me: “You know, if you tied a 15-pound bluefish tail to tail with a 30-pound striper, the bluefish would drag the striper around until it drowned.”
Russ was old school, a lifelong bass man of wide repute. He had a way of explaining things that was both profound and down to earth, and he was certainly not above using a slight exaggeration from time to time. He had the greatest appreciation for bluefish, as near an apex predator as you’ll find on the inshore grounds and, in his estimation, a gamefish deserving of praise.
And why not? Blues are tough customers: fast, strong, tenacious, acrobatic and rarely hesitant to attack lures or baitfish only slightly smaller than their own size.
There’s a lot to admire about bluefish and more to marvel over. I have caught them 100 miles offshore while trolling for tuna, and in coastal rivers far away from salt water. I’ve taken them casting surface plugs on bay flats and dunking clams strung on bottom rigs intended for codfish 250 feet below. I’ve been surprised by bluefish from Maine to the Marquesas, fought tiny snappers and 20-pound trophies. Trolling wire, jigging rock piles and wrecks, live-lining bait schools, casting to jetties or two-hand stripping flies with the long wand — nothing is safe from the razor-mouthed chopper with the yellow eyes. Many’s the time an intended target species disappointed, but yellow eyes saved the day.
You have to love the fact that bluefish are unique in an ocean full of interrelated fish. Taxonomy tells us so by classifying them in a family where they are the sole genus and species. Though most angler encounters with bluefish are in near-shore waters, marine biologists class them as a pelagic fish. Their feeding strategy is akin to that of the mako shark. Using their inherent speed advantage and powerful jaws studded with sharp teeth, they run down prey and take them from behind, removing their means of locomotion in one perfectly timed bite. Frequently, they come back to devour more of their kill; other times, they continue along in a frenzy of violence, slashing and maiming one baitfish after another, leaving the remains for scavengers.
Bluefish have a litany of nicknames, some referring to size, others to geography. They are found in temperate and subtropical waters in the northern and southern hemispheres. If you grew up around salt water, you probably have childhood memories of standing on a dock catching snappers in a coastal river, bay or salt pond. Loosely classified, snappers are young of the year; tailors are the 2- to 4-pound members of the clan; and choppers are the true marauders, with powerful, broad bodies and a maw full of piercing dentures.
Bluefish and anglers share a love-hate relationship. I can remember nights drifting eels for stripers under a perfect moon and spring tides, only to have every bait chopped in half — “cigarred,” we’d call it — eliciting a litany of foul name-calling with each occurrence. Then finally hooking up to a fish that fought strongly, just knowing it was a righteous striped bass, until disappointment again reared its ugly head with the splash of a large bluefish jumping in the darkness.
But there were many times we’d run the boat to an inshore lump holding massive schools of sand eels and oversized bluefish, and hook them one after another on light tackle and diamond jigs until our arms ached. We’d laugh uncontrollably while marveling at their strength and stamina, watching as they launched themselves into the air with a total lack of grace, shaking their heads viciously, trying to dislodge our hooks. They provided hours of catch-and- release delight.
The bluefish is a vexing creature with attributes that make it both a challenging and worthy opponent with a fighting spirit that puts most gamefish of its size to shame, while being a target for derision and disdain among anglers who encounter them while chasing what they believe are more desirable fish. After all these years with thousands of bluefish under my belt, I guess ol’ Russ was right.
Gary Caputi fishes his inshore and offshore New Jersey home waters, and has challenged gamefish throughout North America, Central America and South America.