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October 03, 2011

Mid-Atlantic Blues

After a long absence, big bluefish return to the U.S. East Coast

Taking advantage of the feeding frenzy, I dropped my spoon into the water, careful to clear the other anglers’ lines, and waited for it to hit bottom. After letting it bounce a few times off the wreck (the single hook also helps it not get stuck in structure), I started to jig the spoon back to the surface by alternating between cranking the handle and jerking the rod tip.

After a couple of turns, a big blue attacked my spoon. As I jigged upward, the fish pulled down, nearly ripping the rod out of my hands. At first the fish didn’t realize it was hooked. I could feel it thrashing 100 feet below. When I applied pressure, the blue took notice, peeling off line and heading into the wreck. I pulled every trick to apply more pressure — pinching the line, raising the rod tip high, even lightly thumbing the spool. Nothing would stop the blue until it reached the jagged wreck on the bottom.

I winced as the braided line transmitted every head shake, the butt of the rod kicking me in the gut over and over again — I could feel even the sharp edges of the wreck rubbing the line.

Getting the fish to the surface was a long give-and-take battle. Since they are near the top of the food chain, blues aren’t used to losing a fight. When the fish saw the boat, its energies were renewed and I had to wait awhile before seeing it again.

Eventually the blue was beat. Since we already had enough fish for the table, I reached down and grabbed the spoon, swinging the big chopper into the boat.

The bluefish thrashed and gnashed on the deck, finally coming to rest, letting me grab it and remove the hook. It measured over 36 inches.

That fish went back in the water, but I knew I would see its friends again.

Blues Are Back
Since then, bluefish have been showing up in their old haunts.

The following spring, we ran to the edge of the continental shelf, looking for blueline tiles and sea bass.

When we arrived at the groundfish-covered bottom, Neill marked something stacked from the bottom, over 250 feet deep, almost to the surface.

Each of us took a guess at what it could be — sand eels, bunker, silversides. When our tiles and bass came up chomped in half, we figured out what we were marking. A quick drop of a 250-gram vertical jig confirmed it. Big blues had invaded the deep.

Even on the 100-fathom curve, the fish were piled up in big columns.

Later in the spring, anglers from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, to Cape Lookout, North Carolina, encountered chopper blues on nearshore wrecks and reefs.

Not only are anglers happy to see these big bluefish, but alpha predators like bluefin tuna and thresher sharks love blues. When you find one species, look for another.

But it wasn’t until this spring that the resurgence of big bluefish was complete. That’s when the fish returned in full force to the surf of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Monster bluefish used to be a coastal Carolina tradition, even earning the name Hatteras blues in some circles.

Last spring, the annual migration of surf fishermen arrived at the Outer Banks beaches in search of sea mullet and other panfish that teem in the suds. Instead they found huge schools of slammer bluefish. Each day, local tackle shops weighed in big bluefish from the surf. And the fish are showing up in other hot spots too. From New England to the Old South, bluefish are being caught in the surf, inshore and offshore. Once again, anglers are happy to have the blues. 

Trolling, Live-Baiting and Surf-Casting

The basic trolling rig for bluefish calls for a Bimini twist in the main line, connected to 30 feet of 80-pound monofilament with a no-name knot. Tie a 150-pound-test snap swivel to the end of the leader, followed by a large swimming plug or an in-line sinker, then 20 feet of 100-pound mono and a big teardrop spoon.

The live-bait setup uses the same tackle and line configuration as the jigging rig but is rigged with a fish-finder slide and an arm’s length of 80-pound mono leader. The fish-finder slide goes over the main line, and an 8/0 hook is snelled to the leader. Between the leader and the main line, a 200-pound-test swivel holds everything together. To encourage a live croaker to swim into the dark depths of certain doom, clip a 6- to 8-ounce in-line sinker to the fish-finder slide.

Two methods have been proven in the surf at Hatteras, in North Carolina: whole finger mullet and big spoons. Whole mullet are fished on a stinger rig built out of wire and featuring a small float and double-hook setup to snare short-striking bluefish.

When the fish are feeding aggressively, surf-casters break out 9-foot rods spooled with 20-pound mono and armed with a 2-ounce glass minnow spoon. A short length of No. 7 wire between the spoon and the main line is a good idea. Use an Albright special to connect the wire to the main line and a haywire twist to secure it to the spoon.