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October 03, 2011

Mid-Atlantic Blues

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

It was a sad story. Typical blues lyrics. My first true love had left me. Here one day and gone the next.

When I was a kid coming up in the waters off Lower Delaware, my first tangle with big fish was trolling for chopper bluefish with my dad. We would pull Hoochie Trolls and Rag Mops and catch 10- to 15-pound slammers one after another. I was so in love that my dad would have to wait until I fell asleep to get the gimbal belt off of me.

And what’s not to love? Big bluefish, called choppers, are an arm’s length of taut muscle and bad attitude.

In those days, bluefish were prolific.

Then the fish disappeared.

For 25 years, I rarely saw a big bluefish. That is, until a few years ago, when the blues came back.

Once again, anglers are encountering choppers from the surf to the 100-fathom curve. Without any love lost — my old flame reignited — I have the blues again.

Blue Mood
As soon as I heard reports of giant bluefish on the inshore wrecks off Virginia Beach, Virginia, I went head over heels.

Within a few days of the first reports, my buddies and I were heading toward Triangle Reef, 30 miles off Rudee Inlet, aboard Ken Neill’s 30-foot Albemarle, Healthy Grin.

It was late October, and the water was cold and gray, but a steady blow and four-foot seas couldn’t keep us from this date.

When we arrived on the scene, the bite was already on. A couple of charter boats were crisscrossing the artificial reef, which consists of a half-dozen scuttled ships scattered over several square miles.

Neill slowed the boat to 5 knots, and the rest of the crew went to work setting 20-pound outfits spooled with 25-pound-test. Neill navigated the ship like a pinball, bouncing it among the wrecks.

When the first few passes didn’t produce a fish, Neill began experimenting. The next turn across the wreck was faster. Still no bites.

Then we went slower, creeping over the structure, the rod tips bouncing as the spoons and plugs swayed back and forth in the water. Boom!

One of the rod tips dipped, and one of the anglers jumped on it. Neill continued to troll until two more rods bent double.

Three anglers each worked in a big blue, but even on heavy tackle, the fish were no pushovers, taking drag and pulling their adversaries around the cockpit.

When we saw the size of the fish, I put away the net and grabbed the gaff; this was a bigger class of bluefish.

Several of the blues weighed over 16 pounds — big enough for trophy citations from the Virginia Game Fish Tournament.

The super-slow troll was the ticket to fooling these monsters, so Neill put the boat into a turn and headed back to the wreck.

Each pass produced a handful of monster bluefish. After each of us had scored a citation blue, we decided to put away the trolling gear in favor of casting tackle.

Blue-Light Special
As Neill pulled the boat over the wreck, each of the anglers produced a medium-action conventional or spinning rod spooled with 50-pound PowerPro. Half of the crew went for the live croaker that Neill had stored in the livewells, and the other half grabbed artificial spoons and jigs.

It was obvious that this was going to get real ugly real fast.

My rod was rigged to drop a jig. I chose a 4-ounce Hopkins spoon. I figured the metal lure would help protect my line from a bluefish’s gnarly mouth. I chose the model with a single hook; considering blues’ propensity for violence, hooking up isn’t usually a problem. Also, a single hook makes it easier to set a bluefish free with a simple T-handle dehooker.

On the other side of the boat, the live-bait contingent was using similar tackle that was rigged with a fish-finder slide.

Since the blues were acting a little finicky, the guys’ first drops were not met with immediate success. To slow the presentation, Neill’s crew uses a trick. Instead of dropping the sinker and bait straight to the bottom, they hold the bait at the boat, take the reel out of gear and drop the sliding sinker to the wreck 120 feet below.

Once the weight reaches the bottom, they release the baitfish and then slowly turn the reel handle to retrieve line and guide the bait toward the bottom.

Very sneaky.

The trick worked, and the blues responded. One after another, the live baits started to hook fish.