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September 21, 2007

Take Em On Top

Expert fishermen in southern New England sound off on the best ways to tempt bluefish on a variety of surface plugs.


Mitch Passero prepares to release a blue that nailed his surface plug off Branford, Connecticut. Replacing trebles with singles makes de-hooking easier.

Few people would deny that catching monster bluefish on wire line, chunks or diamond jigs is a lot of fun. However, the sight of a voracious blue - be it a feisty five-pounder or a full-grown gorilla - tearing up the surface as it chases down a plug is about as exciting as inshore fishing gets. Just ask Mitch Passero.

"I remember several times when a bluefish chased my plug all the way to the boat without taking it, only to have another fish rocket out of nowhere and soak me just as I was lifting the lure from the water," says Passero, a tournament fisherman from Stamford, Connecticut. "It's enough to give you a heart attack!"

Anglers seeking this type of heart-stopping action need look no further than the rugged southern New England coast. Our prime bluefish habitat was created thousands of years ago, when the Late Wisconsin Glacier moved across the landscape, scouring the bedrock like a giant bulldozer. The great wall of ice shoved massive amounts of rubble and soil ahead of it until the glacier finally stopped just beyond the current Connecticut shoreline. When the ice age ended and the glaciers retreated, the sea level rose nearly 300 feet. The remaining mounds of glacial debris, called moraines, became the multitude of islands, reefs, rock piles, and shoals that now dot the coast and serve as prime bluefish structure.

Choose Your Structure

All-Purpose Surface Plugs

Take Em On Top
These surface plugs will all draw stunning strikes from hungry blues, despite their different shapes and hook configurations. A fast retrieve is most effective.

If you're new to surface lures," says Matt Hillyer, owner of Hillyer's Tackle Shop in Waterford, Connecticut, "I can recommend some good choices to keep on board. They're about 41/2 inches long and simulate escaping or injured baitfish." Hillyer's picks include the following all-purpose plugs:

  1. 3 oz. Gag's Grabbers Bluefish Bomb
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  2. 1 1/2 oz. Creek Chub Striper Strike
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  3. 1 oz. Yo-Zuri Mag Popper
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  4. 1 1/2 oz. Atom Swingin Swiper
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  5. 1 1/2 oz. Gibbs Lures Polaris Popper

But not every piece of structure holds fish, as Captain Dixon Merkt points out. "First, you need to learn how to read the water," says Merkt, a light-tackle specialist who works the tide-swept islands and rips of eastern Long Island Sound. "Look for what I call 'nervous' water created by the current moving over submerged structure. Start fishing upcurrent of the structure and work your way down through it. Never hesitate to cast beyond that line of nervous water and retrieve the plug through it, as though it was a baitfish traveling downcurrent."

Other top guides agree that the right combination of current and structure is the key to finding plug-hungry bluefish. "Moving water is very important," says Captain Ned Kittredge, who fishes out of Westport, Massachusetts. "A strong current disorients the bait that the bluefish are feeding on. A rip line over a reef, or water flowing around the end of a rock or breakwater, are the first places to fish."

However, not all rips produce surface strikes, no matter how fishy they look. "Deep-holding bluefish can't sense surface commotion and often won't pursue a topwater lure," Kittredge adds. "If there's bait present and the bluefish are active, they'll come up from 20 feet to grab a plug. But not much more. On the shallow end, I've found them in as little as 18 inches of water. The action in this depth range can be phenomenal."

Preparation Pays!

Mitch Passero and I had a spectacular afternoon with shallow-water bluefish last summer. We were intending to work diamond jigs in some small rips off Branford, Connecticut. But as we passed a reef in 12 feet of water - generally too shallow for diamond jigging - we thought we saw a fish break. I spun the bow toward the activity, and moments later three diving terns confirmed our suspicion.

Take Em On Top
Working birds and breaking fish guarantee hot surface action. Here the blues are hammering juvenile "peanut" bunker.

We quickly stowed the jigging rods and snatched up a pair of spinning outfits rigged with 1 1/2-ounce, blue-and-white topwater plugs. After running upcurrent of the rip line, I cut the motor and we began working our lures just ahead of the riffled water. Moments later we both had bluefish snapping after our plugs. The action was unbelievable, and continued non-stop for about two hours. In that time we must have released 30 fish.

Poppers and stickbaits - whether made of plastic or wood - are proven attention-grabbers when big bluefish are on the prowl in thin water. These lures cast well into a stiff breeze, hold up to sharp teeth, can be bounced off exposed rocks without cracking, and are available in a wide range of sizes and colors to match local baitfish.

Topwaters can be fished on baitcasting or spinning gear, but boat fishermen should go with shorter, lighter outfits than those used by surfcasters. Your final selection will depend on conditions and lure size. For example, 3/8- to 7/8-ounce plugs are a good match for a 61/2-foot medium-action rod when bluefish are feeding in shallow water on small baitfish. However, if the blues are holding in deeper rips or bays and preying on larger forage such as herring, adult bunker (menhaden) or butterfish, a seven-foot, medium-heavy outfit is needed to sling and retrieve larger plugs weighing three ounces or more.

Using Science to Catch More Fish

Take Em On TopIf you're the kind of fisherman who is interested in how the ocean "works" and why fish behave the way they do, this book is for you. Author David A. Ross, Ph.D., a senior scientist emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a columnist for Salt Water Fly Fishing magazine, has a lot to teach concerning fish and the world they live in, and he presents this information in a way that will be of immense value to anglers. In Part One of this ambitious and wide-ranging book, Ross tackles such subjects as tides, currents, waves, upwellings, downwellings, nutrient cycles, the thermocline, offshore eddies, water-temperature "fronts," the effects of wind and much more. He also discusses the various types of estuarine, nearshore and offshore environments, including salt marshes, mangrove swamps, flats, barrier beaches and canyons. Part Two covers fish classification, behavior and physiology, while Part Three deals with fishing and how and where to best fish the various environments covered in Part One. The book features lots of clear, easy-to-grasp diagrams and illustrations, including many that show precisely where fish are likely to hold in certain areas under certain conditions. The Fisherman's Ocean can be ordered for $19.95 (paper) by calling (800) 962-6651 or via the web at http://www.ClickSmart.com. - Ed.

"I use a seven-foot, medium-action rod rigged with a small spinning reel," says Kittredge. "I fill the spool halfway with 14-pound mono, then top it off with a couple hundred yards of 12- to 15-pound superbraid line. I use superbraid because of its sensitivity - you can feel the take instantly. It also has no stretch, which makes for solid hook-sets. You want to set the hook quickly so you don't get two fish chasing the same plug. That's how you lose tackle."

Speed Matters

The proper retrieve can make all the difference in drawing strikes. If you are pursuing stripers, for example, the action should be slow and steady. However, it's a different story with belligerent blues.

"Inexperienced fishermen don't retrieve the plug fast enough," says Merkt. "They're afraid that they'll move it faster than the bluefish can swim, which is absolutely impossible. The faster it moves across the water, the more action it creates, and the more likely it is to excite the fish. If you get a blue that 'short hits' the plug a number of times, stop and then start a fast retrieve again. You're likely to get a hit on the next attack."

Leader selection is debatable among experienced anglers, yet one thing is certain: some type of bite protection is required. One of the most important reasons for using a leader is to protect the line from other blues that slash at a plug dangling from the mouth of a hooked fish.

I use 12 inches of 80-pound fluorocarbon tied to the plug with a loop knot for maximum action, but that's not to say that wire leaders aren't effective. "Bluefish don't seem to mind a wire leader," says Merkt. "In fact, I've never found any type of leader that made a bluefish shy away from a plug."

Take Em On Top
Bluefish make for thrilling topwater action on light spinning gear. A seven-foot rod with matching reel loaded with 14-pound mono is ideal.

Kittredge likes the new, super-flexible "knot-able" wire material favored by fly fishermen. "It's not heavy," he says, "and it doesn't affect the plug's motion. I hate stiff wire. It changes the action of the plug too much and tends to kink. Flexible leader material is very important."

Singles Only

Regardless of what kind of leader you use, most pros agree that the two treble hooks that come as standard equipment on some plugs should be removed or modified. "I take all the trebles off and put a single hook on the back," says Merkt, " I don't believe we lose any fish as a result. With a single hook, you can remove the hook without hurting yourself or the fish, and release it without causing much stress."

Kittredge shares three other plug-rigging tips: First, he advises keeping single hooks on a swivel so the plug swims properly. Second, he recommends adding white bucktail to the hook to simulate the fluttering tail of a baitfish.

Another neat trick is to remove all the hooks from a small plug and tie 18 inches of hard, heavy mono to the rear eye. Then tie a large fly, such as a big Deceiver or Clouser, to the end of the mono. A short piece of wire bite tippet in front of the fly will prevent cut-offs. Kittredge says that this setup allows you to cast a large fly with spinning gear, and retrieve it with a splash that gets the attention of fish. It's deadly on bass, bluefish and even bonito.

"No matter how you do it," says Passero, "hauling a plug across a school of big, hungry bluefish rivals any surface action anywhere. No matter how often I see it, the sight of a slammer blue churning after a plug always gets my blood pumping."

Light-Tackle Inshore Guides

Capt. Scott McDowell
Martha's Vineyard, MA; (508) 645-2993

Capt. Ned Kittredge
Westport, MA; (508) 998-7965

Capt. Hal Herrick
Nantucket, MA; (508) 257-9606

Capt. Dave Preble
Snug Harbor, RI; (401) 789-7596

Capt. Dixon Merkt
Old Saybrook, CT; (860) 434-2301

Capt. Sal Tardella
Norwalk, CT; (203) 866-6313

For the names and numbers of other light-tackle guides who can put you on topwater bluefish action, visit the "The Traveling Fisherman" section of this Web site.