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September 21, 2007

Stellwagen Blues Festival

In a quest for Monster bluefish, the author finds himself in a surreal world of giant sand eels, whales . . . and striped bass.

Part 1


Ralph Poness and Chris McCoy with a typical Stellwagen blue. Photo by Tom Richardson

It seemed like a long way to go to catch bluefish, but I had learned to trust John Pirie in these matters. If the Massachusetts charter captain said there were monster blues on Stellwagen Bank, well, they would be there.

"How do you find them?" I asked as we beat across the pre-dawn chop in the Orca, Pirie's 27-foot Boston Whaler. The sky overhead was a deep indigo, but an orange band was widening on the horizon. The lights of Boston were visible 20 miles to the south.

"Easy," John shouted above the drone of the twin Yamahas. "Just look for the whales!"

The underwater hump we were heading for has long been famous for its whales, tuna and cod, but Pirie had recently discovered that Stellwagen Bank was also the perfect spot for his clients to enjoy some incredible light-tackle and fly-rod action with giant bluefish - and more.

Some 30 minutes after leaving the dock in Manchester By the Sea, a hazy cloud appeared above the water, barely discernable in the gray morning light. "That's what we want to see!" Pirie cried, pointing to the shrieking, swirling vortex of gulls. "We want to see that angry swarm of birds!"

Awesome surface blitzes are commonplace on the bank in June. To find the action, follow the birds.
Awesome surface blitzes are commonplace on the bank in June. To find the action, follow the birds. Photo by John Pirie

As we approached the screaming flock, I noticed the backs of several minke whales breaking the surface, and a short while later Pirie pointed out the descending tail flukes of a feeding humpback. I also saw what all the birds and whales were after. Enormous pods of sand eels were swimming just below the surface, dimpling the water and creating a hissing sound like gently falling rain. Pirie pulled back the throttles and we drifted among the baitfish, which shimmered a few feet below the boat like a living carpet.

Peering into the black water, I could see that these were no ordinary sand eels. At least they were very different from the delicate, pencil-thin baitfish I was used to seeing inshore. These sand eels were seven or eight inches long and thick around as a man's forefinger. There were millions and millions of them. The video sounder revealed that the bait on the surface was just the tip of a sand-eel iceberg that extended all the way to the bottom, some 80 feet below. Pirie explained that the baitfish were just now making their way to the surface after spending the night buried in the sandy bottom. The reason they thrive on Stellwagen is due to the rich upwellings of nutrients and subsequent plankton blooms that occur along the edge of the bank when the tide moves. I could see why bluefish liked the place.

Huge schools of king-sized sand eels provide much-needed energy for the hordes of winter-lean bluefish.
Huge schools of king-sized sand eels provide much-needed energy for the hordes of winter-lean bluefish. Photo by John Pirie

As we studied the color sounder, Pirie pointed to several red bands that had appeared next to the Rorschach-like blob of bait. "Those," he said with a smile, "are the fish."

With the birds swirling overhead and the bait pods dimpling the surface all around the boat, it felt like the water was about to erupt. The Orca fairly hummed with nervous energy. As Pirie and mate Ralph Poness readied the fly rods and spinning gear, I was startled by a minke whale that surfaced 30 feet from the boat, exhaling a spume of fishy-smelling vapor as it gulped a mouthful of sand eels. Its smooth back arced above the water and disappeared in an immense boil. Suddenly, more boils and splashes appeared on the edge of the nearest bait pod. Sleek, blue-black football shapes broke the surface as the sand eels scattered in panic and the crazed gulls swooped in for an easy meal. I immediately thought "tuna," then realized that I was looking at the backs of bluefish - enormous bluefish!

Angler Chris McCoy hopped to the bow and quickly slung a long, yellow streamer among the rolling fish. He made two strips and was rewarded with a jolting strike. The fish tore off 30 yards of backing, then decided to slug it out in the depths. Ten minutes later, Poness slipped a BogaGrip in the fish's mouth and lifted it over the side. At 12 pounds, it was one of the largest blues I'd seen in a long time. As Poness removed the mangled fly from the fish's jaw and returned it to the water, our skipper threw me one of his patented "told ya so" smiles.

World-Class Action

Paula Wood battles a big fish on fly as Matt Diguiseppe looks on.
Paula Wood battles a big fish on fly as Matt Diguiseppe looks on. Photo by John Pirie

While Pirie's true profession is teaching biology at a private school, he charters full time through the summer. He specializes in striper fishing along the North Shore of Massachusetts and fly fishing for sharks offshore, but began offering special Stellwagen bluefish trips two years ago. This offshore bank, which lies some 20 miles due east of Boston, seems to be one of the few places where "gorilla-sized" blues can still be taken on a consistent basis. Many parts of the Northeast - most notably Maine - have experienced a dearth of large blues in recent years, but whether this is due to a cyclic decline, overfishing or some combination of factors remains unknown.

The fact that big blues can be found at Stellwagen is no secret; indeed, tuna fishermen have long cursed the choppers for tearing up their expensive plastic squids and natural baits. However, for light-tackle and fly-rod anglers with access to a seaworthy midsized boat, the bank can provide some amazing early-season action.

The blues first arrive in late May and often hang around through the summer and early fall as long as the bait is plentiful. They are most aggressive early in the season, when they have nothing to fear from predators (namely sharks and tuna) and need to replenish their fat stores after the long, lean winter. Prime action is fairly short-lived. According to Pirie it usually runs through mid-June, depending on water temperature, bait supply and the arrival of the bluefins. Once the tuna arrive, the bluefish tend to scatter or move inshore.

A massive
Pirie's video sounder reveals a massive "cloud" of sand eels making its way to the surface. Photo by John Pirie

To find the action, just follow the birds and whales. Pirie starts looking for bird activity as he nears the edge of the bank, where upwellings are most likely to attract a concentration of bait. When you see that "swarm-like" cloud hanging low over the water, get there quick! If there's no surface action, John uses his GPS and color depthsounder to search around the various bait pods and the edges of the bank, looking for the telltale red streaks on the sounder that indicate the blues.

Speaking of electronics, a radar is recommended in case of fog (a real possibility, especially in spring) or when running in the dark. A good radar can also help you locate bird activity from miles away, which can be especially helpful in low light.