Fly Fishing for Bluefish in the Surf

Pound for pound, few fish are as voracious as a hungry, slammer-size bluefish.

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Returning the fish to the water should be done as quickly as possible and with as little handling as possible.Barry And Cathy Beck

Bluefish are one of those fish that many of us associate strictly with New England waters. While it is certainly true that blues don't get much bigger than they do in northern waters, they range all along the eastern U.S. and into the Gulf of Mexico. They also readily take flies, and at times they'll take almost anything else.

Pound for pound, few fish are as voracious as a hungry, slammer-sized bluefish, and none more eager to strike a popper. In fact, many maintain that the constant need to replace flies is the one drawback in fishing for blues. But ask anyone who does it regularly and they will tell you it's a small price to pay. Well-known fly tier Bob Popovics, who has chased bluefish in the surf of his home waters in New Jersey for years, prefers to fish for slammer blues above most anything else. ''There is no more spectacular fish in our area than a 15- to 20-pound blue,'' says Popovics. ''They are strong and persistent, like hooking into a big trevally. They are easily one of my favorite fish to fish for.''

When blues are on the feed, few sights rival that of the froth they create at the surface. For those who haven't witnessed it, picture videos you've seen of piranha stripping some poor jungle animal to bones ? it's eerily similar. And any seasoned bluefish angler will likely hold the scars of close encounters as badges of honor.

''Bluefish are extremely voracious predators,'' says Tom Migdalski, who has chased blues and stripers in Long Island Sound for almost 30 years. ''That description is almost cliché now, but all the stories you've heard are true. On several occasions I've hooked a small schoolie bass, only to have a big slammer blue come up and bite the back third of it off. In fact, one time I was able to land them both when a bluefish grabbed the bass and wouldn't let go.''

Bluefish are definitely cool-water fish, preferring water temperatures in the 60s. Once temps begin to exceed that range, these fish will head into the cooler northern waters or offshore. Like other inshore fish, bluefish migrate seasonally, traveling north in spring and south in winter, with the largest fish staying in the northern part of the range. Bluefish also school by size and age, so once you catch one chances are good that the rest of the school will be similar in size. Generally, a 1-year-old fish measures less than 10 inches long, while a 14-year-old fish may measure around 36 inches and weigh close to 20 pounds.

Like many inshore species, bluefish like to hold on structure of almost any kind, and like striped bass they are ambush predators. ''In the coastal Northeast, one of the most reliable places to find bluefish is over the multitude of nearshore reefs,'' says Migdalski. ''These reefs can range anywhere from 3 to 35 feet deep, and most of them hold fish. But there is obviously an ideal average depth of, say, between 10 and 20 feet, where it's safe for your propeller yet shallow enough to attract bluefish with a fly. If I approach a reef and find few, if any, working birds, I watch the surface for slurps as isolated fish chase baits up from the bottom. Then I'll cut the motor up-tide of the rip line and start working my fly to the breaks.''

Popovics' specialty is chasing blues along the beach, almost always a visual game. ''It's rare that you won't see them or some sign of them if they are there ? either birds or bait, or you might even see the shadow of the school moving in the water. Sometimes you can even smell them,'' he says.

While blues can be caught throughout the day, they tend to feed much more aggressively early and late in the day. ''I like to get out first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon,'' says Migdalski. ''The sun is at an angle, the conditions aren't as tough on the fisherman and, most important, the fish are more active on top. Your chances of finding bluefish on top are much better within two hours of sunrise or sunset. As soon as I motor out of the bay I start looking toward the horizon for working birds in the areas where I know my reefs are located. If I see what looks like a swarm of insects, I tell my guests to hold on and I punch the throttle because I know we're guaranteed hot action.''

Popovics says that fishing them along the beach is different. ''You'll see them or some sign of them, and often they'll stay right there for a while. But there is no pattern or specific location or even time of day to look for blues along the surf. Sometimes they'll try to herd the bait up against some obstruction or into a shallow cut, but that's more opportunity than anything else,'' says Popovics.

The bluefish diet is varied, but they pursue almost any forage fish, including butterfish, menhaden, herring, silversides, anchovies, shrimps, lobster, crabs and worms. They will hit almost any type of fly when on the feed, and color seems downright unimportant. Popovics' favorite way to fish blues is with poppers on the surface. His fly of choice is a Banger, but only when they are on top. He has taken monster blues on his Cotton Candy flies tied as large as 14 inches with 10/0 hooks. ''The big blues I was after had no trouble chasing it. In fact, it was the only fly I could move fast enough and keep upright at the same time. For giant blues, a fly that large is nothing,'' Popovics says.

Migdalski's views are similar.''I don't worry nearly as much about the right fly choices for bluefish as I do for albies, bonito or even stripers. Bluefish are aggressive feeders and will react well to almost any big fly that's rapidly retrieved. I like large, bright flies like Clousers or Deceivers with a lot of white and tinsel in them. The bigger the hook the better,'' he says.

''One mistake that a lot of novices make is stripping too slowly. The faster you can strip, the more instinctively and competitively the bluefish will strike. It's not possible to outstrip a bluefish. If in doubt, speed it up,'' Migdalski says.

Popovics agrees. ''Whatever you do just don't stop moving the fly, and don't set the hook until you feel the fish.''

While some people will suggest using heavy mono instead of wire, Popovics strongly disagrees, especially for the really big blues. It may sound like overkill, but he prefers to use 90- to 100-pound single strand wire as a shock tippet for big blues. ''They are definitely not line shy, and frankly the lighter stuff can pigtail or corkscrew on you and then you have to spend time changing your tippet. The heavier stuff just keeps you in the game longer.''

Best Bets

New England: The waters of Long Island Sound up around Cape Cod and surrounding islands, and even into Maine, consistently hold some of the largets blues, particularly in the fall.

New Jersey: Most anglers here have excellent luck in the early summer and early fall along the beaches, chasing feeding schools as they move along the shoreline.

North Carolina: Plenty of large blues appear along the beaches and inshore structure in the spring and fall.