Bluefish Blitzby Paul Kerlinger
When perfectly flat, calm water erupts, it’s a sign for anglers to be alert and get ready. In South Jersey from May through November, such explosions often mean bluefish and the promise of some fun fishing. For much of the year, I consider bluefish a consolation prize or a culinary gift from the gods. I rarely target them, but when they happen to take my flies while fishing for flounder, weakfish, or bass, I don’t object. You can target them, however at certain times of the year they are very dependable.
Where to catch bluefish can be answered easily – wherever they are. Bluefish move quickly and pop up anywhere. In early to mid May they show up along the beaches, but the better fishing is usually in the shallow back bays where water temperatures are warming up quickly. These “racer” blues are thin and wiry, after migrating from parts south and offshore. Bait, spoons, and streamer flies work best. They disappear shortly after they show up, with the exception of small numbers that can be found anywhere.
Throughout the summer, snapper blues and some “cocktail” bluefish will pop up here and there in the back bays. By late July and August, the coctail sized bluefish – 12-16 inches can be taken on small top-water lures like poppers and shallow-running plugs. The emphasis is small, because these fish are feeding on spearing and other small baitfish. The inlets can be good, as can the sounds, so watch for birds, mostly early in the morning and late in the day.
Party boats provide the easiest way for visitors to Cape May to catch bluefish. If you are interested in larger bluefish, from May through October, party boats leave the dock each evening. These boats chum for the blues and use bait. Taking a bunch of fish isn’t hard this way and the fish are bigger. Depending on the year, they run to more than 10 pounds, although 2-5 pound fish are more common. The best part about party boats is that they are safe, dependable, clean, they provide free bait and tackle (for a small fee), and friendly service. If you’ve not fished before or need help, make sure the mate knows and he or she will help you. Also, if you want to take kids fishing, this is a great way to do it.
To catch blues, from late July through September close to shore, go light. A 7 foot spinning or bait casting rod and reel with 8-12 pound line is perfect for 1-3 pound bluefish. Or, a 7 or 8 weight fly rod can provide immense fun. These smaller fish will be much more fun on very light tackle. Try using very small poppers and work them quickly across the surface, making as much commotion as possible. Hesitate once in a while, then restart your retrieve. You can also use small spoons with feathers or rubber tails. When bluefish hit a topwater lure or fly, you can often see them coming. The thrill of seeing one of these predators attack your lure, two, three, or four times before getting hooked up can really get the heart racing.
The same methods can be used from September through November as the fish get larger as they fatten up for autumn migration. Heavier tackle, larger lures and plugs, and warmer clothing all go together. Blitzes begin to occur with the first movements of mullet in the surf and inlets. When these occur, the fishing is fast and wild. Just watch for the birds, the trucks on the beach, and the rods bent over. Cast just about anything into the melee and you will be rewarded. Such blitzes usually don’t last long, and the action moves around. Use a popper and keep covering water. They will also be mixed with striped bass, another reason for the heavier tackle.
You can catch bluefish on bait, plugs, spoons, jigs, flies, and just about any type of lure. Because they have sharp teeth and a wickedly strong bite, you will need to exercise caution. Use a gentle but firm grip and pliers to take out the hook. If you flatten the barb on your hook, you will find it much trouble to slip the hook out. Also, don’t squeeze them as you wrestle the hook out of their teeth. Squeezing will kill them as sure as sticking your fingers into their gills. You may also use some wire – 2-3 inches, just at the hook. Even a 2 pound bluefish can bite right through 30 pound mono.
As far as eating is concerned, bluefish can be excellent unless you treat it poorly. Baked with olive oil, parsley, and very thinly sliced potatoes is my favorite recipe. Starting the potatoes first and then layering the bluefish filets – at high oven temperatures, can be heaven. As with all fishing, take only what you are going to eat, and with bluefish the rule among some of us is take only what you will eat within about 48 hours. Freezing works, but it just isn’t like fresh. So, do your part for fish conservation and culinary excellence, eat one or two fresh and let the rest go. Next year, you’ll be glad you did.
Paul Kerlinger has been fishing since he was 8 years old.
He's a dedicated salt water fly fisherman who enjoys nothing more than working a Cape May area sod bank or jetty.
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