Along the New Jersey coast the month of June traditionally holds some of the best fly fishing since the onset of early spring. By the early part of the month surf temperatures have risen into that magic range in the upper fifties that will induce stripers, bluefish, and weakfish to aggressively strike out at a fly. All of our beaches, back bays, and tidal rivers are viable locations to target, as all three of these areas are now inundated with these predators along with a wide variety of baitfish.
When we look at the prized quarries of the longrodder much of the attention is focused on the striped bass and false albacore. Undoubtedly these tackle busters are deserving of this claim but quite often the bluefish on the other hand is often neglected and overlooked. For many their presence is often considered a nuisance and for this reason they are sometimes treated poorly. But let’s take another look at this superb fighting sport fish that pound for pound will pretzel any longrod in no time.
Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) are pelagic in nature covering a wide range open ocean habitats. Along the eastern seaboard they can be found dispersed from Maine to Florida spending the majority of their life at sea where they spawn and reproduce. They will however frequent our inshore waters, inlets, back bays, estuaries, and tidal rivers as they migrate northward in the spring and southward in the fall.
Their preferred temperature range is from the upper fifties to high sixty-degree range. Thus we see them arriving later in the spring and disappearing much earlier in the fall from our waters when compared to the striped bass. For the most part we start to see the first bluefish schools enter into New Jersey waters right after the mackerel run that occurs offshore. This oily baitfish is a favorite forage of the bluefish and the strong scents that they produce as they are tightly schooled acts like a magnet pulling the blues along.
Bluefish have greenish, iridescent blue dorsal shading that blends into silver on their sides. Their mouth is large, with razor sharp triangular teeth and a slightly protruding lower jaw. Synonymous with the word bluefish we often hear the term’s snapper, cocktail, tailor, slammers or alligators, and racers that are used to describe them. These terms are descriptive of a classification by size for the bluefish that is related to their relative age.
For these descriptive terms we can roughly say that a snapper is a juvenile that weighs from several ounces to approximately a half a pound. A cocktail follows next and ranges up to two pounds. A tailor blue is between two and five pounds. And the slammers or alligators are jumbo blues in excess of ten pounds. Racers describe hefty blues, seven pounds or more that arrive first in our waters in early spring that are hungry and fast. They have a slender torpedo shaped body with big heads.
As mentioned, bluefish are pelagic in nature and will spend the majority of their lifetime at sea. It is here in the open ocean that they spawn and reproduce. They are not anadromous like the striped bass seeking out freshwater for this purpose. In the last several decades the bluefish populations have been thriving along the eastern seaboard. To date this fish has been the mainstay of the charter boat industry in New Jersey.
Part of the success of the proliferation of the bluefish stocks is due to the existence of two different races that have been identified along our coast. A northern and southern race of fish has been identified. The northern race of bluefish will spawn offshore in the mid-Atlantic during the summer months, while the southern race will spawn off the Carolinas in the late spring.
Due to the different spawning periods that exist we will see different size juveniles moving inshore that appear as snappers in our back bays come late August. The northern race baby snappers will be three to five inches long, whereas the southern race baby snappers being older will be ten to twelve inches long. Staggering the bluefish spawn in this manner is Mother Nature’s way of ensuring survival of the species. This places viable eggs and developing larvae in the water over a very wide spectrum of environmental conditions. As a result the bluefish population remains intact.
Targeting blues on the fly can be a season long event that begins in the early spring. At this time of year our racers, mid-size blues, will enter into all of our back bay waters to feed heavily. The warmer waters along with the presence of numerous baits such as herring, bunker, and spearing will act as magnets to draw them in. The large adult bunkers that are in these waters at this time to spawn are of particular importance in holding the blues in these areas.
At this time of year you usually will not see the typical surface commotion that is so indicative of our classic fall blitzes that we see along the New Jersey Coast. But rather blues will be present below the surface. To locate their presence many times all one has to do is to watch the spin fishermen or baitcasters that are fishing the area to see if they are hooking up. If they are then you know that they are around. We usually see a period of several weeks in May when blues are cruising through a particularly area and can be with regularity day in and day out.
Another interesting phenomena that is characteristic of early spring behavior is finding blues on the flats in the back bay waters. There were many days this past May when blues were found in very shallow water fining like bonefish in the tropics. These fish were large with some tipping the scales at ten pounds. Walking or poling up to these areas is necessary at these times to prevent the fish from becoming spooked.
As late spring approaches the bluefish will be more widely distributed with plenty of opportunities now occurring along the beachfronts in the surf. Usually by this time the size of the bluefish that are around are in the two to five-pound ranges. The larger blues that we saw earlier in the spring have moved offshore.
Throughout the summer these smaller size bluefish will remain along our beaches and back bays. But going offshore however can result in much larger catches with plenty of alligator size fish. Locating schools of blues with your fishfinder is advantageous in this case as offshore lumps, ridges, and rockpiles will be the most productive locations that will hold these fish. Anchoring up on these structures and setting up a chum slick is a productive method to bring the blues up to fly rod depth.
As fall approaches all bets are off as blues of any size can show up at anytime in the surf zone. Very often we will see blues in excess of fifteen pounds that will frequent the surf zone well within casting distance. At this time of year the presence of migrating baits such as mullet, peanut bunker, larger bunkers, and sandeels along the beach act as the impetus to draw these fish in.
This is the time of year you can expect what we call our “Classic New Jersey Blitzes”. In Webster’s this term has been coined to describe “a fast, furious, all out assault of predator on prey”. And that is exactly what you will experience. When a blitz is occurring directly in front of you it will appear as if Mount Vesuvius was erupting from below. The water actually boils as the blues indiscriminately rip through clouds of bait.
Hooking into blues throughout the season is not as challenging as trying to lure a striped bass or false albacore to take one of our feathered imitations, as blues will indiscriminately strike out at almost any fly that is put in front of them. Their innate greed works to our advantage in this case, as they will feed to gluttonous proportion until full and then regurgitate to feed some more.
The real challenging then is not in hooking them but rather in landing them once hooked. Their razor sharp teeth will make quick work of any leader that is connected to your fly. For me there is always a little something missing when a hooked fish doesn’t make it to net or gets beached on the sand. Fighting a good size blue only to have it break off after several minutes is not the same as releasing it yourself.
To prevent a break off it may be necessary to use a wire tracer or tippet that is attached to your fly. There are several manufacturers that are producing no-kink wire made from titanium that is very thin and can be tied using such conventional knots as the clinch, albright, and perfection loop. These new products are quickly replacing single strand wire as an alternative thereby eliminating the need of a haywire twist. They test out from 10 pound, .004 diameters to 60 pound, and .016 diameters.
If you are going to use the traditional single strand wire than it would be advantageous to have some of these wire tracers already prepared before hand haywired to your flies. This way if you unexpectantly come upon a school of toothy blues you can quickly tie the wire to your leader. This will save you some time and possible prevent the school from passing you by. You can tie the wire to your leader using an improved clinch knot. This knot connects to another haywire twist that you should have previously put in the tag end of the wire trace. #3 wire .012 diameter, which tests out at 32 pound works well in most instances. In either case use about four to six inches of wire tippet to prevent a bite off.
Adding wire may not be a solution to the problem however because many times it creates another one. Blues are visual feeders and quite often will not strike a fly when wire is attached. They will become wire shy. In this case you can replace the wire tippet with six inches of 40-60 pound mono and see if these will put the blues back on the fly.
My thought process when guiding is to use as heavy as a leader that I can get away with and still draw strikes. So I will start with wire and size down from there usually going from 60 mono to 40 mono to 30 mono tippets. When this still fails I will opt for a longer shank hooks that will give the blue more steel to bite into. This will keep their razor sharp teeth farther away from your mono tippet.
For fly selection I would keep it simple and not spend a considerable amount of time at the vise spinning up flies that look like they are slated for the Orvis Museum. Rather I would look to my second hand flies or those “not so good looking ones” that have been tied in the past. They will work.
For colors white, yellow, or chartreuse with some silver flash tied in are top producers. Big deceivers in these colors are always a good choice but just about any clouser, jiggy, or half and half will also produce. Other colors such as hot neon or fluorescent shades can be equally as effective.
While these flies can be fished on intermediate or sinking lines the fact that blues are visual feeders once again works to the flyrodders advantage. Now we can switch over to floating lines and top water poppers or bangers that will allow us to see the savagery of the strike. This type of fly fishing in the salt is hard to top and doesn’t present itself as often with some of the other species that we target.
One of the most productive flies for this application is a Bob’s Banger in silver and white or yellow and white. Bangers will get the attention of a bluefish rather quickly as they produce good surface commotion as they are stripped across the water. Other top water poppers such as Ka-Boom-Boom or even crease flies will work as well.
I have caught blues on all types of retrieves from a slow strip and pause to a fast two handed super strip. I have even taken fish on the dead drift or as my fly was just sitting on top of the water get pushed around by the current or waves. Try different retrieves and in it short order you will see what works best in a given situation.
Since toothy blues will make short order of any fly that they inhale you can try tying some flies with synthetics. Ultra hair or kinky fiber are materials that are stronger than natural materials like bucktail and saddle hackle, and will hold up better extending the life of a particular fly. Adding epoxy to the heads of all of your flies will also enhance their life and versatility.
Safety tips when handling blues
Handling blues is always an important consideration, safety and caution should be exercised when you are trying to remove a hook. Long needle nose pliers or a hook disgorger will work best for this task. Crushing the barbs down on your flies will also aid in a quick and easy release. Trying to dislodge the hook by holding the hook shank in your hand and wiggling it out is not a good idea. A subdued looking blue can quickly “chomp” out at you and get a death grip on one of your fingers. If you have ever had this happen you know the consequences, they’re not pretty.
As with any fish in the ocean the bluefish should be treated with respect. So many of us have seen anglers kicking them back into the water after they have provided us with the sport of the catch. Keep things in perspective and be thankful that such a superb fighting fish is readily available for our indulgence. Targeting blues with the long rod is a great way to kick off your summer season in the suds. Good fishin!……..Flyfishing that is!