Show some love for the blues

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I have hooked, fought, boated, beached, gaffed, unhooked, revived, released, bled, filleted, skinned, gutted, scaled, weighed, photographed, iced, toted, sorted, netted, stacked or otherwise handled a staggering number of bluefish. I’ve caught them one at a time and 100 at a time, from 4 inches to an honest 23 pounds, on most gear types — rod and reel, hand line, gillnet, otter trawl. Of all the species I’ve targeted, bluefish have passed through my hands most often.

Two jigs, one bluefish: The 'animated chopping machine' strikes again.

If I retched at the sight of one now, few would blame me. It’s a strange thing: I still love the fish and respect their incredible power and adaptability. I’ve had my moments with them, to be sure. I’ve been bitten. I filleted 400 or 500 or so blues a night for years and have tried to pry bass out of rips absolutely polluted with yellow-eyes — 25 guys dragging 25 eels at a time.

I’m a child of the striped bass moratorium, after all — I took up the rod and reel just as that storied game fish dropped into a biological nosedive. If I cut my angling teeth on flounder, scup and tautog, I knew my future would be in bluefish. I read and reread anything I could track down about bluefish; the idea of connecting with a 14- or 16-pounder was enough to backlash my 10-year-old skull. I caught 5- and 7-pounders, and lost a couple I knew were of Jurassic proportions because I never saw them (OK, more the latter than the former). I knew the names of all the surface plugs and a couple of the chromed metals lined up on the bait shop corkboards.

Every time I got a look at water, my eyes shot to any minor riffle or discoloration on the surface, praying I might spot one of the “pogies” (menhaden) that my research had revealed as the key ingredient if I hoped to catch a fish in the teens. When I landed in my first blitz of big choppers some years later, a minor obsession solidified into pure fanaticism.

Over a couple of nighttime bluefish runs on party boats with a friend and his dad, I witnessed my first real lights-out fishing and decided I’d get a job on one of those boats as soon as possible.

Sophomore year of high school, I caught my first striper, a foot-long specimen that left me wondering why anyone got so worked up over the things. By that time, the tide had already turned, with a few solid year classes of bass already out in circulation, growing and spawning, the angling media gushing over a huge comeback in the works.

When I landed the first fishing gig — nighttime bluefish trips, of all things — and even some years after that, with a few years under my deck belt, when I’d begun fish-writing, bluefish got general respect. There was no clear turning point, but I suspect it was the first waves of trophy striper catches between, say, 2002 and 2006 when blues ran into public relations trouble. At some point, the angling public turned on bluefish.

In the second coming of striped bass, advances in GPS technology and drift-fishing gear brought even the largest stripers into reach for relative amateurs. New generations of striper nuts, including many younger guys who had begun fishing in the boom years, discovered that live bait could offset considerable inexperience in the cow-striper department. A bumper crop of new-school live-lining specialists learned quickly that the term “bass eels” in no way discourages bluefish from lopping baits off just behind the head.

Post-moratorium stripers also came with bag limits and the new psychology of “limiting out,” creating a clear-cut measure of fishing success that held particular appeal for a booming charter industry. Unfortunately, a bluefish does not count, and so — from one perspective — represents time wasted. At the same time, a six-man striper limit of 12 fish translates to a considerable yield of fillets (never mind fluke or sea bass caught after the striper limit triggered Plan B fishing) that are markedly better on a fork than the oilier bluefish fillets that joined them in the cooler. Over time, folks stopped taking bluefish because the striped bass alone provided sufficient meat for the grill.

Entirely too many charter skippers, especially the live-baiters, fell into a velvet trap of wide-open striper fishing and began to model a new disdain for blues as second-rate quarry with minimal culinary merit. Not surprisingly, clients carried this new attitude off the boat, and the poison spread.

Inconceivably, the species that will out-scrap every other finned critter in or well above its own weight class — a fish that pulls, runs, slashes, jumps, thrashes, chomps, twists and pounds from hook-set all the way to the fishbox — has emerged as a piscatorial underdog of sorts. Sadly, what that reflects more than anything is the fact that our collective hunger for striper fillets has wrung an alarming measure of sport out of the recreational fishery.

Consider this: When you remove the flavor of its flesh from your consideration and judge it on its combination of game fish traits, the bluefish has to land pretty high on a short list of inshore brawlers. The striped bass is known for powerful initial runs and sheer size, primarily. From the strike all the way to your hands, a big blue will run for speed as well as endurance, its tail beating so hard you wonder whether a 15-pound swimmer might just yank your arms off at the shoulders. And it will try every single one of its maneuvers multiple times in the course of a fight. I have known few other fish that will fight so consistently hard all the way in.

And I have witnessed all kinds of scenarios where big, solitary bluefish proved maddeningly particular, contrary to their billing as what one of my way-outdated field guides summed up as “animated chopping machines” ­— indiscriminate, mind-numb swarm-feeders. I’ve mistaken them for stripers twice their size over turbocharged runs at the sting of hook-set. I’ve almost stroked out when behemoth choppers go full airborne to crash a big pencil popper wagging along a rip face.

Like all the great quarry, bluefish are full of surprises, and they’re relentless in their quest to liberate themselves.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

Dedember 2014 issue