Story and photographs by Tosh BrownBluefish invade the Northeast each spring without fanfare. They’re not tracked on message boards or rumor-milled in fly shops, like stripers. Bass freaks arrange their lives around the migration, but few people budget vacation time, rise at 4:00 AM and drive three hours just to check their favorite spots for bluefish. Stripers get top billing from Maine to the Chesapeake, and their likenesses are painted on fly shops, stitched on hats and etched on reels. When the bass are in town bluefish are considered a scourge. They’re the punks that shred flies and cut leaders, and befoul boat decks with slime and bitten-in-half baitfish.
And then the bass move on, the summer days lengthen and the detractors change their tune.
“The bluefish were insane today!”
“Caught six over 10 pounds!”East Coast anglers and bluefish have a bipolar relationship. Here’s a pelagic species that’ll eat any fly in your box and punish a weak drag system. He’s a forked-tailed goon who prefers his meals at the surface and often jumps when hooked. He roams in packs, isn’t at all spooky, and makes beginning fly casters feel really good about themselves.
Granted, bluefish probably aren’t best served under candles with wine to someone you’d like to impress. They’re better brined and cooked with copious wood smoke and shared among those who drink beer and yell at the TV.My most memorable encounter with bluefish happened off Nantucket in the dead of summer, 2010. Capt. Shawn Bristow idled in circles on a glassy, calm ocean until he found the spot on his GPS where he knew that a standing wave would build on the tide change.
“There’s a sandbar here,” Bristow explained, “and when the current starts moving and the squid get washed over the bar, this place goes crazy.”
After two hours of bulldogging with massive bluefish that surfed and snapped down the face of the wave, the tide fell slack and the remaining chunks of a squid massacre drifted into the depths.
On the way back to the harbor, Bristow talked about the timing of the migrations and how the big stripers tend to move in and out of Nantucket waters. “The big bass hang around Martha’s Vineyard for most of the summer, but not here; they swing by Nantucket in the spring, and then again in the fall. The bluefish get here early and stay all summer through the peak of our tourist season.”
At that point I thought back to a conversation with Boston’s noted fly tier and photographer, Dave Skok. “I love bluefish,” Skok had said. Then he added, seeming a bit perplexed, “Why would anyone in the Northeast hate on one of the four nearshore species that are available to them?”
And Skok is right. Bluefish are hyper-aggressive eating machines and a blast to catch on a fly rod. They’ll tear up our gear and give us the finger whether we like them or not. So keep a few wire leaders ready and embrace the inevitable; I can think of much worse ways to spend a day.