FISH­ING

Soundings - - Contents - By Zach Har­vey

The much-ma­ligned blue­fish de­serves some re­spect, though it might steal your eel.

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. If 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.

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

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