Bluefish Blues

Although some believe their disappearance to be part of a cyclical pattern, the growing scarcity of big bluefish has been a slow bleed for many fishermen.

bluefish on diamond jig

The wind that cancelled my tilefish trip forced me to don the thick neoprene jacket I’d brought along, expecting a cold sunrise offshore. Instead, I was using it to cut the chill as I followed Steve Perna down the sod bank on the hunt for Plan B: bluefish.

It should have been the heart of the bluefish run off New Jersey. For as long as I can remember, early to mid-May was a lock for big blues. I used to curse them for cutting off my clam-baited circle hooks or slicing through a pack’s worth of Pink Zooms. But, on day two of my hunt with Steve, it felt like we were chasing ghosts.

Steven Perna
Steven Perna scans for signs of bluefish.

We were a tide behind the reports. Shell Caris had found them on the outgoing in the back; Tom Lynch had them on the incoming out front. We bounced between bay, inlet, and beach, finding stripers, but no blues, a juxtaposition of my efforts a couple decades earlier.

With just three days in Jersey to get my bluefish fix, it would have been easy to write off the fishlessness as bad timing—I’d arrived too early, too late, or during one of those mid-season lulls that happen from time to time—but the fishing had been lacking all spring, and it never improved after I left.

A few months later, NOAA declared the bluefish as overfished, and the bag limits dropped from 10 (or 15 fish, depending on the state) down to 3 fish (or 5 fish aboard for-hire vessels).

The disappearance of big bluefish was a slow bleed for me and for many of the striper-, fluke-, and albie-focused fishermen in the Northeast. When I first visited the Cape Cod Canal in the early 2000s, I thought nothing of the bluefish blitzes that pinballed around the Big Ditch at the middle of the day. In 2010, I could count on a weeklong onslaught of big blues around the Cape in late September or early October, especially around the full moon. Over the years, that week whittled down to a few days, then one day, and this past year, none.

Snapper blues, a late-summer staple for kids, kids at heart, and trophy-seeking fluke fishermen, have been largely absent as well. I’ve looked forward to introducing my daughter to the pint-sized savagery of a snapper blue since she was born in 2015, and I still haven’t had the chance.

Like many fishermen, I have a complicated relationship with bluefish. I love to catch them when I’m targeting them, but I’d rather not encounter them when I’m not. For example, my first saltwater fish of 2019 was a Floridian bluefish caught at Sebastian Inlet in January. It was roughly 2 pounds and did what 2-pound bluefish do best—shredded my soft-plastic trailer. I’d traveled to Florida to catch “exotic” species like snook, red drum, and tarpon, so I was somewhat less excited to catch this bluefish, than I would have been to catch one several months later in New Jersey.

Blues have a much broader range than stripers. You’ll find bluefish off the east and gulf coasts of the US, off the east coast of Brazil, both coasts of Africa, and most of Australia. As a result, they go by many names. They’re called “elf” and “shad” in South Africa, “tailor” in Western Australia, and “[expletive deleted]” by eel-slinging surfcasters in New York.

world record bluefish
James Hussey with the 31-pound, 12-ounce world-record bluefish caught off Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1972.

Big Blues

Rumors of 40-pound bluefish off the West Coast of Africa persisted into the early 2000s, even though none ever made the record books. The largest bluefish ever caught on rod and reel was a 31-pound, 2-ouncer caught off the beach at Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1972. It takes a bluefish just one-third that size to trash your tackle. Their never-say-die fighting style has ended many a rod, reel, and lure. A bluefish on dry sand will put up almost as much of a fight as a bluefish in the water.

Not only do they swim in most of the world’s oceans, but they live in a wide range of habitats. I’ve been on tilefish trips when fishermen pulled bluefish from extreme depths at the edge of the canyons. Unlike just about all of the other fish caught on those trips, which arrived at the surface with bulging eyes and distended stomachs from an extreme case of the bends, the bluefish came up fighting and snapping, ready to remove digits from careless anglers.

I returned from my New Jersey trip, hoping to find some bluefish back at their traditional haunts on the South Side of the Cape, but for the second season in a row, they were nearly a no-show. A handful were caught, but it was a far cry from the set-your-watch-by May bite that used to have the On The Water office empty onto South Cape Beach whenever the afternoon wind went southwest.

Jerry Sullivan bluefish
2015 was a banner year for big bluefish. Jerry Sullivan holds a Great Bay slammer taken on an SP Minnow.

Bluefish have no near relatives. While striped bass have close cousins including white perch, white bass, and European sea bass in the Moronidae (temperate bass) family, bluefish are the sole member of the Pomatomidae family. In my dog-eared and coffee-stained copy of Erwin A. Bauer’s Saltwater Fisherman’s Bible, the bluefish is lumped in with mahi, tripletail, and cobia in a chapter called “Unusual Fish.”

Bauer calls them the “world’s great mystery fish,” noting their tendency to disappear for years at a time. Records of bluefish population extremes date back to 1764, Bauer says, theorizing that they run in population cycles of 40 years.

Fishermen once believed that these cycles of bluefish abundance were the result of a migration pattern that took them to the far side of the Atlantic. While bluefish are wide-ranging, it’s unlikely that they’re making trans-Atlantic crossings. The American Littoral Society’s bluefish tag returns on Western Atlantic blues show three migratory patterns—one from New England and the Northeast to the mid-Atlantic, one from the mid-Atlantic to the southeast, and one east to west off Florida.

The last period of scarcity began in the 1920’s, according to Bauer, and did not end until the early 1960s. This lines up with the writings of surfcasting author Frank Daignault, who claimed that when the blues first began returning to the New England surf, fishermen didn’t know what they were.

My copy of the Saltwater Fisherman’s Bible, a third edition revised by Bob Stearns and published in 1991, noted that the most recent cycle of bluefish abundance showed no signs of slowing down, though it did provide this warning: “Many bluefish experts, citing the 40-year-cycle theory, maintain that the current boom is overdue for a bust.” Perhaps we were overdue for some lean bluefish seasons. But, perhaps not.

Late every summer, we’ve been able to count on an influx of “cocktail” blues, the rambunctious 1- to 4-pounders that can be difficult to escape when after bonito or fluke. As fishermen, I think we are all entitled to a little hypocrisy, so I don’t feel too bad about cursing these mid-sized bluefish after lamenting the absence of their larger brethren earlier in the year. At times, the blues have seemed so thick that one could walk from the beach in Falmouth over to Martha’s Vineyard on their backs. But, when the cold winds of fall send the little blues south, the 10-pounders that used to take their place are nowhere to be seen.

The story of the 2020 bluefish season is yet to be written. Every 15-pound gator was at one point a 3-pound cocktail, so perhaps the return of the big blues is just a couple years away. Regardless, when the warm southwest winds of May blow through the dunes, head for some back-bay flats or a south-facing beach with a box full of poppers and a fisherman’s unbeatable optimism, knowing that one day, the blues will be back.

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18 on “Bluefish Blues

  1. Mark

    Don’t be so sure-
    Just because old times reports claim them to be cyclical doesn’t mean that this time the stock has collapsed due to overfishing, less prey, environmental destruction. They could certainly be going the way of many popular fish – towards extinction.
    I hope not- I still remember catching my first bluefish in the surf- one of the best memories of my life.

  2. Barry Reil

    Caught a bluefish as big or bigger than James Hussey’s world record from shore on the south side of Cape Cod about 30 years ago. It looked so old and battle scarred that I had to let it go. I remember holding it up at neck level, and its tail was dragging on the ground. Wish I had a picture, but cell phone cameras hadn’t happened yet.

  3. JB

    More seals and great whites locally, and those predators need to eat too.

    Less herring: less blues and stripers.

  4. JoePete

    I think that JB has hit on a good point. Too many seals without a management plan PLUS nearly unregulated harvest of baitfish for oil and cat food and overfishing of the baitfish in general. Fewer baitfish = fewer gamefish.

  5. James Murphy

    I have a very old account of a pestilence decimating Native Americans on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1700’s followed by a thirty year absence of bluefish in surrounding waters.

  6. Vince

    Everyone blames the fishermen but never account for the booming seal population as a factor in the decline for fiah population. Massachusetts needs to add seal to the commercial harvest list.

  7. Ryan K

    I dont know how it is for everyone else, but this year Ive seen and caught a lot more bluefish than last year. Plenty of cut up soft baits to prove it.

  8. Justin

    good supply of Bunker up here in Essex Bay. Tons of schoolie bass and some Cows chasing the bunker in the depths, but still no blues. Weird to say, but I am looking forward to catching one this year.

  9. John G.

    Caught a nice 37″ Blue between Scortons Creek and Barnstable Harbor last summer on a tube. We have caught around 10 Blues this spring in the 18-24″ range. I still remember in the late 1970’s the Big Blues running against the sea wall in South Boston for hours one day.

  10. Wendelin J Giebel

    We have reduced the Atlantic menhaden stock to 1-2 % of its unfished biomass. The bunker are the life blood of our food web here on the east coast. Now , over 200,000 metric tons of bunker are seined , , vacuumed up , boiled down and reduced to pellets for fish farming by a Canadian company. It has been said many times…. “ If you are eating seafood on the east coast, you are eating menhaden”. Without menhaden our food web here on the continental shelf withers and atrophies. The bluefish and striped bass depended upon menhaden and for many decades we eliminated menhaden from much of their range.
    Atlantic States Marine Fisheries commission and National Marine fisheries Service have become a cult. A cult of mathematical models and maximum sustainable yield. The models model nothing and coupled with MSY has destroyed our fisheries up and down the coast. The menhaden stock should be afforded the protection given our most valuable national resources, instead of being given away to Canada for pennies a pound . The ASMFC is incapable of protecting and rebuilding any stocks under its authority. There will be little or nothing here for our grandchildren .

  11. Shawn Knight

    Last year in the month of November caught gator blues to 20 lbs slamming umbrells rigs and trolled swim baits put out for stripers . The bunker were every where i was trolling area of sandy hook so they may be rebounding it was a welcome site been 5 years since i have seen them. Threw most back. Several trips out 15 fish min caught each trips all but a few released

    1. Steven Szymborski

      Sounds like you were fishing the barnegat ridge if so it used to be a unreal bluefish area, but after hurricane sandy there main food source the sand eel disappeared no more blues

  12. Mathew Combs

    During the summer of 1985, I went fishing for blues on my grandparents’ 31’ Silverton. We were fishing about ten miles off the southern Jersey coast, in a place I believe is called The Ridge.
    What I saw that day was amazing. Gulls practically walked on the bait as they picked off desperate baitfish which tried to go to the only place they could, which was up.
    While we were trolling a decent sized swell had us in the bottom of its lowest point. Waves on the starboard and port, had us looking eye to eye to eye with 10-13 pounders! We could actually see at eye level.
    Also, one year around July 4th, a friend and I went on an overnight chum trip for blues. We each got a burlap sack. As they came over the rails, they went in the bag.That was a good time!

  13. Kennymatt

    Just today (08/22/2021) I spent the morning fishing the surf on the north shore of Massachusetts as hurricane Henri approaches. In 90 minutes I caught about 25 bluefish in the 26-33” range. Before this I got 1 in the surf over the past 10 years. I was really surprised how big they all were. Now I need a long soak for my sore shoulder

  14. Steve Underwood

    One spring while visiting lbi in new jersey, I walked the early morning beach and was amazed at what I saw. The gulls came up the coast in contrast to the dark gray and overcast sky. The ocean was angry that day my friend… silver sided bait fish breaking the surface to escape the snapper blues below. Only to have the gulls feast. The handful of early surf casters were in continual motion casting out and back in with fish without using bait. 10s if not 100s of little terrors flapping on the sand still snapping at air. Then as quickly as it began, it ended. Surf fishermen filling there buckets while laughing to the next! Never seen it before nor ever again .

  15. William Elwood

    Comrants thousands of them and I see them eating baby herring in the fall .

  16. Anthony Conway

    I caught a 39 pounder at Cape Cod Canal on my Megabass Super Orochi.

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