With two coffees coursing through my veins, I run all my gear down the dock and hop on my 19-foot Montauk Whaler. I have four rods prepared, each with a specific purpose: jigging rod, plugging rod, 10-weight fly rod, and 12-weight fly rod. My confidence in finding bluefish on bunker is high, so I chuck my pliers and Boga Grip on my dashboard for easy access. When my friends reach the dock, they hop on with three rods and a giant box of plugs.
Leaving the dock, I begin to blast Slayer, a perfect soundtrack for the carnage to come. Reaching the channel, the first crack of light shows over the trees. I know there’s a good shot at finding hungry bluefish terrorizing bunker in Manhasset Bay. If I can’t find them in the bay, I’ll slowly make my way over to the channel in between Hewlett Point and Barkers Point. This is the perfect vantage point to wait for the yellow-eyed demons to erupt on bait.
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Scanning the water with my binoculars, it doesn’t take long. Just 150 yards away, I see bluefish slashing and ripping through bunker. I put the boat in gear, cruise in at 30 miles an hour, and we reach the school of fish seconds later. I position the boat horizontally to the feeding frenzy and we all begin casting poppers. On the first twitch, a 13-pounder smashes my plug and I begin to scream excitedly as my buddies also hook up.
When the fish gets close enough, I get my Boga around its toothy jaw. With the fish unhooked and released, I’m into another gator on the next cast. For the next 20 minutes, we take turns whaling on bluefish on bunker schools.
After a quick breather, the blues pop up a few hundred feet from the initial terror zone. Again, they push bunker into the air with evil intent. By late morning, the schools of bluefish begin to dwindle, so our arms finally get a break. By midday, the football-field schools of blitzing bluefish on bunker had broken into small pods. The scattered schools make for a technical yet rewarding endeavor when we hook fish. At about 4 p.m., the action ramps back up, with gigantic schools of big blues feasting until sundown. When it’s all over, we return to the dock with cut-up hands, mangled plugs, sore arms, and massive grins.
Summer Bluefish on Bunker
The fishery in western Long Island Sound is usually at its best in spring and fall, then it slows down in mid-summer. I usually spend the summers bottom fishing, but last year the doldrums were filled in by some of the largest and most aggressive bluefish I’ve ever seen.
Typically, mid-summer bluefishing involves catching a rogue blue in the boulder fields on a pencil popper or minnow plug at dawn or dusk. These lone wolves tend to crash the party when I’m looking for a large striper. Last summer, though, the script changed. Massive schools of bluefish blitzed on giant schools of bunker.
In late June, the bluefish were feasting on the adult bunker. At the time, the average-sized fish was about 6 to 9 pounds. There weren’t many schools of bait at the time. However, there was one giant school of adult bunker sitting on the surface in 70 to 100 feet of water.
It was easy to find the bunker—and therefore the blues—in calm seas. However, finding a bunker school in choppy weather was considerably more challenging. Often, with the help of some birds, I eventually found the fish.
In mid-summer, the adult bunker slowly disappeared. It felt like the end of the amazing fishing for blues was near, but then, on a hot day in mid-July, gigantic schools of 5- to 6-inch bunker appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. For the entirety of July and August, these snack-sized baits fueled epic fishing. Every outing produced bluefish from 11 to 17 pounds; each day, the bait kept coming. I found peanut bunker from the Throgs Neck bridge all the way to the end of Hempstead Harbor—nearly 10 miles!
Surface feeds covered the Western Sound for weeks. It seemed you couldn’t go ten feet without seeing a bluefish and then the insanity would last 20 straight minutes. There were times when I just sat on the bow and watched in awe as blues kept feasting.
It felt like July and August were never going to end, but then, of course, September kicked in. Without warning, the snackable-sized baits were replaced by small baits in the 1- to 3-inch range, which attracted fish from 3 to 12 pounds. Although finding bluefish on bunker was easy, it took time to find the big ones that provide the most excitement; typically, I had to leave fish to find the gators.
When searching for bluefish on bunker, I begin by looking for surface action in the form of nervous water or finning blues. There’s nothing quite like scanning the water, only to have a bluefish break the silence by smashing through a school of adult menhaden.
For me, the ideal conditions for early to mid-summer were light south winds and moving water. The south wind slicks out the Sound, making it easy to spot blitzing fish and bait from a distance. Toward late summer, from mid-July onward, the key was a strong southwest or westerly wind, which created a 1- to 2-foot chop. During that time, bird activity was a key indicator of fish activity. If I could find clusters of birds hovering over the water, I knew I’d be in for a crazy time.
Throughout the summer, the peak activity was from sunrise until 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. until sunset. However, there were also plenty of days when the fish seemed to bite from morning until night without a care in the world.
Plugs and Jigs for Bluefish on Bunker
“Never show up to a gunfight with a knife” is the perfect saying when rigging up for blues. On my plugging rod, I fish a 5000-size reel spooled with 30-pound-test braid on a medium-light plugging rod like the Shimano Grappler. This setup is the perfect balance of sport and backbone for fighting larger fish.
For my jigging setup, I use a lever-drag reel spooled with 40-pound braid on an acid-wrapped jigging rod.
In terms of leader, these fish aren’t line shy, so I opt for three feet of 80-pound Cortland fluorocarbon. I connect one end to a 120-pound Spro swivel and another to a 125-pound Tactical Anglers Power Clip. I always make a few extra leaders just in case I get bit off amid an all-out blitz.
When choosing plugs, jigs, and flies for big blues, I lean toward cost-effective artificials. My favorite topwater plugs include the 6-inch Cotton Cordell pencil popper in black and chrome, 5-inch Yo-Zuri Hydro Pencil in bone white, and the 4.5-inch Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow in bone white. For jig choice, I keep it simple—a basic 1- to 2-ounce diamond jig or Deadly Dick are consistent producers.
Big Blues On the Fly
When fly-fishing for big bluefish on bunker, I either throw poppers or large synthetic streamers. There’s no wrong choice for blues, though my favorite patterns are the Bobs Banger, Howitzer Head Banger, Stever Farrar’s Blend Synthetic Clouser, and the Beast Fleye. The reason I primarily use synthetic material is because it can withstand the wear and tear of bluefish teeth.
On the 10- to 12-weight fly rods I use for bluefish, I go with one of two leader constructions. The first is a short, 4-foot section of 60-pound fluorocarbon attached via an Alberto knot to two feet of 40-pound Rio Powerflex Wire Bite tippet. Another option is a 4-foot section of 40-pound fluorocarbon tied via a blood knot to 3 feet of 80-pound fluorocarbon.
When it comes to fly fishing, topwater is great when the fish are on the surface, but the blues sometimes miss the popper and give up on chasing it. Keeping that in mind, my most versatile setup is a 12-weight with a full-sink line. Whether I’m marking fish at depth or throwing into a blitz, a full sink provides more opportunities. It can be stripped fast to keep it near the surface or slowly dredged to bluefish at depth. I have a higher catch rate with sink line than float or intermediate because when it comes down to it, it gets the fly in front of more fish.
Catch Them Deep
While the most exciting action is when the blues are feeding on the surface, they can also be caught after the blitzes subside by fishing deep.
Often, bluefish on bunker schools sit in the same spot where they were blitzing, so I use my fishfinder to look for long streaking checkmarks. Switching out the surface plug for a fast-sinking diamond jig puts me back on the fish. Sometimes, the fish will hit it on the way down; if not, I’ll work the jig with a steady, fast-paced cadence until it gets hit.
While one of the most savage species in the Northeast, a hard-fighting bluefish can die from over-exhaustion and poor fish handling. There are a few things I do to minimize stress and help a blue survive catch and release. Replacing treble hooks with singles goes a long way. One quick pull of the pliers pops out the hook, and the fish is free to go. Another trick I do is revive the fish with a Boga by putting the boat in gear and leading the fish with the Boga in its mouth. This helps to flush water through the gills so the fish swims away strong—a healthy release.
The summer of 2023 was an epic year for bluefish, and I’ll never forget the vicious eats and screaming drags from the monsters that dominated the western Long Island Sound. I sure hope for another exciting summer of bluefish on bunker in 2024.