Degrees of Blitz – Part 2

Mike Bombardier, Dennis Zambrotta and Ron Powers recall magical times when baitfish met gamefish, and gamefish met the fishermen.

striper breaking on peanuts

It starts with the weather. An onshore wind or an extreme tide brought on by the new moon will concentrate the baitfish along a stretch of shoreline. Striped bass, often on their spring or fall migration, recognize the potential of the conditions to create easy feeding, and they move on the bait en masse.

Making the most of the fleeting conditions, the bass throw caution to the wind, attacking anything that resembles their prey, stuffing their bellies beyond capacity, and then eating some more. This is where the fishermen come in. Some will have seen the blitz coming, seeing the tinder box of abundant baitfish and waiting for the match strike of incoming weather. Others will have been called into the action by a friend, and still others will have just gotten lucky and found themselves at the right place at the right time. Most casts bring a strike, and when the action finally ends, the fishermen head home with cut and swollen hands, aching arms, and a story they’ll tell for decades.
 
Some blitzes last an hour, some last a day, and some last nearly a week. The best ones are given names like the Snowstorm Blitz on Block Island, the Columbus Day Massacre on Martha’s Vineyard, or the Eclipse Blitz at the Cape Cod Canal.

Some happen in the middle of the day, and some happen in the black of night. Some blitzes have spectacular surface action, while others, especially the nighttime ones, happen near the bottom and out of sight.

Among Northeast surfcasters, the only criteria for a blitz are big numbers of baitfish, big numbers of striped bass (or maybe bluefish), and a crowd of fishermen. The location, the baitfish, and the time of year are all highly variable, and to demonstrate that, we collected blitz stories from surfcasters throughout the Northeast.

– Jimmy Fee

Worth Being Late

by Mike Bombardier

Even though my modes of fishing have had to morph over the years due to seals, sharks, and bird-caused beach closures, I still spend the last week of June and the first week of July pounding the sands and waters of the Outer Cape when migrating big stripers collide with the seemingly never-ending waves of sand eels, mackerel, and peanut bunker.   In the summer of 2005, the fish seemed to be cooperating and holding to the same pattern for my entire vacation. My brother, Rick, had come to stay, and we hit the north side of Race Point and picked away at decent fish every morning at first light using pencil poppers. It wasn’t a question of whether we were going to catch fish, it was how big and how many.

Race Point blitz
Arms tired from catching fish after fish, Mike Bombardier put down his rod to capture this photo of the mayhem unfolding at Race Point on June 28, 2005.

On the morning of Tuesday, June 28, I hit the beach by myself as my brother decided to catch up on some much-needed rest (what I like to call Fish Lag). The weather that morning was as it had been all that week—unusually mild, flat calm, with little to no wind and a fog that wouldn’t lift until an hour after the sun rose. I deflated the tires and drove out to the north side of Race Point. There were probably 10 other cars out there and we all got tight to fish in the 15- to 20-pound class. Back then, my go-to morning plug was a white Gibbs Canal Special, and I think I landed four fish on it before the bite died shortly after the sun came up around 5:00 a.m.
 
After the ritualistic “shooting the breeze” with the other anglers, I decided to check out the south side of Race Point since my new wife had given me a curfew of 8:00 a.m. and it was now roughly 6:30. I motored over the dunes and started to make the trip south over to Mission Bell as I scouted the water for bird activity and any signs of life. Shortly after making the turn, I saw some nervous-looking water and a slick that I hoped was some type of bait. I pulled my Jeep over and noticed one other truck parked on a point about ½-mile farther south, where two fishermen were working the surf. I hadn’t even gotten the rod off the top of my car when I was startled by the two men screaming in the distance. Their screams weren’t those of people in distress, but of excited fishermen. I knew something big was about to happen.
 
Just as I was about to jump in my vehicle and motor the half mile toward the other anglers, I saw a fish bust in the wash right in front of my car. I decided to stay put, made a cast, and was immediately tight to a 20-pound striper. As I fought the fish, I could see the much larger mass of bass approaching me. As I landed the fish, I was already in the middle of absolute carnage—a full-fledged striper-on-peanut-bunker blitz!
This was a bigger class of fish than I had encountered on the north side earlier in the morning. These 20- to 35-pound-class fish had a huge school of peanuts pinned up to the shore, and stripers were beaching themselves as they chased the bait.
 
Needless to say, I didn’t make my 8:00 a.m. curfew that morning. I was eventually joined by the anglers I’d seen down the beach and one other truck with three fishermen. The six of us stayed on that school for another hour and a half, bailing fish until our arms hurt. My arms were so sore from reeling in fish that morning that I actually took a rest at the height of the blitz to take a picture of the havoc unfolding before me. I knew no words would be able to adequately describe why I was late and, more importantly, what my poor sleeping brother had missed. I learned two things that day: Ricky doesn’t like missing blitzes, and a blitz is not a sufficient excuse for lateness to a new bride.

Breakdown of The Snowstorm Blitz

From Surfcasting Around the Block
By Dennis Zambrotta

Surfcasting Around the Block
Surfcasting Around the Block

Now let’s take a look at my unscientific numbers breakdown for the nights of November 13th & 14th, 1987: Many of those who took part in the blitz told me that they had landed two cow-sized bass each night, some more, some less. Most said they had lost at least two hook-ups for every fish they landed. Figuring 35 anglers fishing the bar each night for three hours or so, I estimate approximately 140 cow-sized bass hooked, of which 70 were landed, almost all of which were 30 to 60 pounds. Remember, this happened both nights. Over 4,200 pounds of bass landed in six hours and all taken from the surf on plugs. These are phenomenal numbers. There were more than a dozen bass over 50 pounds taken, five of those by club members of the Newport County Salt Water Fishing Club. Other monster fish were taken at other island locations during the same two nights, including New York surfcaster Joe Bragan’s 58½. This short window of opportunity provided many surfcasters with the fish of their dreams. If you fished the island at all during those nights, a hook-up to a forty-pound-class fish was probable, a fifty-pound-class a distinct possibility, and a sixty-pound-class bass not out of the question. The period of November 7th through the 16th, and in particular the nights of the 13th, 14th and 16th of November 1987, were the greatest nights of surf-fishing for cow-sized bass that I have ever witnessed in my 40 years of casting the beach.

Pogy Massacre in Boston

By Ron Powers

As I scrolled through the litany of memorable blitzes in my mind, I kept coming back to my first blitz. A blitz during my formative years which shifted my obsession with the salt from mid-gear to redline in one 8-hour, adrenaline-fueled outing. My first blitz of note had nothing to do with striped bass. In the late ‘70s, bluefish ruled Boston Harbor. Today’s generation would have a hard time grasping the size and volume of these finned wrecking balls. Pogies (Atlantic menhaden) seemed thick enough in the harbor in those times to walk across, and as striped bass numbers were beginning to crash, bluefish filled the void big time—with the emphasis on big! It was no problem at all to rack up double-digit catches of double-digit bluefish and a blue under 15 pounds did not raise an eyebrow.

Ron Powers bluefish
Ron Powers with the results of an 8-hour-long blitz of monster bluefish in Boston Harbor in the late 1970s.

Mayhem ruled across greater Boston. Pogies were commonly pinned against the shoreline to such a degree that the death count would rise into the thousands. The pogies which weren’t bitten in half became asphyxiated and washed up on local beaches by the hordes. The stench of baking, rotting pogy carcasses became a real problem, and crews and machinery were tasked to preen beaches of the fish husks which kept the public away in droves.
Big blues with bad intentions did not singularly save their ferocity for fish either. Swimmers were actually bitten in the surf! Footage of bandaged beach-goers lying in hospital beds were flashed on the front page of area newspapers and broadcasted on television. When I bring this up with others who lived through it, we shake our heads almost not believing it ourselves.

I had a more up close and personal view of the bluefish/bunker massacres than most since I had the ultimate job for a kid with “gills”—I was a lifeguard at several area beaches. And best of all, at one of the beaches, the manager used to let me keep a surf rod in my locker.

Prior to my experience with blues, my previous fishing occasions involved little more than tommy cod, flounder, and largemouth bass. Jumping from a 12-inch tommy cod to an 18-pound bluefish was akin to a Pop Warner center taking snaps with the Patriots.

During my very first year on Shea’s Beach in East Boston (Constitution to outsiders), I used to marvel at the volume of pogies that literally covered the entire bay. But all through June and into July, there was not a thing harassing them until the blues showed up. It was an overcast day, with no beach goers in sight. My toes were barely into the sand when I spotted the bedlam. It was a feast for the senses, not only were dozens of pogies airborne at any given time, but the whooshing sound was incredible as balled up baitfish beat the surface with their fins as they attempted to evade the attack.

From Orient Heights Yacht Club out toward the tarmac of Logan Airport and toward the skating rink, there was carnage as far as the eye could see as thousands of blues pummeled tens of thousands of pogies.

Most stood in awe at the spectacle, but not me. I gave a long, pleading look toward my manager, the late John Rizzo, who simply nodded and gave the “have a ball kid” thumbs up! My mother had just bought me a custom-made Al Cappy 9-foot surf rod and shoehorned in it was a Garcia Mitchell 302.
An old salt passing by coached me to cast and reel as fast as I could. He was right in saying that I could not reel fast enough to keep the plug away from those jaws.

I literally jumping, head-shaking double-digit bluefish all day long. I became arm-weary and enlisted the services of other guards who also helped in the catching. We filled a full-size MDC trash barrel with bluefish. When I look back I wince at how many blues we took, but a 17-year-old kid in that era can be cut some slack.

One of the more startling images that will forever be seared into my brain was the condition of the surf I stood in. The bay water had the color of red wine and the detritus of demolished pogies was insane. Bits of scale, fin and pogy bone ebbed and flowed all around me in a macabre washing machine belying the menhaden massacre.

The bite began at 9:45 a.m., and I left them biting 8 hours later at 5:45. My dad, who was an MDC Police officer, moonlighted as a meat cutter at the First National Store in Revere. As I looked at the full barrel of blues, I asked for help. Despite having just finished a shift, he came down and filleted 28 36-inch-plus bluefish! All the guards, bathhouse employees, beachgoers and passers-by walked away with heaping bags of bluefish fillets.
There would be other similar bluefish blitzes that summer and I would go on to revel in blitzes involving everything from the tuna to mahi to our beloved striped bass. But it was that first blitz that I will never forget.

7 on “Degrees of Blitz – Part 2

  1. Andrew Milmore

    I know the “ITS THE COMMERCIAL FISHING” and the “ITS THE SEALS” brigades will probably hop in this – but we really did decimate fish populations by eviscerating these schools of blues.

    Granted if I was 17, and the harbor was full of blues, and it was 1970 – I’d definitely do the same thing. Hell I live right on the water in Boston and always fantasize….

    The author acknowledges “When I look back I wince at how many blues we took” – and I applaud that – nice to hear that kind of thing.

    Can’t even imagine what these types of blitzes would be like – its too bad in all likelihood I won’t have the chance to run into one.

    1. Lon

      We found those same fish in 2005, but it was October just passed Columbus Day weekend. They were most likely on the return trip on the outer beaches.

      It was Ballston beach, Ntruro just after darkness set in on the dropping tide, the Blackbomber with red eyes was the go to swimmer.

      We laughed and giggled like little kids in a playground, 30lb to my 53lb fish were caught. With tight lines they would make us run up and down the beach.

      That’s the Ballston beach blitz of 2005

  2. Scott Verdin

    Good article about yester year and I can identify with the author. I caught my first rockfish pre 1972 on the Chesapeake just before hurricane Agnes and after that storm everything turned into Chopper bluefish up until the late 1980s. Well the last decent run of big blues was 1990 and everything turned back to Stripers for the last 30 years. Well now the Stripers are getting much more scarce and the blues are a shadow of what they once were. At this juncture our future here on the East coast looks iffy at best for all native fisheries. Unless draconian measures are taken in the near future by the powers that be many of our native fish will go the way of the Atlantic Sturgeon unfortunately. We need leadership up and down the coast on the Federal and state level to make the hard decisions to bring these species back from the brink. Enough said.

  3. Lon

    We found those same fish in 2005, but it was October just passed Columbus Day weekend. They were most likely on the return trip on the outer beaches.

    It was Ballston beach, Ntruro just after darkness set in on the dropping tide, the Blackbomber with red eyes was the go to swimmer.

    We laughed and giggled like little kids in a playground, 30lb to my 53lb fish were caught. With tight lines they would make us run up and down the beach.

    That’s the Ballston beach blitz of 2005

  4. Fred Lilienkamp

    I went on a headboat in those years – I think it was Captains Fishing on Plum Island. Must have been around 1978. The captain steered us into an acre sized school of enormous bluefish around Isles of Shoals. 20 pounders. Bluefish flying everywhere. Total pandemonium. I took home at least 10 fish and gave some away when we got back. A few days later this same school swept into Salisbury Beach and attacked swimmers, biting them in the ankles. Many had to go to the hospital to get stitches. It was in the news headlines. The next year my wife and I were beaching it at LeCount’s Hollow in Wellfleet. Nothing was biting. I had a problem with my 2nd surf reel. There was a broken tooth in the anti-reverse. It would hit that spot and the line would whistle out of the reel. And my other pole had a bait rig on it. I was baking in the sun in September, thinking I should switch to a lure, but I was too lazy to do it. My wife alerted me to look down the beach. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A blue wave of blueback herring were committing suicide jumping onto the beach. They rather do that than get eaten alive by the huge school of blues savaging them! I grabbed my pole and cut off my bait rig. But I didn’t have time to tie a lure on. The blues were right in front of me. I cast the mackerel lure I had and immediately hooked up. That was great but as the fish took out line, the bad tooth caused the reel to let go and wheeeeeee- my line zipped off the reel. I grabbed the line with my hand, then pulled the line all the way back to the sand dunes to beach the blue. I’d unhook the fish and it would happen all over again. Meanwhile, my wife grabbed my other pole – which had nothing on it, and tied a bare hook to it with a square knot of all things, her not knowing how to tie a clinch knot! Of course the line would not cast, so she ran down the beach dragging the hook in the water about a foot from the beach. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Incredibly, she caught a bluefish! We ended up with 14 bluefish by the time the school left. Good thing I like to eat bluefish! Those are my two blitz experiences. Never saw another blitz since 1979. They were exciting. Personally, I thought it was best when there were schools of bass and blues during the early 2000s. Now it looks like neither are very plentiful. Hopefully that will change.

  5. Ron Don

    So what happened ??
    the pogies became a problem so they called in foreign trawlers to thin them.
    well,,what do you suppose happened to the by catch ?? and the lack of food for the blues and stripers ??
    everything went down hill fast after that,,no food base,,no bigger fish..
    it is a fact if a food base increases the predators increase.no food base,predators decrease..
    thats why the herring laws are the way they are today.

  6. Rick Webster

    I lived in the North End in 1984/85 and the Blue Fish blitz’s by the lock to the Charles River by the Ice Rink were insane. There was a fishing warf right by the end of the harbor and every evening, there would be 10 guys packed shoulder to shoulder throwning pencil poppers or just bare trebles right into a pod of pogies…snag one and wait a few seconds…the Blue Fish were endless back then!

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