What is it that causes ravenous blitzing bluefish to become finicky, and what can you do about it?
A few years ago, I was mulling over the idea of writing an article about summertime bluefishing tactics… and I drew a complete blank. No matter what kind of new or interesting angle I tried to come up with, I kept coming back to the same conclusion. My professional opinion, it seemed, coincided with my personal perception of bluefishing at the time. I just couldn’t for the life of me come up with anything new or original related to bluefishing. After all, what would I write? Tie on a beer can, attach some treble hooks, and cast it out into the middle of a blitz of feeding bluefish?
Little did I know at the time that I would discover my belief about the indiscriminate nature of bluefish feeding was not quite as accurate as I may have thought. With the subject still fresh in my mind, I began to take notice of the days spent out on the water when the pick may have been a bit tougher than usual. On a typical slow day like this, I might have snapped on a plug, tin or jerkbait, only to be rewarded with…well…nothing. So my next step would usually involve a change of tactics. As is my preference, I’d tie on a limber soft-plastic bait – my highest “confidence” bait – and see if I could entice a reluctant striped bass or two to take the offering.
What would happen next was almost predictable: Wham! Any finicky bluefish hiding out in the area that had previously turned up their noses at my earlier offerings would suddenly wake up and reveal themselves in ruthless fashion, attacking my defenseless soft-plastic bait, leaving behind a devastated, surgically neutered nub. At this point it became decision time. If I were to continue reloading and deploying the same set of tactics with the same soft plastics, the deck of the boat would soon become buried in a costly menagerie of sliced and diced, multicolored cigar butts. So, of course, I would do what any shrewd, money-wise angler would do and quickly switch back to a metal lure or jerkbait to preserve my remaining soft-plastic arsenal. But then, more often than not, the bite would completely shut off again.
What Makes Bluefish Finicky?
With vivid visions of boiling water and blitzing bluefish dancing in our heads, the idea of a finicky bluefish bite can be enough to make an experienced angler second-guess everything they know about bluefish. Right or wrong, bluefish have a reputation among anglers as a game fish that isn’t exactly known for being choosy. Yet contrary to popular belief, there are in fact times when bluefish will play hard to get. Once an angler can manage to shake the common perception that bluefish will eat just about anything at any time, the question then becomes, why? If we know that the fish are there, then why have they become so picky at this point it time?
Paul Caruso, a senior biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, says that although available research on the subject of bluefish feeding tendencies is somewhat limited, there are several factors that he believes can contribute to a bluefish’s preference for soft plastics when all else fails. “We know from laboratory experiments and fishermen’s observations that bluefish are primarily sight feeders,” Caruso explains. “They generally don’t feed much at night and are more apt to feed during daylight hours than are striped bass. My personal experience is that they are most selective when the sun is high and water clarity is good; they may be able to get too good of a look at your offerings. With a good breeze and a low sun angle, they are far less selective.”
One indicator of a finicky feeding pattern is when bluefish are “finning” or “lazing” on the surface of the water. This curious behavior occurs most often during the late spring and early summer. “This lazing on the surface may be related to water and body temperature,” explained Caruso. “They may be selective because their metabolic rate is slowed by the cooler water and they are just not as hungry.” Size and quantity of the bait in the water can also contribute to the selectivity of feeding bluefish.
Another factor is the texture of the potential forage item. It’s a well-known fact that bluefish like to attack their prey from behind. Yet even on a near miss, they can often come out with a bite-sized morsel. This applies to lure selection because when a finicky bluefish lashes out at a hard bait, such as a wooden plug or a metal spoon, and misses making a solid connection, the resulting hard knock on the jaw or noggin reveals the targeted prey as inorganic or artificial, making them less likely to loop around for a follow-up attack. To the angler fishing under these conditions, the impression is that the bluefish are reluctant to take a lure. Under the same conditions, soft-plastic bait feels natural even on a glancing blow. “I think the reasons for the success of soft baits are two-fold,” Caruso said. “Molded [soft] plastic baits have a similar density to prey – so the sounds and vibrations sent out from a retrieved lure may be better perceived as prey through their lateral line. Also, if they take a bite and miss, they are likely to come back for a second helping, for the angler, hopefully, the piece with the hook in it!”
Soft Plastics And Finicky Bluefish
“It seems like when you really want to catch a bluefish, that’s when they get finicky and hard to catch,” laughed Captain Mike Hogan, professional saltwater fishing guide and the owner and founder of Hogy Soft Plastic Baits. “I know there have been times when I’ve needed to catch bluefish, whether it’s for tuna bait or for sharking, and I’ll be in an area and I’ll be just catching bass, and I’ll be trying to cast through the bass to get to the bluefish!” So what’s the remedy for solving the finicky bluefish dilemma? Like many other forms of fishing, Hogan said the keys for enticing finicky bluefish to strike include downsizing tackle and refining the presentation. “Forget your steel leader you normally use for bluefish,” said Hogan. “It’s not even an option. And fluorocarbon is definitely ideal. You go down to the lightest pound-test line that you can stomach. And if other lures aren’t working, you throw soft baits.”
The familiar lament about bluefish and their effect on soft-plastic baits is as old as the baits themselves, and it’s the primary reason why so many anglers don’t target bluefish with soft plastics in the first place, despite their undeniable effectiveness. “Well, I say jokingly that bluefish are my business partners,” mused Captain Mike Hogan. “And I view that as being true whether you’re selling soft baits, leaders, hard baits or poppers, because bluefish are just tough on tackle. They have that reputation… they are just a tough fish.” Captain Hogan said that in his business, questions about the durability and sustainability of soft-plastic baits come with the territory, especially when it comes to bluefish. “Probably one of the more common questions I get asked at the sportsman’s shows is, ‘Will bluefish chop these up?’ And, of course my answer is always ‘Yes.’ That is the nature of the beast when fishing with soft baits.”
Now, at first glance, some people might think the idea of using soft-plastic baits to catch razor-toothed bluefish is, well, a little nuts. Yet when it comes down to a choice between using soft-plastic baits or catching nothing at all, the most determined and successful anglers (including tournament participants) consider all of the possibilities. It really comes down to the individual and how willing he or she is to take the steps necessary to get the most out of the day’s fishing and their available tackle.
One adjustment that can be made to increase hookups on short strikes, which often result in larger soft baits being sliced in half, is to add a trailer hook. Another option is to downsize your soft bait to increase your odds of hooking up. This not only helps keep finicky fish on the bite, it also gives the angler a little more bang for the buck. Less expensive per bait, smaller baits stand a better chance at surviving multiple bluefish attacks. The smaller size also means less vulnerable surface area exposed beyond hook shank and hard rigging, which in turn makes the baits harder to bite in half.
When bluefish are in a finicky mode, Hogan said that, as with every fishing situation, it all comes down to a set of choices about what to use and how to use it to the greatest effect. “A lot of it has to do with the situation. If it were a topwater situation, and everything I tried to catch the bluefish didn’t work, I’d put on the biggest, gaudiest, brightest lure and fish the bait as if I were trying not to catch a fish!” He laughed. “You know, sometimes all the rules are broken.” Hogan said in some cases, taunting the fish with a lot of commotion and fast movement can produce a competitive strike, in addition to covering a lot of surface area in a short amount of time. “That’s one solution,” Hogan says, but he also talks about what he calls the ‘Vineyard Sound’ phenomenon. “[That’s] when you’re seeing those finning bluefish that just seem disinterested in everything. I’ll throw un-weighted Texas-rigged soft baits. You can really keep it in the strike zone and twitch it and have a lot of movement without actually going fast. You can keep it slow, without it sinking out of the strike zone. I rig the baits on the longest worm hooks I can find, even if they are a little long for that particular bait. And that helps me reduce break-offs. I go down (in pound-test) as much as I can in the leader and use a real light drag, so if they do nick up the leader, I’m not putting a ton of strain on it.”
Tips for Preserving Soft Plastics
An experienced saltwater angler himself, Captain Hogan was enthusiastic and forthcoming about discussing tips and techniques for preserving and extending the life of soft-plastic baits. First on the list, said Hogan, is what friend and fishing cohort Captain Dave Peros calls fishing the nub, in reference to the soft-plastic lure remnant left after a bluefish bite-off. “You don’t necessarily need to fish the entire soft bait,” Hogan said. “You can choke up on the soft bait, choke down, you can rig it differently, you can put it on a jighead. Just because the lure is different than it was when it came out of the package doesn’t mean you can’t re-rig it to use it a different way. I sort of let the size and shape of the soft bait dictate how I rig it and what I do with it. Often times, for whatever reason, just those short little nubs will raise fish when they are keyed in on really small baits. So there’s that phenomenon. Number two: I’m a huge fan of the Pro’s Soft-Bait Glue. I won’t necessarily glue it after each bluefish; I’ll just keep putting new baits on. When I get enough chopped-up baits, I’ll take the time to glue them all back up. If you have a tail on one and a head on another, you can take two half-baits and make it one full bait. So I make sure to hang onto all my ‘parts.’”
A Matter of Priorities
Sometimes out on the water we are presented with a choice. When the bite is tough, fishing success can depend on just how willing we are to take the extra steps necessary to salvage the day. Under most conditions, soft-plastic baits can entice bluefish bites when nothing else will. And while there is no foolproof way to completely safeguard a soft-plastic bait against the carnage of a premeditated bluefish attack, there are measures you can take to help reduce your losses without compromising too much on your fish-catching success. You could say that using soft-plastic baits on finicky, picky and hard-to-catch bluefish is akin to staring down the skunk and spitting right in its eye.