Every April since I can remember, I have looked forward to the arrival of big spring bluefish. They are mean and lean, and bring outstanding fishing to the surf, inlets, and back bays.
Back in the 1980s, when I decided to make the Jersey Shore my home, the first reports of mackerel being caught by early-season headboats meant that, shortly thereafter, we’d start seeing big gator bluefish moving inshore and north from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. When these schools of migrating fish merged in New Jersey, the fishing was insane.
It didn’t matter where I fished because the blues were there day and night. At that same time, the striped bass population was severely depleted, so bluefish provided the best opportunity for catching big fish from shore.
I recall walking all the way out on the north side of Cold Spring Inlet and some of the biggest bluefish just about pulled me into the water with their strength and attitude. On one occasion, I got stuck in the rocks trying to land a particularly ornery blue.
In the back bays at night, the blues were so thick that I could barely avoid them while trying to catch tiderunner weakfish (and losing many lures in the process). I grew to resent them back then, and it took me many years to really appreciate what wonderful gamefish they really are.
Out in the surf, if I fished a mullet rig using four dozen frozen mullet from the previous fall, I’d catch four dozen blues in a single outing.
Come summer, the big schools of bluefish headed back out to sea but not far. On any night during the summer, an angler could hop on a party boat that would anchor up a mile or two off the beach and chum up enormous bluefish. When the fish found the slick, the incredible bite would last all night.
The anglers on board dropped down a weight and a huge chunk of mackerel, and within minutes, all of them would be locked into serious battles. At times, the mates could hardly keep up with the calls for “Gaff!” Losing a few fish was inevitable, but most anglers still left the boat with a burlap bag full of 15-pound blues that they could barely drag off the boat at 4 a.m. In many cases, after battling about 10 of these fish, I was done and needed a break to give my arms a chance to regain their strength. At that point, I’d sit back and watch the craziness unfolding around me.
I think back now and wonder what we did with all those fish we kept. Some ended up as shark bait for the big-game offshore fishermen and I am sure some made it into a smoker, but far too many were wasted.
As the striper population rebounded in the 1990s, even more anglers began to regard the bluefish as a nuisance for stealing and destroying expensive striped bass plugs and lures. Even back then, there was a noticeable decline in the stock, but it was overshadowed by excellent fishing for striped bass and weakfish.
After the turn of the 21st century, bluefish were still around, though not the same as in the past. There were still decent spring and fall runs, but then in 2016, I experienced some of the best bluefish action I have seen in my lifetime. Worldclass bluefish running 10 to 20 pounds and up to 40 inches invaded our inlets and back bays in massive schools. The runs lasted 4 to 6 weeks, with fishermen catching every day. Blues of all sizes are, pound for pound, some of the hardest fighters in our waters, and fish of that size are especially strong.
Unfortunately, fishermen showed the same lack of respect for this resource as they did in the 1980s, leaving the jetties with hundreds of pounds of bluefish, even sometimes exceeding the 15-fish limit.
The spring run of huge bluefish still arrived on time for the next couple of springs, and they made decent showings in the fall, but during the last couple years, the blues disappeared. It was as if they vanished, spring, summer, and fall.
In 2020, bluefish were declared overfished, and the daily bag limit was cut down to three fish (five fish on for-hire vessels). Over my decades of fishing for blues, they have earned my utmost respect as a great gamefish and are a crucial part of both the ecosystem and the local fishing community. I hope everyone also shows them this respect going forward so that the next generations of anglers can also enjoy these great fighting fish.