Many of us have a love/hate relationship with bluefish. They’re great fighters, but tear up our gear and get in the way when we’re targeting stripers. As a kayaker, they’re my least favorite fish to handle – there’s nothing like a wrestling match with a good-sized blue at the side of the boat. Not only do these fish have choppers that can cause some serious damage, they also tend to jump boatside and thrash around once landed.
Fish-handling aside, blues are still fun to catch and, in July, they are a choice target in many parts of New England. By early July, stripers have finished their post-migration feeding spree and have spread out along their summer shorelines, meaning they’re much tougher to catch than when they first arrived. Fortunately, blues often fill the void when stripers have moved on, giving us a different hard-fighting fish to target.
Bluefish are challenging to deal with from a kayak, but with some practice, you can make it a less stressful experience. The way I handle a blue depends on its size. A smaller fish is much easier to handle because it can be flipped right into the boat, especially if you don’t care whether or not it stays on the hook when you’re landing it. An unintended boatside release can be a blessing, and a lightly-hooked fish can often be released by giving it a little slack line when you get it to the boat.
Of course, the big ones are never that easy. When you think you have one worn out, it probably has a few more runs or jumps left. I have used a net to land a large fish, but that’s risky business if you want the net to last more than a season. A big fish is best landed by grabbing its tail and pulling it into the boat tail-first, which allows me to point its head toward the front of the boat and away from sensitive body parts.
Blues have a well-deserved reputation as aggressive fish, but that doesn’t always mean they’re easy to catch, especially when you can’t run and gun to the next hot spot. When the fish are turned on, just about anything will get them to bite, but when they aren’t on, it can take some finesse to get them to eat.
I use three classes of lures to catch blues: swimmers/hard baits, metals, and plastics. Each type of lure has its own application, so it’s good to have them all handy.
Wooden or plastic swimmers are good go-to baits because they are effective and tough enough to take a beating. A great go-to is the Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow, which is effective when casting and trolling; it’s an especially good tool for covering water. When I’m searching for fish, the SP Minnow is my first choice. I troll it until I find an area with fish, then I stop and cast.
Trolling is very effective for locating fish, and in a kayak, I can’t move too fast for a bluefish. I often alternate between going fast and slow until I determine the mood of the fish.
For blues, consider removing the center treble on the lure, leaving only the tail treble. This is safer when landing the fish because you can use the lure as a handle since most blues hit from behind. Spooks and other walk-the-dog lures are great fun to work on top, and bluefish often provide some spectacular visual action when the bite is on.
For breaking fish, it’s hard to beat a metal for casting range. Lures like a Hopkins spoon or an epoxy jig were made to be thrown at breaking fish. When the blues are excited, skipping a metal across the top air-metal style will draw them up and produce some explosive hits. The advantage of metals is that they allow you to cover the whole water column. Letting a jig sink and retrieving it quickly through the column will turn on cruising fish that aren’t actively feeding. Metals are quite effective search baits when fish are on the move and you want to cover water with long casts. When big blues are up top, my go-to metal is a West Coast metal swimmer, the Tady 45. It’s a large aluminum jig that kicks just under the surface, produces some spectacular strikes, and, because it’s metal, it takes a beating and keeps working.
Most people don’t opt for plastics as the first choice for blues for obvious reasons, but when the fish are deep or the bite is tough, plastics will attract blues like nothing else. My go-to baits are 7 inches long in bright colors to get attention. Most of the time, I fish plastics on jigheads and swim them along the bottom. This is a great way to pull blues off structure since they often cruise reefs and rips that I can drift along and cast to. Unweighted plastics are excellent for finicky shallow-water fish; when blues are cruising flats but not eating, a slow retrieve on a bright plastic will get noticed, but use them judiciously. It can get expensive fishing them for blues!
Pedal kayaks really stand out when looking for bluefish because the ability to move quickly while holding the rod makes a big difference. When trolling for blues, I hold the rod because their jaws are strong enough to require a powerful hookset on the hit. A rod in the holder will result in fewer fish.
Blues don’t have a great reputation as table fare. I used to think that they weren’t an eating fish until I realized that their table quality was all about handling. If you do choose to keep some blues for the table, proper handling makes an enormous difference in the quality of the meat. Bleed it out by cutting the gills as soon as you get it in the kayak (I leave it in the footwell to bleed out). Within 30 minutes, clean it and get it on ice. Since one of the great things about blues is that they may pop up in the middle of the day, though heat is detrimental to their quality. So, when I’m planning on keeping a blue or two, I always bring a cooler and get the fish are on ice as quickly as possible.
Blues really are the fish of the month for July since they fill in when the bass have moved on or switched to a night bite. Plus, pound for pound, there’s no inshore fish that compares to their battles.