Surfcasting’s Wildcards

Ravaged tackle, mutilated soft plastics and the uncertainty of a strong spring run make the return of bluefish bitter sweet.

I stepped around the peach-colored coronas of stranded squid eggs uprooted by the recent southwest blow and crept into range of the mirage-like image of a tailing bluefish I thought I’d spotted. There must be some latent instincts within a fisherman’s brain that allows him to instantly recognize when something breaks the natural pattern. In addition to the squid eggs, the strong spring southwest wind of the previous days had filled the surf with mats of eel grass and mung weed that heaved with the swell, but the small black triangle I’d seen moved independent of the waves.

My confirmation came on the first cast, when a fish launched an assault on my popper, missing the hooks and retreating when the plug fouled with mung. Subsequent casts failed to raise another fish, so I continued down the beach, side-stepping the squid eggs while looking for the blues I surmised must be devouring the parents of those lost generations of Loligos. 

I never worry about stripers in springtime. Sure as the sun will rise, striped bass will hit the surf from New Jersey to Maine in April and May. There’s always the question of how many and how big, but come hell or high tides, the stripers will be there for the catching. I do fret, however, about surfcasting’s “wildcard,” the species whose presence enriches the striper season the way a great side dish enhances the main course. 

As with any true wildcards, it’s nearly impossible to predict just where the bluefish are going to end up, but every bait-shop owner from Cape May to Maine hopes for a solid showing of these tackle destroyers in nearby waters. 

Some years, slammer bluefish bestow their blessings upon tackle shops like Grumpy’s, Fisherman’s Supply, and the Reel Seat in Ocean County, New Jersey, where anglers flock to restock after having their tackle savaged at Island Beach, Manasquan Inlet, and Barnegat Bay. Other years, it’s Tomo’s and Surfland that the blues flash their razor-sharp smiles at as they bait in the craggy coves of Massachusetts’ North Shore. Last season, it was AJ Coots at Red Top Sporting Goods who was doubly blessed, not only by a strong run of bluefish in the Cape Cod Canal, but by the Big Ditch blues’ preference for soft plastic. 

The business end of a bait-shop owner’s best friend. (Photo by Matt Haeffner)

No matter how long you’ve been fishing, bluefish can still surprise you. This past winter, big blues swarmed off Florida’s Atlantic coast where New England expat Captain Cody Rubner offered up topwater plugs as tribute. The week before Thanksgiving 2023, a gang of pot-bellied bluefish gave Cape Cod Canal anglers some late-season fishing to be thankful for. The tailing bluefish I found that day last spring also surprised me with their uncharacteristic restraint. I threw all my bluefish go-tos—poppers, tins, pencils, spooks—and aside from a few half-hearted swipes and follows, I’d brought no fish to hand by the time I met up with Matt Haeffner and Ryan Henry down the beach. They too had been plagued by the picky, tailing blues, and as the sun slid dangerously close to the horizon, we desperately rummaged through our plug bags, looking for the solution. 

Matt Haeffner had to count his digits after this bluefish made a particularly violent exit while getting its picture taken.

It was Henry who found the magic bullet. His first cast with a 4-inch, heavily weighted popper met with an instant and violent reaction from a 13-pound bluefish. After releasing it, he repeated the process a couple more times, with Haeffner joining in the fun after he downsized his topwater.  I was left wanting, however, as a fitting punishment by not giving the wildcard its due—I’d failed to pack a proper variety of lure sizes, falling into the false belief that “Bluefish with hit anything.” Those blues, it turned out, hadn’t been feeding on squid, but on small sand eels, and the lures I’d been showing them had simply been too big.

Ryan Henry holds a hammer of a bluefish that fell for a surprisingly small popper. (Photo by Matt Haeffner)

Somewhere, at some point, over the next six weeks, bluefish will make landfall in the Northeast. If we’re lucky, they’ll settle into surfcasting range for a good chunk of spring, summer, and into the fall, but as to where and when that might happen, your guess is as good as mine. 

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