Mid-Atlantic Blues

The Blues are Back

After a long absence, big bluefish return to the mid-Atlantic.

Ric Burnley

published in Salt Water Sportsman Magazine

It was a sad story. Typical blues lyrics. My first true love had left me.  Here one day and gone the next.

When I was a kid coming up in the waters off Lower Delaware, my first tangle with big fish was trolling for chopper bluefish with my dad.  We would pull Green Machines and cedar plugs and catch 10 to 15 pound slammers one after another.  I was so in love that my dad would have to wait until I fell asleep to get the gimble belt off of me. 

And what’s not to love.  Big bluefish, called choppers, are an arm’s length of taunt muscle and bad attitude.  Their bulldog face is armed with a mouth full of razorblades that are controlled by a one track mind. 

In those days, bluefish were prolific.  From New York to North Carolina, hordes of these fish marauded from the beach to the bluewater. These blues made for millions of happy anglers.    

Then the fish disappeared.  Vanished.  For twenty-five years I rarely saw a big bluefish.  A few run-ins offshore, a random blitz in the surf, a handful of choppers mixed in with migrating striper, were the sum total of my bluefish catch. 

That is until a few years ago when the blues came back.  Once again, anglers are encountering chopper bluefish from the surf to the 100 fathom curve.  Without any love lost – my old flame reignited – I had the blues again. 

Singin’ the blues

As soon as I heard reports of giant bluefish on the inshore wrecks off Virginia Beach, I went head over heels. 

I wasn’t alone.  Other guys had been jilted by the big blues, too.  With-in a few days of the first reports, my buddies and I were heading towards Triangle Reef, 30 miles off Rudee Inlet, aboard Ken Neill’s 30 foot Albemarle – Healthy Grin.     

It was late October and the water was cold and grey, but a steady blow and 4 foot seas couldn’t keep us from this date. 

When we arrived on the scene, the bite was already on.  A couple charter boats were crisscrossing the artificial reef, which consists of a half dozen scuttled ships scattered over several square miles. 

Ken slowed the boat to 5 knots and the rest of the crew went to work setting the lines. 

We started with a quiver of 20 pound combos spooled with 25 pound test.  A bimini/no-name knot connected 30 feet of 80 pound monofilament to the main line.  At the end of the leader, a 150 pound-test snap swivel hosted either a large swimming plug or an inline sinker followed by 20 feet of 100 pound test mono and a big, tear-shaped spoon.

Ken navigated like a pin-ball, bouncing among the half dozen wrecks that make up the reef-site. 

While the boat rolled and bobbed in the grey, choppy seas, we trolled along waiting for a bite.  

When the first few passes didn’t produce a fish, Ken began to experiment. The next turn across the wreck was faster. Still no bites.   

Then we went slower, creeping over the structure, the rod tips bouncing as the spoons and plugs swayed back and forth through the water.  Boom!

One of the rod tips dipped and one of the anglers jumped on it.  Ken continued to troll until two more rods were bent double. 

Three anglers each worked in a big blue, but even on heavy tackle the fish were no pushovers, taking drag and dragging their adversaries around the cockpit. 

When we saw the size of the fish, I put away the net and grabbed the gaff; this was a bigger class of bluefish. 

Several of the blues weighed over 16 pounds – big enough for trophy citations from the Virginia Gamefish Tournament. 

The super slow troll was the ticket to fooling these monsters, so Ken put the boat into a turn and headed back for the wreck. 

Each pass produced a handful of monster bluefish.  After each of us had scored a citation blue, we decided to put away the trolling gear and bust out the light tackle. 

Blue Light Special

Ken pulled the boat over the wreck, each of the anglers produced a medium action conventional or spinning rod spooled with 50 pound Power Pro.  Half of the crew went for live croaker that Ken had stored in the livewells and the other half grabbed boxes full of artificial spoons and jigs. 

It was obvious that this was going to get real ugly, real fast.

My rod was rigged-up for dropping a jig.  On the mainline, I had attached a rod’s length of 80 pound mono to protect against the jagged edges of the wreck and provide cushion against the blue’s jarring strike.  I connected this shock leader to the mainline using a Bimini/Bristol combo. 

To defend against the bluefish’s serrated teeth, I twisted a foot of No 15 wire to a 200 pound test low profile swivel with a haywire twist. To attach the shock to the swivel, I used a uni-knot, which is easy and reliable.    

For the business end, I elected to drop a 4 oz. Hopkins spoon.   I figured that the 4-inch metal lure would help to protect my line from the bluefish’s gnarly mouth.    I chose the model with a single hook; considering the blue’s propensity for violence, hooking up isn’t usually a problem.  Also, the single hook makes it easier to set the bluefish free with a simple T-handle dehooker. 

On the other side of the boat, the live bait contingent was using similar tackle that was rigged with a fishfinder slide and an arm’s length of 80 pound mono leader. The fishfinder slide goes over the main line and an 8/0 hook is snelled to the leader. 

Between the leader and the main line, a 200 pound test swivel holds everything together. 

To encourage the live bait to swim into the dark depths of certain doom, each angler clipped a 6 to 8 ounce inline sinker to the fishfinder slide.  

Since the blues were acting a little finicky, the guy’s first drops were not met with immediate success.  To slow the presentation, Ken’s crew uses a special trick.  Instead of dropping the sinker and bait straight to the bottom, they slow the descent by holding the bait at the boat, taking the reel out of gear, and dropping the sinker to the wreck 120 feet below.

Once the weight reaches the bottom, the guys release the baitfish then slowly turn the reel handle to retrieve line as the fish swims down towards the bottom.

Very sneaky. 

The trick worked and the blues responded.  One after another, the guys using live bait started to hook fish. 

Taking advantage of the feeding frenzy, I dropped my spoon into the water, careful to clear the other anglers’ line, and waited for it to hit bottom.  A few bounces off the wreck (the single hook also makes it harder to get stuck in the structure) and I started to jig the spoon back to the surface by alternating between cranking the handle and jerking the rod tip. 

After a couple turns, my spoon was attacked by a big blue.   As I jigged up, the fish pulled down, nearly ripping the rod out of my hands.  At first, the fish didn’t realize that it was hooked.   I could feel it thrashing 100 feet below.  When I applied pressure, the blue took notice, peeling off line and heading straight into the wreck.  I pulled every trick to apply more pressure – pinching the line, raising the rod tip high, even lightly thumbing the spool.  Nothing would stop the blue until it reached the jagged wreck crumbled on the bottom. 

I winced as the braided line transmitted every headshake, the butt of the rod kicking me in the gut over and over again, I could feel even the sharp edges of the wreck rubbing the line.    

Getting the fish to the surface was a long give and take battle.  Since they are near the top of the food chain, blues aren’t used to losing a fight.  When the fish saw the boat, its energies were renewed and I had to wait a while before seeing it again.

Eventually, the blue was beat.  Since we already had enough fish for the table, I reached down and grabbed the spoon, swinging the big chopper into the boat. 

The bluefish thrashed and gnashed on the deck, finally coming to a rest so I could grab it and remove the hook.  It measured over 36 inches, good enough for a release citation from the Virginia Gamefish Tournament.

Before I let it back over the side, I took a moment to admire the big, blue fish.

True to its name, the fish’s paint scheme faded from midnight blue along the spine to aqua silver on its underside. Turning it in the fall light, I noticed a pink stripe airbrushed down its side.  Beauty and the beast.

That fish went back in the water, but I knew I would see its friends again. 

Blues are Back

Since that day, bluefish have been showing up in their old haunts. 

The following spring, we ran to the edge of the Continental Shelf looking for blue line tiles and sea bass. 

When we arrived to the ground fish bottom, Ken marked something stacked up from the bottom almost to the surface, over 250 feet. 

Each of us took a guess at what it could be – sand eels, bunker, silversides.  Then, when our tiles and bass came up chomped in half, we figured out what we were marking.  A quick drop of a 250 gram vertical jig confirmed it. Big blues had invaded the deep. 

Even on the 100 fathom curve the fish were piled up in big columns. 

Later in the spring, anglers from Cape Henlopen to Cape Lookout encountered chopper blues on nearshore wrecks and reefs. 

Not only are anglers happy to see these big bluefish, but alpha predators like bluefin tuna and thresher sharks also love blues.  When you find one species, look for the other.

But it wasn’t until this spring that the resurgence of big bluefish was finally complete.  That’s when the fish returned in full force to the surf of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Monster bluefish used to be a Coastal Carolina tradition – even earning the name Hatteras blues in some circles. 

Last spring, the annual migration of surf fishermen arrived to the Outer Banks beaches in search of sea mullet and other panfish that team in the suds.  Instead, they found huge schools of slammer bluefish, too. 

Each day, local tackle shops were weighing in big bluefish that were pulled out of the surf.  Two methods were scoring the most fish – whole finger mullet or big spoons.

The whole mullet is fished on a stinger rig, which is built out of wire and features a small float and double hook set up to snare short striking bluefish.    

When the fish were schooled up and feeding aggressively, anglers would break out 9-foot casting rods spooled with 20 pound mono and armed with a 2 ounce glass minnow spoon.  A short length of No. 7 wire between the spoon and the mainline is a good idea. Use an Albright knot to connect the wire to the mainline and a haywire twist to secure it to the spoon. 

And the fish are showing in other hot-spots, too.  From New England to the Old South, bluefish are being caught in the surf, inshore, and offshore.  Once again, anglers are happy to have the blues.