Bluefish Techniques for Inshore Spring Migrations
You sweep across the Highlands Bridge over the Shrewsbury River, look left, and see the place I marked in my mind when my son, his uncle Jim, and I fished close to the bridge in May, 2008. Two years later I returned to try again, but I found construction vehicles in association with the building of the new span where I had parked, the lot barred to any recreational use. More than a few hundred yards to the north, my focus went to that large tongue of sand, a rounded point extending into the widened mouth of the river where it becomes Sandy Hook Bay. I had no idea if deep water came within casting range, but I decided we would try it.
It would cut critically into the little time we had to fish that afternoon if the spot proved useless.
I had to walk a fairly long way. I came around some brush to see a number of fishermen, one with a bent rod.
The Raritan Migration
It’s happened in recent years within the third week of April, even earlier this year. Days after the first bluefish get caught they come in droves, devouring adult Atlantic menhaden (bunker), moving in huge schools throughout Raritan Bay and up into the Shrewsbury River. Boats rove as binocular lenses scan for birds, but the number of spots to catch blues from shore I’m sure has never been counted. The first time I fished near the bridge, I figured the deep water and strong current cutting close held fish, and the relatively narrow span of river neck gave me the impression they squeezed through, concentrated. I had been disappointed when I found the parking area closed the second time. This time redemption was only that longer walk away, but you can’t tell until you get there. And sometimes it takes several visits or more.
The blues coming onto the beach as I rigged up seemed to average about seven pounds. I felt a deep appreciation for the structure I had discovered for ourselves. It seems the tongue is formed by years of the Shrewsbury’s emptying into the bay, and the bay’s gushing back into the river. Deep water cuts close with strong current; consistently good-size bluefish stack within casting distance from late April into mid-June.
Bunker for the Bottom
I’ve seen purists here cast metals with meticulous vanity, closely monitoring varieties of retrieves to no real purpose but the chance that a blue would hit, which I never saw happen as the rest of us caught blues by the dozen on bunker chunks. Most of us would rather get our arms sore than dream of a presumably ideal hooked fish that just isn’t going to hit, given the conditions. The water of marginal bluefish temperature near the first of May was either too cold for the blues to chase these lures, or the purist did not fish his artificials deep enough. Perhaps a bucktail hopped off the bottom would have worked, but I think at any depth the metals were too much flash for the environment at such a low temperature.
No doubt should hinder the use of bunker for blues. It has qualities no lure can reproduce. Success with bunker chunks is a function of drift with deep moving current. As a rule, whether you choose lures or bait, be there two hours before the top of high tide. Start fishing well before that time if you can for a good incoming tidal flow. To try and hold bottom with a pyramid, Hatteras, or frog mouth sinker may be of value for vegetarians interested in sea lettuce, but for bluefish you need to ride the current in spots where current is the case.
Rig a two or three-ounce bank sinker on a slider clip; and simply tie on a 30-pound test, 18-inch length of wire leader, snap on a strong stainless steel 7/0 Mustad Aberdeen hook. I recommend at least 30-pound test Power Pro braid—it will cast like 10-pound test mono. Don’t tie braid with the clinch knot you may use for mono; you may as well have tied a slip knot, considering the pull bluefish muster and the different quality of material requiring different knots. Use the uni-knot demonstrated in the literature with the product package. If you go lighter than 30-pound test, remember that with a crowd around it may be a good idea to get fish in reasonably quick. Even with 30-pound test, these blues, most of them over seven pounds, do not yield easily. The 18-inch length of wire leader will give you something to grip when beaching a fish—never grip braid with bare hands when a powerful bluefish can lunge and turn! Braid tends to treat flesh the way a knife treats butter.
Cast at about a 45-degree angle up current, and keep a tight line. As the sinker and bait swing out in front of you, you’ll have begun to feel the weight clip bottom. The hit usually comes from between straight in front of you to at an angle possibly greater than 45-degrees down current. Let the blue chomp a couple of times—when the fish tightens the line, set the hook.
No doubt, a solid hit on an artificial is powerful. The seasoned regulars prefer teeth on metal. And at times metals out-produce. But bunker puts you subtly in touch with bluefish—the way they take at once tentatively, yet firmly—in a way that no artificial can.
I went through a long phase when I tended to disdain bait for any kind of fishing. I’m not a cynic who thinks lures are just the result of marketing persuasions for the suckers who go along; I respect an angler’s desire to catch fish on humanly made objects and feel the same. I also bet the Egyptians did too in some form or another 5000 years ago. But live bait is—alive! Fresh bunker is close to it. A huge reason to be outdoors is to be close to given nature.
Lures for Fast Action
As the water temperature moves well into the 50s, the fastest action in the Raritan Bay region becomes possible with metals, bucktails, swimming plugs and poppers. I’ve never seen the blues go on a surface blitz at the tongue, nor have I seen anyone even try a popper or other surface lure here. Metals are most popular; bucktails and swimming plugs also work. It’s possible to use a fluorocarbon leader with lures, since blues usually strike at the rear. Plastic tubing or bucktail on a metal’s hook is good for assuring such strikes.
None of these lures directly imitate the abundant adult bunkers that blues tear in two and drop as scraps, often for stripers to suck in below. But spearing and sand eels inhabit these waters in the spring, although a three-ounce, wide-bodied Hopkins may more suggest a full grown bunker than either of these other baitfish, the Hammer Lure, by Gibbs, mimics a sand eel and casts a mile since it is long and compact. Deadly Dicks are great sand eel imitations. Stingsilvers imitate sand eels or spearing. Large Krocodile spoons resemble the peanut bunker of the fall season, but nonetheless they catch blues in spring. Krocodiles give a fisherman the option of a slower retrieve and may work especially well when the water is on the colder side as do swimming plugs, and bucktails worked from the bottom. Sea lettuce may collect on bucktails occasionally. But the powerful current tends to sweep the jig along at the same rate the vegetation travels so that the green stuff doesn’t mass on it from a contrary angle and accumulative speed.
Standard Bomber swimming plugs will work, as will metals retrieved at a fast clip from the moment they splash into the chop or calm when bluefish are high in the water column. But it’s generally a good idea to let metals sink, and to try swimming plugs like the Bomber A-Salt HD Minnow, deep diving Yo Zuri Crystal Minnow, and the JLV Lure diving Wiggle Minnow—all these, and more styles like them, have diving lips. So long as these plugs do not run so deep as to hang in sea lettuce they will produce, but sea lettuce can be prohibitive for fishing lures deep.
Another reason to drift bunker.
The general rule for bluefish on lures is a fast retrieve. When water is on the warm side, the larger Hopkins and Kastmasters cast great and maintain some depth if allowed to sink before retrieved quickly. When bluefish are actively feeding, they’ll hit just about anything that moves, and a straight retrieve works. But experimenting with jerks and sweeps of the rod, pauses and dips, doesn’t hurt when the bay isn’t turning red with bunker blood.
Make the day interesting by trying different approaches when the bite is stubborn. Bucktails hopped off the bottom, swimming plugs paused and ripped, and a range of the highest merits for blues supposedly—metals—fished top to bottom, fast and slower, steady and broken, may all lead to clues that make lures magical for the specific results they produce.
Some instances will be unique. And such instances may include some of our most poignant angling memories. But patterns emerge over time while fishing. The more lures and methods used consciously, the more opportunity for knowledge and success.
It teaches you more than just about fishing too.