Cocktail Explosions: Topwater Plugs for River Blues
In the Mako skiff, we headed down Manasquan River to a combination of two types of flats. My brother, Rick, and my nephew, Kyle, had been catching upwards of 100 cocktail blues in two-and-a-half-hour outings. The water reflected sun like a mirror, just right for topwaters in the three to 10 foot depths with tide in motion. We located the spot upriver, the water much warmer than the ocean in early June whether tide comes in or goes out, and Rick cut the engine to let the boat drift. Into the blues from our first casts, between the four of us we caught well over a hundred in little over two hours, missing four or five times as many hits. The cocktails typically knock the plugs into the air rather than get hooked. It’s all a blast of fun.
Blues from one to four pounds invade the inlets up and down the New Jersey coast early in May and stay well into June. It may be tricky to find a specific area these fish inhabit year after year, but once you know where to go, chances are you can rely on them later. In the Manasquan River, Rick fishes flats that range from three to 10 feet deep holding a great presence of cider worms. Blues fill their gullets eating these two-inch worms that seem to be the key to attracting schools of cocktails with some four-pound fish occasionally showing. But the combination of very shallow flats of three to five feet with deeper water of eight to 10 feet seems important.
Cider worms seem to flourish especially in these shallower areas and some get swept into the depths with other forage by tidal currents. The deeper waters serve as more suitable holding areas for the hundreds of blues, but these fish will raid the shallow flats on a moving tide. Another consideration involves a shallow flat as a different environment than a deeper flat, so one in combination with the other nearby implies a relationship. Whatever it is about the two together, besides cider worms, bluefish may be abundant.
Avoid fishing the bottom or the top of the tide. When currents slack, so does the action. When tide flows, try the shallows and also fish right on top of 10-foot depths. If you get interest from fish, stick with it until the action dies. If not, motor off a hundred yards or so and try another stretch. The blues move in packs as if a dozen or more schools inhabit an area of a quarter square mile or so.
Early in May, the water remains on the chilly side and blues hit metals and soft plastic/jig combinations. They begin to hit on the surface towards the end of the month. Year after year, Rick has terrific action on some outings with strikes coming on virtually every cast in the same range of river he’s fished over the years, but on occasion the fun is in persisting for fewer fish.
Heavy chop on the water disrupts topwater plugs’ effectiveness; isolated commotion on calm surface by a plug provokes interest from any blue nearby and sometimes two or more will compete to get it first. Blues hit erratically and usually fail to get hooked, although a single blue will take as many as half a dozen passes and chomps at a plug before getting hooked or losing interest. With chop on the water, they tend to miss the plug even more. A light chop may not hinder action much, but don’t bother in a real blow.
Rather than make a mess with treble hooks, Rick insists we all use his plugs with trebles removed and a single 3/0 or 4/0 long shank Mustad steel hook at the rear replacing them. He removes the barb to allow for easy release and this reduces the chance of injuring fish. Rather than bringing blues that tend to bleed easily over the gunnel with the likelihood of making a mess of the boat, we unhook the fish swiftly at boatside.
Rick prefers Atoms but claims that any topwater will work. Atoms, however, are meant to be retrieved quickly. They actually sink. A high-floating plug more likely gets knocked out of the water skyward by a bliuefish. In any event, this is not slow, cadenced teasing of strikes the way you can wax poetic when fishing largemouth bass. Just pop the surface by steady retrieves and when a blue strikes, don’t pull the plug away from the fish. Give pause before setting the hook. You will miss most, but the fun includes trying to beat some of the odds against missed fish.
Light spinning or light baitcasting gear is not the only way. Rick has used his fly rod and says that Deceivers bring the best action. During the week when boat traffic is at a minimum, the morning sun is warming, and the surface is still, what better way than fly casting from the bow?
These blues are tasty. Perfect size for the table. When I fish with Rick I insist on taking some home and on cleaning his fish hold back at the marina.