August 4, 2013

Allen Afield: Making you blue or ever so happy, those bluefish

By Ken Allen

In the 1980s, bluefishing proved world class in Johns Bay off Pemaquid. How well I recall those halcyon days of sometimes nonstop action with pugnacious fish that averaged 9 to 10 pounds.

One morning, fishing with Harry Vanderweide of Augusta, I caught an 18-pound-plus bluefish. I was into Atlantic salmon then, so it didn't impress me enough to remember the number of ounces beyond 18 pounds.

Besides, the world-record bluefish tipped the scales at 31 pounds, 12 ounces and goes back to 1972, now a 41-year-old record. But an 18-pounder would excite most serious bluefish anglers. This fish normally weighs 1 to 12 pounds, but a 20-pounder is common enough.

When anglers first land a bluefish, the steel-blue top fading to a silver white below the dorsal line smacks of a certain aesthetic difficult to deny. It's a pretty species, all right.

Small bluefish (choppers) inhabit bays, estuaries, shorelines and open ocean. Larger blues prefer deep water farther offshore, but the big boys follow bait to where surf laps sand and ledges, and tidal rivers flow.

Bluefish, an outstanding pugilist, jump like Atlantic salmon, impressive when fish weigh in the double-digit range. The species also makes long, tenacious runs that may put a striped bass to shame. In short, bluefish have everything and more to recommend them.

If iced promptly, bluefish make adequate table fare, and in fact, 25 years ago at Slates restaurant in Hallowell, nothing on the menu appealed to me except bluefish, an unexciting option. But a skilled chef turned this fish into a memorable gourmet dish that created a lifelong memory.

Many bluefish anglers smoke this oily fish and love its eating quality. I, too, like smoked bluefish as an appetizer.

Bluefish range from Nova Scotia to south Florida, but in Maine bluefish run much smaller above Penobscot Bay, according to writer Tom Seymour of Waldo. Exceptions exist. In the 1980s, Johns Bay was a Maine bluefish mecca for folks such as myself.

I chose a 9-weight, 9-foot fly rod and shooting lead-core head for casting Lefty's Deceivers, usually red-and-white or yellow-and bright green, including chartreuse for the green.

In the early days I had a heck of a time getting bluefish to strike a fly, but a two-handed retrieve sped the fly up enough to entice strikes. I cast right-handed, so I tucked the rod handle under my left armpit and retrieved the line with two hands that moved so fast that they were a blur, making long casts good for covering lots of water for long retrieves.

When a bluefish hits a fly on a two-handed retrieve, the shock of the strike rocks the caster to the heels -- high excitement.

Spinning and bait-casting gear with hardware such as stickbaits, spoons, Slug-gos and Mepps-styled spinners work fine. For Maine spin fishing, I really like stickbaits that imitate a mackerel or pogie.

Bluefish have sharp teeth so folks choose steel leaders, but with flies and other lures, I think heavy mono shock tippets like tarpon leaders generate more strikes, a point I wouldn't debate. The heavy tippet goes in front of a much lighter tippet to make the match between angler and fish more exciting.

I get by with a 40-pound mono tippet, which allows the lure or fly to ride better. A 60-pound choice adds insurance against sharp teeth. Folks may lose a fly or lure with a 40-pound tippet, but anglers go years without losing a bluefish on a 40-pound tippet, unless the fight lasts long.

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