How to Catch Big
Catch big bluefish in
northeast shallow waters in spring.
The usual striper haunts had not produced, and I
was about to pull the plug on our May morning
outing when I noticed a ripple outside the
channel. I put the trolling motor in gear and
headed over for a closer look. Once in the
neighborhood, I jumped up on the poling platform
and couldn't believe my eyes; a half-dozen
enormous bluefish cruised right before us in
single file. Without any prompting, my charter
client shot a topwater lure in their direction.
One pop and kaboom!
Line screamed off the reel as a big chopper
bluefish shot out of the water, shaking
violently with gill plates flared. Meanwhile, a
second procession appeared to the east, and then
another, both packs so shallow that the dorsals
of the mammoth blues broke the surface as they
For the next two hours we chased them around the
flats, catching a few more and enjoying their
drag-burning runs and extraordinary acrobatics
before finally calling it a day. From New York
to Massachusetts, this scene plays out more and
more during spring. Fishing for bluefish can be
a blast, and springtime is often the best time
to catch bluefish. Large bluefish show up on the
flats sooner than striped bass and in greater
numbers, offering anglers a spectacular early
fishery, sometimes in water so shallow that my
flats skiff can't always follow.
Generally, bluefish are ravenous creatures that
eat anything and everything you throw at them.
During those times, there's not really a best
bait for bluefish because they all seem to work.
But when they get up on the flats in the spring,
not only are they skittish and difficult to
approach, but they also don't seem to be
“You rarely see them chasing bait,” notes So much so that anglers in New England
call them “racers” because they just seem to
race in from the south without eating. “And they
act weird. They come in strings and daisy
chains,” says Capt. David Blinken, a flats
fishing guide in East Hampton, New York. “In the
spring, they follow each other tail to nose in
groups of six to 15. For unexplainable reasons,
some break off and daisy-chain like tarpon.”
I’ve had guys throw perfect casts with the best lures
for bluefish, then bring them right back across the
fish’s path only to have them swim by without so much as
a close look.
Every New England and mid-Atlantic guide I spoke with
seems to think such behavior is related to spawning.
That’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s not entirely
correct. According to Dr. David Conover of the Marine
Sciences Research Center at State, University of New
York (SUNY), there’s consensus that bluefish spawn
offshore and usually not until July. But Dr. Thomas
Grothues at Rutgers University says the
follow-the-leader patterns bluefish exhibit are indeed
classic spawning behavior. “When a female bluefish
begins to develop eggs, adult males sense this and
follow her,” he explains. So it could be a pre-spawning
social behavior or, more simply put, flirting.
Motor up to these fish and you will certainly spook
them. There really are only four options: You can hire a
skiff guide to pole you to the fish. You can also stake
out or motor up to the flat, drop anchor, and then wait
for cruising fish to come to you. Unfortunately, they
often don't come to you. The third option is to get
within reach of the fish with an electric trolling
motor, although that doesn't always work.
“Sometimes, particularly when there’s no wind, a
trolling motor spooks them, Last, you can
get out of the boat and wade. You lack the high vantage
point, but when the blues are so shallow, and they are finning and pushing wakes, that matters little. Wading
is the least intrusive approach, and it’s a lot of fun
to stalk fish this way.
“This isn’t a match-the-hatch situation because there is
no hatch. Sure, there’s usually bait up
on the flats, but it’s pretty clear that the bluefish
aren’t interested. Nevertheless, these fish will strike
“What you really have to do is anticipate where they are
going to be, Then cast in front of them and bring
the lure right across their noses.” Still, in many
cases, the fish ignore everything. “I’ve had guys throw
perfect casts with plugs, soft plastics and flies, and
bring them right across the fish’s path only to have
them swim by without as much as a close look.” There’s
one lure no bluefish can resist though: a popper. Even
when they aren’t eating, a good noisy popper angers a
bluefish enough to want to punish the lure. Poppers are
great lures for bluefish and get their attention.
Usually, at least one fish will break ranks, beeline for
whatever that thing making all that noise in the water
is, and smash it.
Almost any lure that creates surface commotion draws the
attention of bluefish. But there’s a caveat: Sometimes
the plug landing in the water is enough to spook them.
“I’ve seen it a million times, Twelve fish
in a pack darting off in every direction as soon as a
plug hits the water.” While the intent is to create a
commotion, there’s a fine line between the right action
on the surface and careless casting. The favored
strategy is to cast the popper a safe distance away from
the fish and reel it into position — ahead of their path
— before imparting proper action to the artificial.
It’s best to use smaller lures that land more quietly
but still make a lot of noise once in the water. The
Guides Secret Baby Bottle Pop is my top choice. It’s
only 3½ inches long but is relatively heavy, so it casts
well on light spinning gear. The Gag’s Grabber Schoolie
Popper works also, but you don’t get the range. And I
love the 6-inch Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper.
When worked correctly, bluefish can’t resist it. But
because the Cotten Cordell poppers are pretty big, you
don’t want to use them on calm days when the fish are
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