If the American shad that run up the Connecticut River each spring merit the sobriquet “the poor man’s salmon,” a case could be made that the bluefish which blitz the shores of Coastal Connecticut from spring to fall are his saltwater game fish. No other sport fish in our waters is more abundant and requires less angling know-how and gear to catch, while putting up an unmatched fight when hooked. It is a big-time sport fish for everyman, catchable by any duffer who can dunk a piece of meat at the end of a line attached to a cheap rod and reel. You don’t need a boat, either, because blues are regularly caught from state fishing piers in Old Lyme and New London, the jetties at Hammonasset and Rocky Neck state parks, and myriad other spots along the shore. The bluefish also makes it easy for anglers because it is most active by day, whereas the biggest striped bass are often caught after dark.
Its name notwithstanding, the bluefish is actually a nondescript color: sea-green above and a dull silver on its flanks and belly. When adult, it is stout of body, with a large mouth and a lower jaw that juts out pugnaciously, as befits its fighting behavior.
The bluefish is many fish in one. Around this part of the summer, harbors and tidal creeks are visited by hordes of snapper blues, young of the year roughly four to six inches long. They can provide non-stop fun on the lightest of tackle, perfect for kids. Blues grow fast, reaching sexual maturity and 15 to 20 inches in length in two years, when they offer the angler a fight that is thrilling but not exhausting. Adult blues, ranging mostly from 10 to 20 pounds, are another story. Landing a big one is a workout, leaving even strong men with aching arms. A big plus is that if you catch one blue, you probably will hook into others because they travel in schools of similarly-sized individuals. Many schools are of immense size, some miles long and covering an expanse equal to 10,000 football fields.
The import of bluefish to our region is such that Clinton, which just celebrated its 40th annual Bluefish Festival, inspired coast-wide envy when in 1973 it persuaded then-governor Ella Grasso to declare the town “Bluefish Capitol of the World.” A promotional coup, the proclamation might be considered particularly audacious, given that bluefish range seas literally around the globe. Indeed, not to impugn the quality of blues that cruise off Clinton, waters off Africa are reputed to have the biggest any- where. There are undocumented tales of 40-pound bluefish off Africa, but the world record, kept by the International Game Fish Association, is 31 pounds 12 ounces, taken off Hatteras, North Carolina. That the record has stood since 1972 suggests few bluefish get much bigger.
Good thing, too, because if they did grow larger they would be right up there with the great white shark as among the scariest fish in the sea. Their nickname of “choppers” describes the way bluefish chew their way with their conical, razor-sharp teeth through baitfish. Like living torpedoes, they careen through the water, mangling, slashing and ripping their prey to bits. Their teeth easily shear through flesh, enabling them to eat fish much larger than they could swallow whole. Hereabouts, they commonly chow down on squid, menhaden, silversides, sand eels but they will gobble up just about any other marine creature they can handle.
The voracious appetite of bluefish led to a reputation for gluttony. Even fisheries experts once suggested that blues regurgitate so they can feed after stuffing themselves. Bluefish, wrote George Brown Goode, famed 19th-Century ichthyologist, “not content with what they eat, which is itself of enormous quantity, rush ravenously through the closely crowded schools, cutting and tearing the living fish as they go, and leaving in their wake the mangled fragments.”
Feeding behavior of bluefish may look savage, but they are no more gluttonous than any other hungry fish. However, experiments several years ago at the Sandy Hook (New Jersey) Marine Laboratory of the National Marine Fisheries Services showed that once satiated by smaller prey, bluefish will resume feeding if they see prey of larger size.
The panorama of a large school of blues feeding at the surface can be spectacular. Their sleek, shiny forms boil the water as they hit the baitfish, leaving in their wake fragments of bloody flesh that gulls and terns snatch from the water. Experts have long speculated about what would happen to a person who fell overboard into a feeding frenzy of bluefish. Firstly, since bluefish prey on small fish and invertebrates, nothing in their repertoire of feeding behavior triggers an attack on a creature as large as a human. Indeed, a human falling into the sea might set off a flight response rather than feeding behavior. The predators of bluefish are large fish, specially tuna, billfish and certain sharks, among the only predators fast enough to catch blues, which are a definite staple for the shortfin mako shark. Not to say that if one falls into a school of feeding blues he will emerge unscathed. Bathers have been bitten by blues driving fish into the shallows. Several children required medical attention when an episode of this type happened a number of years ago at Hammonasset.
The person most likely to be bitten by a bluefish is the unwary angler who has just landed one. I have helped wrestle sharks out of the water and on to the deck while on collecting trips with public aquariums and, although I had one close call, was never bitten. The wound I suffered when I placed my hand too near a bluefish on the deck of my boat off Westbrook some years ago took months to heal. Last summer, while fishing on a dock in Clinton, my seven-year-old grandson carried on the fam- ily tradition of carelessness when he poked a six-inch snapper bluefish and was nailed on his finger, right and proper. His yowls may have been heard in Hartford.
Bluefish live in temperate and tropical coastal oceans around the world, except in the eastern Pacific, with tempera- tures no lower than 58 degrees to 60 degrees F. Along the U.S. Atlantic coast, bluefish range from Maine to North Carolina. When October cools the waters, the fish move south, with larger individuals reaching North Carolina and smaller fish further south. As spring warms the seas, bluefish begin migrating north, following the 60-degree boundary as it advances toward New England. By May, they are beginning to enter Long Island Sound.
After hatching, larvae are at the mercy of currents in the surface waters of the continental shelf. If prevalent currents sweep larvae offshore, many starve. If shoreward, they thrive in estuaries and produce the season’s snapper blues. August through October is prime-time fishing for blues, with big fish swirling past the beaches.
Although bluefish support a commercial fishery along the Atlantic Coast with an annual value of about $3 million, the species is primarily a game fish. Anglers account for almost 70 percent of the total annual catch by weight, typically landing about 5 million pounds. There is no denying the importance of bluefish to the recreational fishing industry, which in Connecticut, amounts to marine anglers typically spending about $126 million a year.
“Bluefish account for about 25 percent of my business,” says Jack Katzenbach, owner of Jack’s Shoreline Bait & Tackle in Westbrook. That said, many an experienced angler who has been weaned on bluefish now avoids them unless they are the only game in town. Frank Kiernan of Madison, a long-time sports angler, is one such. Years ago, he says, he sought out bluefish for their fight. Now he prefers to go for other quarry, including striped bass, fluke and black sea bass. “Nowadays I fish to avoid bluefish,” says Kiernan. Once blues swarm, other fish are likely to scatter. Moreover, bluefish cut lines and grab bait intended for other fish.
One reason for avoiding bluefish is culinary. Compared to the light, white flesh of fluke, sea bass and stripers, the oily meat of a bluefish is, to put it politely, “strong.” Too strong for many palates, even if the fish is bled and iced immediately upon landing. Some people claim that marinating in milk, vinegar or lemon juice makes bluefish just dandy but odds are they are in the minority. Bluefish must be eaten quickly because its flesh rapidly turns to mush and it does not keep well when frozen. There is one way to prepare bluefish that does score high with foodies and that is when it is properly smoked.
Kiernan once tried an alternative use for bluefish. He buried some in his backyard. During the night, he said, some sort of critter—or critters—sniffed out the fish, even though well interred. In the morning, Kiernan says, he found a hole where the fish had been buried, which he swears was large enough to hold an office desk.
August begins prime-time fishing for blues, with snappers lasting through September and monster adults congregating before the migrating south. Through October, into November if the weather holds, the fishing can be magnificent, especially from the beach.
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