Summertime Blues

by Wayne Heinze

A writer stands on the shoulders or in the shadows, of others who have taken pen to paper to express their beliefs, suspicions and passion about the subject being tackled. My subject matter is the bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix. The bluefish is a saltwater fish species with worldwide distribution, renown, esteem, and few relatives, extant in fact. Sport fishing for bluefish, which are commonly referred to simply as blues, has been chronicled by many from the astutely practical, but lyrical Hal Lyman, co-founder of Saltwater Sportsman magazine and author of a brilliant volume called Bluefishing, to the more esoteric tome John Hersey (A Bell For Adano, et al) wrote entitled Blues. Even when just stating my point of view, this writer has been well served by the joy, passion and technical expertise those angler/authors infused in me to begin and continue my pursuit of blues and the different things that means.

On our eastern seaboard, especially along the New Jersey shore, my home waters, bluefish are a fish of summer. Certainly, and especially quite recently, the spring months have provided an excellent fishery. And the bluefish, along with striped bass, provide exciting opportunities for fall fishing, especially for larger specimens. The autumn fishing from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras can be legendary. But it can also be fleeting, due to the fluctuating nature of the baitfish (mullet, menhaden, etc.) migrations that are the trigger to the bluefish and striper migrations as well as unsettled weather patterns in the form of nor’easters that ravage the coast and fishing in the fall. But ah, the sweet, sweet summertime, and the resident bluefish. That is what I think about when I think of fishing for blues.

One of the things that I love about summertime blues is that they are an “equal opportunity” employer of the angler’s pursuit time. You can chase 18 to 20 plus pound blues nearshore and offshore in the ocean, individuals ranging half that size in the ocean surf, and tons of fun schools of half pounders in the bays. And you inevitably get enough of the big guys inside to keep things real interesting in the bays. And in larger estuaries like Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and Long Island Sound, the chance of encountering a school of teen sized blues is as likely as along the offshore banks and ridges.

In summer, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, surf line and offshore banks and shoals along the East Coast, offer bluefish as a targeted species and as part of the magical mixed bag fishery that exists in the salt chuck. And my impressions and love of the bluefish are drawn from each aspect of this interaction. And from another: bluefish appeal to all five of our sensory preceptors. Of all the fish I seek to catch, perhaps none engages all,five of my senses as completely as does the bluefish. To me that is part of my attraction to this fish. The distinct and varied environments it inhabits, and the way those environments and the fish itself have imprinted upon my senses in my summers along the shore.

It is not exactly a clique, but the snapper blues of summer are often a first catch for a youngster visiting the shore during late summers when the smaller (but tastier) blues are schooling in the back bays. During their depredations on schools of silvery baitfish, who dapple the water like raindrops, only to disappear in a flash of metallic silver and blue as they are severed in two, the blues are easy targets for small metals, spearing fished under floats and almost freshwater size gear. And as the tides and days go by, the size of the fish in the schools can increase to run in 12 to 14 inch specimens, or larger, all perfect replicas of the big offshore “gorillas” (as larger blues are often referred to) and putting a bit more bend in the youngster’s and oldsters rod. Yep, even though our first bonding with blues is often in our childhood, the fun imprinted in the activity draws many, myself included, back as adults and seniors to engage in pursuit of this fish.

I mentioned how bluefish engage all my senses while angling for them. Of course the sights sounds and smells of their varied environments are a large part of this. There is the hiss of the tides and smell of tidal flats in the estuaries, and the wading birds and ospreys fishing as you are and the waterfowl riding the currents. The sound and fury of a rising surf, and the pull of the backwash on your legs as you stand waist deep in the suds. The clatter of displaced surf clams in the wash, and your nostrils inhaling the salty mist thrown skyward by the to crashing waves, accompany the calls of the gulls, and the scampering of sandpipers. And offshore the smell of the oil slick created by blues feeding on menhaden or mackerel, the frenzied diving and screams of seabirds feeding on the offal, and the timeless swells of the endless Atlantic often yielding’ such bonus’ as bottlenose dolphin, whales or enormous sea turtles. And at night, when much quality summertime bluefishing occurs, schools of squid attracted by the boat’s lights, sharks as big as a station wagon cruising by, and shooting stars, especially during the Persied meteor showers each August. And one summer’s night nearly half a century ago, I stood along the rail of a head boat on Barnegat Ridge working a diamond jig in sixty feet of water. I looked up at the moon, realizing that it was the first time I ever saw the moon like that. A moon man had first set foot on it earlier that same day. It is not known how many other people gazed skyward that night experiencing the feelings of hope and awe that I did, but what is known is that I did so in the context of bluefishing. Fishing on the Sea of Tranquility in a manner of speaking.

And then you add the fresh cut melon smell scent of a just caught bluefish, or the scent that often accompanies the ravaging schools and wafts along from the wavelets or swells to your olfactory glands. This was first inhaled over a school of snapper bluefish by many of us in our youth. And as the sense of smell is generally regarded as our most nostalgic, the blues have thusly set the hook in us as well, at an early age. And as a thrashing bluefish is held down for hook removal, you notice the world class teeth, titanium like head, and sleek muscled fusiform shape. Not only notice, but feel, bringing in to play yet another sense, that of touch. No fish has the feel in your hands that a fresh caught blue has. The scent of a blue, the feel of the fish in your hands, and even on your line, enhances the romance of the senses that this fish engenders. Sight, sound, feel, and smell, summertime bluefishing engages them fully.

Many of us employ the use of the fifth sense, that of taste. Bluefish are eaten from snapper size to twenty pounders, taste preferences, preparation and economics driving this cuisine at times. And whether it is Bluefish Italiano, fried snappers, or fillets on the grill, the first bite of bluefish smells like melon in your mind, reveals itself beneath the oily epicurean savor, recalls the feel of the wind and spray, the sound of the birds and crashing surf. And you hear the snap of the bluefish’s jaw as your own mandibles close on your feast. Taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch. They can be present to varying degrees in your memory of any fish I suppose. But for me, nothing engages the entire spectrum so fully as that singular animal, the bluefish, in that singular season, the summertime.