Nature Notes: Aggressive bluefish not biting no cause for alarm locally

Few gamefish excite fishermen like bluefish.

Hook them and you’ll understand why.

First, your rod will bend violently, several times. Then your fishing line will begin to “sing,” as it pays out, one of those great sounds in sportfishing, telegraphing to you that you’ve got a serious fish on the line, and you’d better start reeling it in.

“It’s the fight. It’s the teeth,” said Mike Wade, owner of Watch Hill Outfitters of Westerly, explaining what makes blue fishing so exciting.

And when bluefish are on the surface, like they are now, belatedly this season, in a feeding frenzy, called a “blitz,” Wade said, “They tend to be exceptionally easy to catch,” and will bite almost anything in your tacklebox.

But novice blue fishermen beware!

These apex predators have teeth, wicked teeth, that not only slash through vast schools of menhaden, their favorite food, but sever fishing lines, too.

“They’re called tackle-busters,” said Harrison Gatch, one of Wade’s assistants. “You have to use wire leaders, not monofilament ones. They’ll bite through those.”

Author Chris Lido in “The Fisherman,” an online magazine, also reminds us of the bluefish’s strength, a fish that can grow to 42 inches long and weigh 31 pounds.

“Twenty-pound test fishing line is a bare minimum, when chasing these legendary choppers,” Lido said.

Why are bluefish so combative and aggressive?

“Bluefish are like a race car, redlining at 8,000 RPMs all the time,” said Justin Davis, assistant director of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Fisheries Division. “They have an incredibly high metabolism.”

Davis said bluefish, Pomotomus saltatrix, have two other unique qualities: They are the only living species in the family Pomatomidae — Pompano fish are their closest allies— and they spawn year-round.

“What’s really interesting is that bluefish don’t just spawn at one particular time of year,” Davis said.

“There are different “cohorts,” or discrete groups of bluefish within the coastal population that spawn in the spring, summer and fall,” Davis said, adding “The fall cohort was only recently discovered.”

When asked why blue fishing has been slow this year, Davis said, “There’s something going on with the stock. I don’t think we fully know yet.”

Mike Wade agrees with Davis but suggests a different viewpoint. “There’s something stopping bluefish from coming into shore.” He believes the commercial draggers are part of the problem.

“Bluefish are a commercially caught fish, and to them, it’s weight, not size (of the fish) that matters,” he said.

Wade is referring to harvest limits set (in pounds) by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an organization founded in 1940 that coordinates the conservation and management of 27 nearshore fish species, like fluke, black seabass, stripers and bluefish.

In 2018, for example, ASMFC set a total commercial quota of 7.24 million pounds for bluefish, from Maine to Florida, and a recreational harvest limit (what individuals take home) at 11.58 million pounds.

But in fairness, those numbers have fluctuated. Commercial landings, for example, decreased from 16.5 million pounds in 1981 to 7.3 million pounds in 1999, and have since then averaged about 6.45 million pounds, according to ASMFC.

Also, it’s worth noting that blue fishing is largely a recreational sport, and 80 percent of the total annual harvest of bluefish comes from individuals like you and me.

But Wade still has a good point. “There’s no size limit to bluefish, and I think there should be.”

His solution: Set a minimum bluefish size limit of six inches. “It would stop the big guys (commercial draggers) from sweeping up the fry. That’s my opinion.”

That begs the question: Have we overfished the bluefish stock?

“The stock is declining a bit, but that’s not cause for alarm,” Davis said, “because fish populations change.”

“Bluefish have been known to do strange things. In the 1930s, they disappeared from the coast inexplicably, probably moving far offshore,” Davis said

“Overall, bluefish are in good shape,” he said.

Bill Hobbs is a resident of Stonington and a lifelong wildlife enthusiast. For comments he can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com.

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