These feisty, aggressive fish have gone from obscure to predictable.
By DAVID A. BROWN, Times Correspondent
Published January 19, 2008
North Suncoast anglers have the blues, and that's not a bad thing.
We're talking bluefish - those toothy chewing machines that are more of a silvery tone but nonetheless thrilling to catch.
A prized sport-fishing target for anglers along the eastern seaboard, blues have long existed in local waters. But inconsistency marred their reputation.
Blues mostly occurred as incidental catches for those seeking speckled trout, redfish or mackerel. Contrary to their aggressive nature and respectable fighting ability, these fish have been dismissed as little more than an afterthought.
Now they're making a stand. Bluefish have become not only abundant but predictable in North Suncoast waters and all along the central gulf shores.
Port Richey guide Capt. Mark Dillingham said he has noticed more blues and a lot bigger fish in recent years. A plausible theory holds that when the extreme Red Tide outbreak of 2005 devastated many coastal species, the resilient and highly mobile bluefish might have indirectly benefited.
Blues compete with trout, redfish, jacks and other predators for food sources. Remove some competition and the survivors will eat their share and more.
Considering that 2007 had one of the largest baitfish hatches in recent memory, the bluefish had plenty of opportunity.
"Our baitfish crop has been phenomenal (recently)," Dillingham said. "There's been so much bait here I think that's been influencing the size of bluefish, too."
Generally a nomadic species, blues forage across some of the same areas that produce redfish and trout during the winter. Grass flats peppered with sand holes and deep troughs, channel edges and nearshore reefs or rocks commonly hold bluefish.
"Usually, you look for a lot of baitfish," Dillingham said. "Blues group together like jacks and feed in packs, so where you find food, you'll find bluefish."
That task becomes more difficult during cooler months because the large schools of sardines common to spring and fall leave the area. Despite another mild winter, recent cold snaps have ushered the scaly chow line south.
Nevertheless, the sea provides options. Shrimp and pinfish provide winter sustenance, but Dillingham advises keeping an eye to the sky for other clues.
"Watch for birds diving on schools of glass minnows," he said. "Any time you find birds working this time of year, you're going to find bluefish."
Getting the blues
With a bucket of shrimp or pinfish and a rod rigged with a float and a 2/0 hook, you're ready to catch bluefish. But you needn't bother with live bait.
"The easiest thing to catch blues on is an artificial lure," Dillingham said. "You can throw pretty much anything in front of them and they'll eat it."
Scented shrimp baits are an easy sell, especially during winter's leanness. Soft plastic jerk baits, along with grubs and shad tails rigged on 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigheads work well.
Blues are mainly sight feeders, so Dillingham prefers bright colors such as gold flake and chartreuse for his artificials. Gold or silver spoons fit this bill.
Medium-action spinning outfits with 10-pound braided line and 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders used for trout and redfish will put the brakes on most blues.
If feisty blues keep biting off rigs, you'll need to tie on about 12 inches of No. 3 wire.
Similar to their mackerel relatives, bluefish yield edible but oily meat that's a little on the gamey side.
Most anglers opt for catch and release, but use needle-nose pliers or a long-handled hook remover to keep your fingers clear of those sharp teeth.
That hazard aside, bluefish seldom fail to impress anyone who gives them the chance. Although once considered a nuisance, this sporty opportunist has earned its spot on the roster of North Suncoast fishing targets.