It’s funny how, as we get older, snippets of memories from years ago surface at odd times. I experienced one of those moments recently.

I was standing on a barrier island beach as the sun made its appearance above the waves forming in the distance and gulls swooped over the foaming surf, diving to snatch small prey from the busy shallows. Every so often I would spot a splash

just beyond the breakers, a sign of larger fish slashing among the schools of finger mullet that were making their way south following the Fall Equinox.

For a brief few moments I was transported back to a similar time and place, this one a little farther north. It was while I was in college so it must have been in the early 70s. That day, instead of occasional splashes in the surf, large expanses of the water churned violently as if being roiled by a washing machine. The waves that rolled onto the beach had red streaks and speckled trout, some missing portions of their bodies, floated in the shallows. A few lucky ones, or so they may have

thought, splashed in the ankle-deep water until human predators grabbed them and dumped them into buckets, bags or whatever else they had at hand. What I observed that day was a large school of bluefish feeding on trout as they migrated

down the coast in the fall.

To some fishermen, the bluefish is the epitome of a saltwater gamefish. It gets large enough to present a challenge on nearly any tackle and battles like a prize fighter; is plentiful in this area during most of the year especially in the fall; is a

voracious feeder who will often strike anything that remotely resembles food; and can be converted into a delicious seafood dinner with minimum effort. From Cape Fear to Currituck, from downtown Beaufort to the Big Rock, bluefish provide sport

and sustenance for anglers young and old.

The only member of its ichthyological family, “Pomatomidae,” the bluefish resembles a pompano with its two dorsal fins and one anal fin. Its name comes from its blue-green color, but it could just as accurately be called the “bulldog fish”

for the way it’s built, or the “buzz saw fish” for its vicious feeding habits.

Blues are uniquely constructed for mayhem. They have heads that make up nearly a third of their length and powerful jaws full of razor-sharp teeth that can sever a nylon fishing line just as easily as it does a finger mullet. Smart anglers use

heavy monofilament (30 lb. or more) or wire leaders when they know bluefish are likely to be encountered. They also take care to use pliers and keep their fingers away from the business ends of the fish when unhooking them.

There are some fishermen, most often those competing in king mackerel tournaments, who consider bluefish to be pests. There are a lot more, however, who are thrilled when they locate a school off the beach, around an inlet or in the

surf. In fact the area around Cape Point on Hatteras Island has gained a national reputation for “Hatteras blues” that often follow baitfish into the shallows this time of year. The world record – 31 lb. 12 oz. – was landed there in 1972.

The big blues can show up anywhere, however, especially around nearshore reefs and wrecks during the warmer months. Smaller fish, sometimes called “tailor blues,” can be caught right up into the surf zone and inside the inlets anytime.

Prime time, however, is when the water begins cooling in the fall after the first “mullet blow” of the year. Bluefish cover a lot of water when they’re up and down the beach and, according to some seasoned anglers, the best place to catch them is

“wherever they happen to be when you can be there too.”

Fishermen on ocean piers frequently target small blues, either for the cooler or to use as bait on king mackerel rigs. Their favorite lure, by a large margin, is a tube-shaped, metal-core jig that most folks refer to as a “Gotcha” plug. That is

actually just one brand of the popular lures. All of them seem to work and, although some anglers prefer one color combination over others, that doesn’t seem to make much difference if the fish are in a mood to bite. The key to their success

seems to be the lures’ darting action when they are retrieved.

Other well-known bluefish lures are brightly-colored lead-head jigs with filament skirts, and either “Hopkins” or “Kastmaster”spoons. They can be cast really well and are especially effective in the surf when blues are chasing smaller

fish. Lead jigs tipped with rubber tails or one of the natural-flavored “Gulp”-type baits are also attractive to bluefish. The problem with those, though, is that blues have an uncanny ability to cut a soft bait off right behind the hook.

They’ll sometimes do the same thing with a finger mullet that’s been hooked through the head. Fishermen have come up with a solution to that, however. They use a heavy copper wire with a tight hook in the end to feed a wire leader through a

finger mullet from the anus to the mouth. When snugged up, the hook is positioned at the rear of the bait so a fish can’t cut if off without getting snagged. A treble hook on the rig makes hook-ups a little more consistent but it also makes it more

difficult to unhook fish that aren’t going into the cooler.  

Some folks turn their noses up at bluefish as table fare. Their opinion may have been shaped by trying to just stick blues in the freezer for later use like they would spots or flounder. That doesn’t work with blues. They are somewhat oily fish that

tend to get mushy when thawed out. When cooked fresh, though, they are some of the best seafood there is. Just ask one of the old-time commercial fishermen. Fresh blues, fried up in the wheelhouse while the boat made another pull, have kept

many a “high tider” fat and happy.

The creel limit for bluefish in North Carolina waters is 15 fish per day, only 5 of which may be greater than 24 inches total length. There is no minimum size requirement. Anglers would be wise to keep just what they want for dinner,

though, and carefully release the rest. Any gamefish as sporting as the bluefish should be conserved for generations to come.

Ed Wall can be reached at edwall@embarqmail.com or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com