Bluefish: Fly Fishing for Bluefish in New Jersey
As the summer months quickly gain upon us many saltwater fly rodders shift gears and become night owls, constantly in search of the wary stripers that inhabit our coastal waters. For some however, this summer’s Striper fishing will take a back seat to the explosive action of topwater flyfishing for Bluefish. One of the most exciting ways of catching any fish on fly tackle is with top water flies. Weather it is a native trout rising for a drifted dry fly on the pristine waters on the West Branch, or, a teflon tarpon crashing a popper on the flats of the Florida Keys, nothing beats the rush of watching a fish emerge from the depths to inhale a fly on the surface.
The beaches, back bays, and inshore coastal waters off New Jersey offer world class fly-fishing opportunities for Bluefish. From snappers to gators, these toothy critters enter our waters sometime in mid April and will remain until mid to late November depending on water temperatures. Throughout the year, these bluefish will range in size anywhere from one pound to nineteen pounds. During the spring and early summer months we can expect to see fish in the 3 to 8 pound range. By the end of summer and early fall, these same fish can grow upwards to twenty pounds with 8 to 12 pound fish common. Catching these fish on fly tackle can be heart pounding “knuckle breaking” fun that will put both you and your tackle to the ultimate test. Don’t be surprised to see schools of bluefish gorging themselves on bait right along our shores during the middle of a hot summer’s day. This action can last for hours, or, just minutes. Unless your are prepared and ready to go – the action could be here and gone before you know it. During the season I will always keep at least two rods rigged and ready to fish for topwater blues. Weather I am working the beaches by 4 X 4 or running my 21-ft Parker center console, these pre-rigged rods are always readily available should the action take off.
Topwater flyfishing for Bluefish requires certain modifications to your everyday set up. Eight and nine weight rods with sinking or intermediate lines will work just fine when fishing below the surface for Bluefish. But in order to effectively engage in specialized topwater fishing, your day in and day out “go to” tackle must change. I prefer nine and ten weight nine-foot fast action rods with floating weight forward lines. These larger, stiffer rods allow you to cast bigger foam bodied topwater fly’s such as Bob’s Bangers, Ka Boom Booms, Crease Fly’s, and Sliders. In addition to being able to cast larger flies, these rods also enable you to fight your fish hard and get them to the boat or beach quickly without causing exhaustion. Remember that pound for pound Bluefish are some of the fiercest fighters in the sea. Reels should have solid “disc drag” systems and the capacity to hold 200 yards of 30 pound backing. Cork drags are preferred, however some of the new Teflon discs seem to work just fine. Two thinks I cannot stress more with regard to saltwater reels; first, make sure the are saltwater corrosion resistant and machined from solid aluminum bar stock, and second, use large arbor reels when targeting bigger, faster swimming saltwater fish. These larger arbors allow a greater line to wind ratio. Nothing is more disappointing than fighting a fifteen-pound bluefish for fifteen minutes only for him to turn and start coming in your direction and you loose the fish because you cannot reel fast enough. Leaders should be kept very simple. Four to six feet of 20 pound mono with a six to twelve inch piece of wire tippet directly to your fly. Here is a tip to determine how long your wire should be – the bigger the fish, the longer the wire. Usually for smaller 2 to 4-pound blues I will use four to six inches of wire tippet. Five to seven pound fish and I will jump up to six to eight inches of wire tippet. Anything over 8 pounds and I use a twelve inch length of wire. In most cases, Bluefish will school with others the same size. Very rarely will you catch four 5 pounds Bluefish and then land a 10 pounder from the same school.
Now for the fun part – Fly’s! Oh, the flies…. They getchewed up, gnarled, twisted, bitten off, and basically more abused than anything other than the baits that they emulate. I carry four types of topwater flies in variety of sizes and colors. Bob Popovics Bangers, Cap Colvin’s Ka Boob Booms, Blados Crease Flies, and some longer, cone shaped sliders. All of these flies are effective in catching fish so don’t feel that you need to carry them all in different sizes and colors. My “go to” fly is most definitely Bob’s Banger in silver and white. These “fleyes” where designed specifically for Bluefish by Bob Popovics. Believe me when I tell you they work tremendously. A new fly on the scene that is also very effective for Bluefish is the Blados Crease Fly. Originated by Capt. Joe Blados, the Crease Fly has become more and more popular not just for Blues but for Stripers and False Albacore also. Joe created a fly that looks just like a baby bunker skipping across the surface that drives fish crazy! If the water is a bit off color or murky I will change to a brighter colored Banger. Yellow, chartreuse, orange or gold will all work fine. More important than color however is the “banging” or “popping” commotion that they make on the surface. Bluefish are notoriously aggressive feeders. I have seen only a few instances where they have refused a fly smacking on the surface.
Now that our tackle and flies are up to snuff, lets look deeper in to how to find and catch these feisty slammers. Anyplace that has moving water and or structure is a good place to start. Jetties, sandbars, flats, channels and inlets are all good holding areas. Work the edges of a flat, sandbar or rock pile. River mouths and inlets will also be areas to concentrate. Look for signs of bait along the shore or skipping out of the water. Slicks combined with a “fishy smell” are also good signs of Bluefish activity. Don’t just search for diving birds or surface commotion. Covering a lot of water by working your popper in different locations will surely pinpoint their location should they be in the vicinity. Try to keep your fly moving fast and steady. It is important to hear the “pop” every time you strip your line. I prefer either a militant two-handed retrieve, or, a rapid one-handed retrieve with long, fast strips. If the fish comes up for the take and you miss him keep stripping. Most likely he will come back for the attach if the bait appears to be getting away. Set the hook hard with a series of strip strikes and always keeping your rod bent and angled to the side perpendicular to your waist. High sticking the hit will pull the fly out of the water if the hook set is not solid enough. Once hooked they will do everything possible to shake the hook out. Any slack in the line will most likely end the fight prematurely. Once you have the fish close to the boat or shore the fun begins – landing it. I word to the wise when handling Bluefish: keep your hands away from their mouths. If fishing from a boat use a net or Boga Grip to pull him in. If you intend on keeping the fish then by all means go ahead and stick ’em with the gaf. The beach or Jetty can be a little more tricky. Use the flow of the water or waves to guide him to your landing spot. Once on land, grab the fish firmly on top of the head just behind the gills. This will paralyze the fish temporarily so you can work the fly out of him mouth. Always use needle nose pliers to retract the hook. Pinching your barbs down before hand will make the release much easier on you and the fish.
Fly fishing the topwater for Blues is fun and exciting. With the right conditions you can turn a dreary hot summer’s day into an enjoyable one. Just make sure you bring plenty of wire and a good supply of topwater flies. Oh…. and one more thing. Keep your hands clear of your reel. With the right fish your spools will be spinnin’ like tires on ice! See you up top!