There’s no experience in modern, civil society quite comparable to finding one’s self on a boat with 40 strangers on a drift, surrounded by squawking gulls, in the middle of a bluefish blitz.
Ten years running now, a mixed group of high school and college friends of mine gather in the late autumn for a deep sea fishing trip. No doubt conceived as one of our better collective ideas, we traditionally tend towards going the weekend after Thanksgiving. We’ve learned the hard way that the striper action is generally non-existent for us by then. And the weather tends to be brutal. In fact, last year’s trip was cancelled due to 15 ft seas and frigid cold. There’s no reason to put anyone’s life or property at risk simply for kicks. It was unsafe, the Captain told us. And he’s the captain, Captain John Brackett.
We made the wise decision as to bumping this year’s, and probably future years’ trips, two weeks earlier. The ocean rewarded us quite generously for doing so.
A few moments after a 90 minute ride from West Philadelphia, the sun began to make itself known in the parking lot for the dock where one finds Brackett’s Queen Mary in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ. Friends named Eric, Bob, Dommie, the brothers Klein, and Dave stumbled onto the boat at a few minutes past seven — a few of us having been at a card table in AC a few hours earlier, and some of us having been home with toddlers the night before. All were ready for a good time beginning somewhere around 4:30am.
Our first drift resulted in a catch of what was probably the largest fish I’ve ever caught (except for possibly the infamous Muskie that got away on Marsh Creek Lake while my wife was working the trolling motor). If it wasn’t the largest, it certainly was the biggest fight I’ve ever had with a fish. This was the first time I’ve ever stood looking at a taut line, while trying to keep the rod steady, and found myself thinking: I don’t know if I can get this fish on the boat.
I reeled the bluefish in and swung its mass onto the deck of the Queen Mary. Based upon the fight, exhaustion, and surprise, I was expecting something the size of a tuna. It was a much more modest 18lb-20lb fish. On the other hand, it was not the smallish “snapper” version of these fish I caught as a kid off the coast of Ocean City with my father in the mid-80s. And it surely wasn’t anything remotely similar to the bluegills I caught all summer. It was much more of an epic, bloody struggle.
From my experience, there are two approaches to catching bluefish. [Note: When they are in a feeding frenzy, its practically impossible not to catch one of these things, so its not like I'm giving away any particularly sage advice other than "throw something at the water".] You can go with a top-water approach by using a float with maybe a 6/O hook with bunker, squid, or mackerel as bait. If you’re on a party boat, it might not be all that easy to drop a float, so jigging might be a better option.
The one thing we noticed right away was what came out of the gut of these fish when we brought them on board: long, slender, silver-scaled minnows. The Captain’s crew no doubt noticed this as evidenced by his outfitting the rental rods with long, silver spoon-like weights with an appropriately sized hook, maybe a 6/O that we all jigged with. We were matching the hatch, as they say. This secondary approach to catching bluefish, in order to scare up some interest in striped bass, utilized a green, rubbery tube that was wrapped around the hook, perhaps to simulate the look and motion of sand eels, which stripers are famous for devouring from a line.
On this trip, the first drift was like the others. Moments of sleepy, buzzed, shadow-encased anticipation punctuated by moments of sheer chaos, blood, scales, sharpened metal, and foamy sea water. The bite was on! John Brackett’s boat could have held dozens, easily. There were, maybe 45 folks on board on this day. She held several groups, each numbering 5-8 persons. There were the hunters in camo, the NYC fellas, the out-of-state college crew, and Grampa and his progeny. And then there were we. When the Captain finds a swarm of Bluefish, everyone gets caught up in the blur. Everyone.
It is like this: in silence, lines drop. Five, then fifteen. Short, stout rods, unleash fathom upon fathom of line. As the weight drops, the line is taut and hits the bottom and suddenly slack, but still continues to unravel, caught up in the current, clams, weeds, sand. It almost seems to change key when the hook and weight bounces off the wreck beneath the hull. There’s a sudden mood change in the 20 lb test. Quickly, start reeling and feel a tug.
The line is tight and moves away from the boat as the blue on the hook dives towards the bottom. The rod bends and I crank and crank but the line does not move. I snap the rod towards the water, and swing it up, reeling 6″ or 12″ or 18″ before capitulation. Pause. Drop the tip towards the water, then bring the tip to the sky, stand my ground, and rotate the reel once and twice, repeat, and hope the net result is progress.
By now, the 20th person has dropped their hook and sinker, then five more and five more. Before the last person drops their line, three fish have been caught and bagged, a half dozen more are mid-fight, and another dozen fish will be caught before the entire array of anglers cycle into the second cast. A mate in an orange, waterproof overalls shouts and tells me to walk it out towards the stern. No way in hell. I straighten my back, find a lower center of gravity, bear down, and reel; I let it all just flow around me. The effort renders Christmas Eve dinner.
In the blink of an eye, each little tribe of early morning anglers dissolve into an every man, woman, and child for themselves scenario. Lines snap, fish flop on the deck, bluefish teeth grasp gloves and the cuffs of jeans, hooks swing about and precariously miss hats and rugged winter coats.
And before anyone realizes it, the blitz is over. The horn sounds, the engines spin up, and the boat moves 200 yards south or east or north. In the next frenzy, or maybe the one after the next, a striper is finally caught. Or not. Either way, the engines spin up again and another offshore wreck, or a mound of debris, or some some sharp underwater drop-off finds itself engulfed in line and hooks and some new panic erupts while fish after fish slams against the deck of the Queen Mary. It goes like this for nearly five hours.
At the dock we step off, having tipped the mates for the fabulous fillet work on the day’s catch while riding back. Nearly all head home to a shower and a nap. We feast when everyone meets later, refreshed, at one of the participant’s home. A number of the fisherman come back with their wife or girlfriend or kids. We talk about how cold it was. We tell our families about how crazy it got. Over fish, red wine, and a wood stove’s ample heat, the day’s experience gets recounted and compared to previous years. And then, just like that, next year’s trip finds itself getting planned.