Robert Ruark, one of North Carolina’s better-known writers used to delight in the spring fishing near his grandfather’s home by the Cape Fear River. One of his favorite fish to catch (and eat) was the bluefish that seemed to swarm in the near-shore waters near Southport. Many years have passed since that time but these same waters along the South Atlantic beaches yield the same bluefish to the hooks of anxious fishermen today.
Most of the bluefish angling takes place in the near and offshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean. However, in recent years, much of the emphasis for bluefish angling has been taking place in the sounds and river mouths that border the ocean. Taking “blues” from the shallow flats on the backsides of our Outer Banks seems to have developed into a springtime sport that rivals the famed bonefishing found in similar flats in more tropical waters.
In Robert Ruark’s era, the favored method of taking springtime bluefish involved trolling a lure consisting of a steel leader with a large hook attached. The leader was threaded through the leg bone of a chicken (or loon) and trolled rather quickly along the near surf zone where the bluefish regularly fed on menhaden. I can’t imagine what this lure imitated in the way of food to the bluefish, but whatever it was the fish liked it. Bluefish aren’t particularly choosy when it’s time to feed. If it looks good, eat it!
The inshore fishery for bluefish on the sand flats behind much of our Outer Banks has become a very popular angling method for light tackle fishermen in the recent years. Whether or not the bluefish have only recently begun to invade the flats is open to question but the facts are that you usually can find them there during the month of May every year. What’s even more interesting to me is that over the past 10 years or so those May bluefish on the flats seem to get larger each year.
When Jim Brown from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries first introduced me to this kind of fishing about 25 years ago, the fish averaged about one to two pounds each. Ten years ago fishermen were taking these flats blues that weighed about seven or eight pounds each. This spring the blues on the flats behind Cape Lookout were averaging maybe 12 to 15 pounds each. Occasionally one might even weigh up to 20 pounds. On light tackle such as a fly rod or casting rod such as you’d use for largemouth bass fishing, a bluefish weighing maybe 15 pounds is one of the strongest kind of sporting fish.
Most fishermen that like to patrol the flats for springtime bluefish go about their angling with a shoal draft boat that can navigate in very shallow water. They prefer to get out onto the flats on the high tide and then fish through the hours until the tide is at its lowest stage. After the tide stops running the fishing’s over.
If it’s not windy and the water is relatively clear, fishermen can see these blues trolling near the shallow channels that crisscross the flats. I’ve had some four or five-pound blues literally swim between my legs in water that was two feet deep (remember, these fish are predators with mean teeth and are rumored to attack swimmers). Using an eight-weight fly rod and casting a top water popper or streamer to these fish is an angling thrill. Be sure that you have a steel or titanium leader and plenty of backing on your fly reel.
Most fishermen cast top water lures at these bluefish from a drifting boat but there are few hearty anglers who prefer to wade the flats to do their casting. The water’s temperature on the flats last week was a bit over 70 F. so it’s a little cool but tolerable.
When bluefish are on the flats they’re looking for food and usually will hit about anything that gets in their sights. Since the water on the flats is by nature very shallow, deep running lures are unnecessary. Still, to me, the ultimate thrill in this type of fishing is to watch one of these voracious fish “bust” a top water lure. A fellow angler recently described such a strike by a big bluefish as “looking like a bomb went off on the lure.”
Once the fish is hooked in this shallow water the angler experiences a different kind of fight from a bluefish hooked in the deeper water offshore. These flats blues jump like tarpon and make spectacular runs that come close to the kind of run you’d expect a tropical bonefish to make.
Some pundits feel that the bluefish are on our flats to spawn but I doubt it. The ones that I’ve seen over the years seem to be spent. Whether or not this lean look is due to spawning activity or lack of food in the spring is open to question still. Research on the habits of the South Atlantic strain of bluefish (Cape Hatteras and south) indicates that little is known about the spawning habits of these fish. One thing is for sure though. These North Carolina bluefish are lean and mean at this time of the year and this makes for some of the most exciting kind of light tackle fishing that an angler can find most anywhere.