One fish, two fish … bluefish!

Before I’d ever done it, I thought of fishing as one, monolithic activity. You get yourself a pole, and a line, and some bait, toss it out there and see what comes up. Might be a perch. Might be a tuna. You hope for the tuna.

It turns out, though, that fishing is much more complicated than that. For starters, you’re fishing for something, and you gear up accordingly. If you want trout, you have to fish with something trout find irresistible. The trouble is, what trout find irresistible varies by time of the year, or of the day, by weather conditions or phases of the moon. Sometimes they feed on the surface, and sometimes wild horses couldn’t bring them up out of the depths. Sometimes they eat bugs, and sometimes they eat other fish. Sometimes they seem to be on a juice fast. They are diabolical and independent-minded.

At least I know they’re out there. They’re confined to my pond, and they can’t get far on foot. Migratory fish pose other problems. You don’t just have to catch them – you have to find them.

Every spring here on Cape Cod, anglers eagerly await the arrival of the striped bass. They usually show up some time in May, having swum up from Virginia. They like water that’s between 55 and 68 degrees, and follow it up the coast in the spring and down again in the fall.

When the stripers are in, word gets out fast. But Cape Cod’s a big place, and it isn’t enough to know that there are fish in the general vicinity. You need to know more precisely, which is why you go to Sports Port.

Sports Port is our local bait and tackle store, and it’s where we go to stock up on striper lures. The people who own it, and the people who work there, all fish, and they talk to pretty much everyone on the Cape who ever picks up a rod. They know where the fish are, and what they’re biting on.

That last part, they’re happy to share with you. They’re hitting pink Sluggos – right there in Aisle 5. That first part can be a bit trickier to wheedle out of them. Amy, who owns the place, has always been very generous with location tip-offs, but one of the kids who works for her is much more tight-lipped. We had one incident this spring where we ran into him on the dock at Prince Cove, where we put our boat in on the south side. We were coming in with a keeper in the cooler, and he asked us where we got it. “Out by the windmill,” we told him, and gave him all but the latitude and longitude.

A few days later Kevin went to Sports Port for supplies, and the kid (I’m embarrassed that I don’t know his name) was there. “I knocked ‘em dead on the north side last night!” he told Kevin. Kevin, naturally, asked him where. No dice.

He’s a nice kid, and we like him. If he’s not clear on the concept of quid pro quo, we’ll put that down to his youth and fishing enthusiasm.

Besides, where they were biting and what they were biting on last night is old news. Fish are fickle, and the ones that were at the mouth of the harbor last night, biting on shad runners, could be in the flats tonight, insisting on live bait.

The only real way to learn to fish is to fish. Once you start accumulating experience you start to get a feel for it. You associate certain conditions – the look of the water, the flow of the tide, the weather – with fishing success and that’s what you look for. It may very well be that those conditions have nothing to do with the fish, but it’s all you have to go on. Enough successes, and enough failures, and you may actually get the association right.

We found a couple of south side striper spots that worked for us, but haven’t had any luck yet on the north side. Most of the fish have moved on by now, but they’ll be back in the fall.

The bluefish, though, are definitely in.

Since we moved here, I’ve caught trout, scup, sea bass, stripers, and bluefish. The bluefish fishing is, hands down, the most exciting fishing I’ve done.

Last year, we ran into a school in a feeding frenzy just outside the Cotuit side of Sampson’s Island. The upside of a school of bluefish in a feeding frenzy is that you get a fish on every cast. Literally. Every cast. The downside is that you can lose a lot of lures when the feeding fish bite through the line as you’re trying to land one.

This year, we were better prepared. We got braided line, which is harder than monofilament for the fish to bite through, and we went out with long wire leaders. None of this will help you if you can’t find the fish, which is what happened to us on our first bluefishing expedition.

We put the boat in at the crack of dawn, on a beautiful calm morning, and motored out to the Cotuit cut, where Cotuit Bay connects to Nantucket Sound. We went out the cut and started looking for bluefish breaking the surface. Nothing.

There were several fisherman fly-fishing off Oregon Beach, just south of the cut, but they didn’t seem to be catching anything. We drifted around the area, casting off both sides of the boat, but we got nothing. A nibble or two, but no actual fish.

We tried the same routine again a couple days ago. Just after we went through the cut, I saw the telltale cluster of splashes off the bow. We had bluefish.

We drove over to where the splashes had been (they come and go) and picked up our rods. Kevin had outfitted them with poppers – lures that float on the surface that you jig so they jump and make little splashes. We both cast into the area where we’d seen the fish.

Bang! We both got fish immediately, and started reeling like mad. Kevin’s got away, but I managed to land mine. First cast, first fish!

And the second cast got the second fish. And that’s how our morning went. We’d spot the splashes, cast out, and get a few fish. Then, either the fish would move or we would drift, and we’d have to find them again. It took us an hour and a half to catch our limit – ten bluefish each.

It was the best fishing I’ve had since I’ve been here. Pound for pound, bluefish are better fighters than anything else we fish for (although the trout can be pretty feisty, too), and it wasn’t easy to get them in the boat. We lost a good number.

But it wasn’t just that we were catching fish. It was the way we were catching them. When you use a lure that sinks, you don’t know what’s going on under the surface until you feel the fish bite. With poppers, you can often watch the bluefish follow the lure, lunge at it, miss it, and lunge again. You see the little splash of the lure, and then the big splash of the fish. You try and jig the lure again, hard enough to splash but not hard enough to jerk it out of the fish’s reach. The fish lunges again, takes the lure, and your pole bends double.

It’s thrilling. It’s downright thrilling.

We came in with our 52-quart cooler half filled with bluefish. The smallest was probably a pound and a half, and the biggest was nigh-on four. We gave a few to our friends Dan and Linda, and I set about processing the rest. It took me just about as long to filet them as it did to catch them.

We smoked most of it. (I’m planning to write a rare practical post on smoking bluefish very soon – it’s something we’ve gotten good at.) When all was said and done, we had something like twelve pounds of smoked bluefish.

It was just a few days ago that I wrote about how a shipment of lox and sable from Barney Greengrass triggered an acute episode of Manhattan homesickness. This was the antidote.

7 people are having a conversation about “One fish, two fish … bluefish!

  1. It’s true. Catching bluefish can be thrilling.

    When I drive down to the Cape to fish with my uncle, usually for a weekend in early June, we’re mainly hoping for stripers. We hear some of the rumors about where they’re supposed to be. But, lacking a motorized craft, we can’t follow up on them.

    We just follow the hunch-of-moment and hit the water around dawn, usually fishing from a canoe in one bay or another, sometimes casting from shore along a likely channel. If we get into any fish, they’re blues as often as not. And we don’t mind a bit.

    They’re good eating, though some folks think they’re too oily and fishy-tasting. I don’t think I’ve ever had them smoked. That sounds good.

  2. *sigh*. I so want to learn how to fly fish (nearly drowned as a five year old- i can’t handle big water). I would love to be out try to bring in fish. And then cooking it, and better than that, smoking it. I knew that my hopes for fishing were lost when shortly after getting married for the first time at the tender age of forty-one, I mentioned something about going camping to my new husband. “I’m an indoor cat,” he replied resolutely. So that was that.

    But last weekend we saw some new Airstreams, which are pretty luxe, and I said, hey if we rent one of those, could we go camping? Yeah, he said (Score!) but we’ll have to rent something to tow it with. Okay, but at least I have hope now! maybe someday I too will know the thrill of catching a little ol’ trout. A girl can dream.

    I knew that you have it better where you are now than where you were then; I’m just glad that your vindication was so swift. Maybe not everybody in Manhattan who frequents Barneys Greengrass would be jealous of your setup up there, but I bet there are plenty of people all over Manhattan who would trade places with you in a New York minute.

  3. A very nice looking pair of browns, Tamar…with successes like that and blues, it seems like “starving” is a misnomer. 😉

    I noticed also my own fishing improved when I move away from just waiting for the fish to come to me, and actually stalked the trout with a flyrod, in the same way I might sneak up on a deer or wild boar here in California, total awareness, probably like when you’re hunting mushrooms–sure makes it less boring than just sitting and waiting.

    …but sometimes, just a worm on a hook, fished on the bottom is a great way to just relax or catch up on some reading.


  4. Tovar — Most people agree that striped bass are better eating than bluefish, but I happen to be very fond of bluefish once it’s smoked. (I like it fresh, too, but it doesn’t hold a candle to fresh striper.) One of the nice things about the Cape is that there are so many excellent fishing spots that don’t require a boat — people are always catching both bluefish and striped bass from the Canal, from the bays, and even from ocean beaches.

    Paula — Fishing isn’t like camping. Like your husband, I don’t particularly care to camp (something about mattresses and running water …), but I do like to fish. I am a fair-weather fisherman, though. I don’t go out when it’s choppy or the weather is bad. A fishing trip on a calm, sunny day can work for even the most indoor of indoor cats.

    We’ve also talked about taking a trip in an RV — it wouldn’t be much smaller than our house.

    Cork — Not starving at all! At the moment, quite full of smoked bluefish.

    There is more pursuing in fishing than I thought there would be, but we do ours with a boat and a fish finder, rather than a flyrod. I can’t compare it to stalking game, which I’ve never done, but check back in the fall and I hope to have something to say on the subject.

  5. Lisa, the sister-in-law says:

    The grass is always greener indeed! The humidity level in NYC is 88% and I’M suffering from sister-in-law’s-home sickness. (Ahhh, what I’d give to feel that nice cool breeze off the pond, about now!)

    Fishing sounds like a blast– we demand to fish, next time we visit.

  6. I agree with Cork – from starving to feasting!

    I’m looking forward to a practical post on smoking fish. I still cringe at the memory of eating blues as a young girl. My tastebuds weren’t developed enough to deal with the strong fishy flavor. I like seeing them turned into something delicious now.

    Your description of the highs and lows, and mysteries of fishing, is spot-on — at least in this enthusiastic amateur angler’s opinion.

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