Springtime Bluefish on the Fly Rod

I changed my shooting head yesterday and practiced booming out some casts in the yard with the floating line, practicing for the bluefish prowling the flats of Oregon Beach here in Cotuit.

The bluefish are a week late this year. It has been a cold May and everything from the lilacs to the barn swallows are behind schedule. Yet the last three days have changed everything for the better, as the foul east winds of the first half of this fair month have moved onwards, replaced by the westerly breezes of summer and the solid feeling that summer is on the way.

Cousin Pete beat me this year with the first bluefish honors. Last year we were the first to get our pictures on the bait refrigerator at Sports Port with two epic fish we nailed on May 7th. We had bragging rights for the entire summer, and pointed out our trophies to Karen Hill, proprietor every time we came in and maxed our credit cards on plugs and stuff.

Pete got his first on May 20 — Saturday — while I was taking the kids on a watch out of P-town. He went out again last night and caught a fish on every cast, keeping three bleeders for supper and the smoker, but one managed to home in on his index finger and take a major bite out of it. Bluefish are mean through and through. When we went through our aboriginal stage a few springs ago, Pete and I ate the beating hearts of two bluefish and smeared their blood on our faces to appease the Fish God. One such sacrifice took a Nantucket Ballistic Missile (our favorite springtime surface lure — dayglo orange and casts a mile) too deep to get out, so we fileted the fish and tried to get the blue out via surgery. The fish remained alive through the fileting, the lure extraction, and still attempted to bite us, fixing Pete with its bottomless eye and making munching moves with its jaws. We threw it in and it swam away!

We have decided to get bluefish tattoos the next time we’re in Rhode Island.

These are the fish I long for in the depth of winter. I won’t wax poetic about my devotion to the bluefish. John Hersey wrote one of the best books about fishing I have ever read: Blues. It is published by Vintage.

Today I got out for the first time. Took the kids. Forced them into sweaters and life jackets and marched them down the lane to the beach. They hate fishing. Until they catch fish, then they love fishing. Today was no different. Their complaining has become enough of a cliche that I can ignore their nattering.

Quintissential May afternoon. Sunny, wind out out of the southwest at 15 knots, seas one to two feet. I brought along my self constructed ten weight rod, comprised of a Sage 1090 RPLX graphite blank and Fuji SIC single foot ring guides and a Valentine 150 saltwater reel rigged with a shooting head system constructed by Chip Gouger at The FlyShop of Barnstable. I also brought a spinning rod to scout for fish before switching to the fly. That rod was a new St. Croix 8 1/2 foot Ben Doerr surf rod with a Penn 5500SS with 15lb. test.

When we got to the flats off of Oregon in Cotuit, I could see lots of fish dashing through the water like maniacs. So I shut down, and reached for the flyrod, figuring this would be the year when I took my first bluefish on the fly and not a two ounce ballistic missile. I was rigged up with a 12 weight floating line (I go two line levels above the rod’s rating when using the shooting head, otherwise I use the same line rating when throwing a full line) and a home made foam popper on a Mustad popper hook with a bucktail and flashabou tail. I used a stiff single strand bite tippet and a length of 20 lbs. test Maxima Chameleon monofilament for a leader.

Ahead of us, a hundred yards away to the south, a couple guys in a tin boat with a little outboard were also flyfishing and having a good time judging from their enthusiastic shouts as they hooked up. To the west, a quarter mile away, stood a file of a dozen wading fishermen, mostly flyfishermen, working the incoming tide with no apparent success. The parking area at the public beach was jammed. Anglers lined the shore for two miles. Every groin and jetty had at least one fisherman standing on it.

When I went to prepare my first cast with the flyrod I found that I had forgotten the shock cord that I use as a belt for my stripping basket: nothing more than a plastic dish tub with a piece of astroturf glued to the bottom. So I stripped off 100 feet of line and shooting line, told the kids to duck, and fired off a few killer downwind casts that got the fly well astern of my boat.

Getting blues onto a popper can be hard work. Not today it wasn’t. After a series of chases I finally hooked up with the floating line inside of the guides. The fish went amuck. It jumped clear of the water, tail shaking, landed on its side with a splash that hit me, then sank and ran like hell for freedom.

Such are the moments that make a flyfisherman’s day. I’ve read that catching a bluefish on a flyrod is like dipping your arms into electricity. It is a completely invigorating experience. Bluefish are cussedly wonderful fighters, who shake and run, and hang on until the bitter end. Anyway, this fish was a big fish, as all of the fish on the flats are this early in the season, big young adult fish gorging on squid. In a few weeks they’ll move offshore and be replaced by much smaller fish, but for now they are big honkers, around 12 to 15 pounds, long and lean after their long swim from the south.

My first bluefish of 1995, caught on a flyrod, jumping, once, twice, three times clear of the water! It stayed close to the boat, refusing to take enough line to get the fight onto the reel, so I clamped down on the head and cranked like a whirling dervish, finally getting the last of the slack off of the bottom of the boat and onto the Valentine.

This tale was doomed from the start as I had no net, no gaff, just two kids too terrified of bluefish (a healthy respect I might add) to reach in and haul it aboard. No, this would be a solo landing. I worked the fish along side the boat, reached over the side to grab the 20 pound test tippet, when BANG! The rod snapped just above the ferrule. A one year old Sage 1090 RPLX, handwrapped by yours truly, turned into trash in a flash.

But the fish is still on. So I keep hauling in line, tangled in the broken pieces of my favorite toy in the entire world, get to the tippet, and snap, lose the fish.

Loser. I can hear the kids thinking. This is a momentous moment. Up there with the day three weeks ago when I buried two treble hooks into my right hand and said bad words in front of them.

“Why aren’t you mad?” They ask. “Just a flyrod,” I say, thinking of an appropriate fable to weave for them. “It doesn’t matter.” I lie. “The flyrod broke because the fish was better than it was. And fishing isn’t about catching, its about giving the fish a fair chance to win the fight too.”

“So what’s for dinner?”

I picked up the spinning rod and took six fish on a dozen casts. Three are in the smoker right now, being turned into pate. One was blackened for dinner. One went to the neighbors to the south, recent arrivals from LA who think its quaint that someone actually fishes on Olde Cape Cod. And the other to the neighbor to the north, who loves bluefish and me for bringing over the filets.

Today I start shopping for a new rod. Any suggestions?


Mark N. Cahill has been writing and editing for Reel-Time.com since 1995. He started fishing in the mid-1960's and caught his first striper off World's End in Hingham in 1966. From there on in it was an obsession. He loves fishing for tuna, and fly fishing for striped bass. In a pinch, anything with fins will do...

Posted in Bluefish, Saltwater Fly Fishing

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