Bluefish, an overlooked visitor

Capt. Dave Walker caught this bluefish in Tampa Bay. These fish venture into the bay during the cooler fall months.
Capt. Dave Walker caught this bluefish in Tampa Bay. These fish venture into the bay during the cooler fall months.
Published April 10, 2014

I was drifting the grass flats on a fine spring morning, but my fishing hook just wouldn't stay attached to the leader. It seemed like every time a baitfish hit the water, some swift, silent predator would swim by and slice the line.

My first guess was Spanish mackerel. After all, 'twas the season.

But even a hapless trout fisherman such as myself manages to land a "Spannie" now and then without the help of light wire. It could be a blacktip, I thought, but the water was still a little cool for sharks to be in the bay.

Frustrated by my fumbling, the guide switched to a long-shank hook, which offered just enough metal to finally snag the bait thief.

"A bluefish," I declared, as we brought the critter into the boat. "Why, I haven't seen one of these in years."

As a kid growing up in the Northeast, we used to catch bluefish during the summer from the Jersey Shore up to the coast of Maine. The species is a migrating pelagic, similar in some respect to king and Spanish mackerel.

This prized sport fish is found throughout the world's oceans. Bluefish, along with striped bass, are the mainstays of the mid-Atlantic charter fleet, but they also are found off the coast of Africa, throughout the Mediterranean, and as far way as Australia.

Fishermen on Florida's east coast catch bluefish during the cooler months, but by mid spring the schools usually have moved north. In the fall, they head south again.

But here on Florida's gulf coast, bluefish seem to be something of an oddity. They are caught occasionally in Tampa Bay, sometimes even as far up the estuary as the Gandy Bridge.

"They are probably up there looking for menhaden," said Behzad Mahmoudi, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who has spent nearly three decades studying the state's baitfish. "But we really don't study them. They are just not that common."

The bluefish found in the Gulf of Mexico are not nearly as big as those found in the Atlantic Ocean. The average size of the blues in the bay ranges from 12 to 14 inches, which is one reason why most anglers don't give them a second look.

During the height of the bluefish run in the mid Atlantic and New England, anglers catch their share of 20-pound fish. In case you are wondering, the all-tackle world record was caught on Jan. 30, 1972, off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and weighed 31 pounds, 12 ounces.

In fact, of the 19 line-class record holders, nine for men and 10 for women (including one tie) more than half were set in the coastal waters of North Carolina, primarily from November through January.

"They don't seem to like the warm water down here," said Mike Murphy, another inshore fisheries expert at the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "You will find them here for a brief time in the spring, but as soon as the water temperature starts to rise, they are gone."

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The Tampa Bay area, with its large population of snowbirds, has many transplanted fishermen who once targeted blues in the Northeast. One such angler is baseball legend Don Zimmer, now a senior adviser to the Rays. Zimmer played, coached and managed in New York and Boston among other places before heading to Florida.

"He called me one day and wanted to know about a bluefish that he had caught," Murphy recalled. "It was a big fish but (Zimmer) couldn't understand why it was so emaciated."

The fish was probably stressed by the warm water, Murphy said. "If they don't migrate, they don't do very well," he added.

If you're out fishing for mackerel and come across a blue, don't be afraid to keep it. The size limit is 12 inches and you can keep 10 a day. As a youngster, I ate my share of bluefish. My mom used to bake it in the oven, but today I prefer grilling or smoking this oily, strong-tasting fish.

The trick is to marinate it in citrus juice for at least an hour before cooking. I like to mix orange, lemon and lime juices with a little olive oil, garlic and black pepper. After it is cooked, flake off the dark meat before serving.

But be careful with these fish, sometimes called the "marine piranha" because of the way they school up and chase baitfish up onto the beach. Bluefish have sharp teeth, or what we used to call "snappers."

If only scars could talk.