Bluefish are a very rewarding target for surf anglers because when bluefish are running, they are very aggressive feeders, and it doesn’t take a lot of special tactics to catch them. This makes them an excellent choice for both new fishermen as well as those who are trying to find a full creel of fish for cooking purposes.
Bluefish are fun to catch on a light action surf rod since juvenile bluefish (also known as snappers) are the bluefish most often found in coastal waters, and these fish are small enough at under twelve inches to be caught on light tackle.
If you’re just getting into surf fishing as a hobby, you can’t ask for a better target than these common pelagic fish. Read on to find out more about bluefish and catch yourself a whole cooler full of them on your next fishing trip.
Rules And Regulations To Catch Bluefish
According to the NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s trawl surveys for bluefish, as well as many different game surveys conducted along the Eastern seaboard, bluefish are currently classified as overfished no current overfishing.
This means that bluefish are a managed species because they have been overfished to the point of ecological impact by too much fishing activity in the past.
Bluefish fishing is still allowed, but the bluefish’s current bag limits are the direct result of assessments of the bluefish population to determine how many of the fish can be harvested safely without negatively impacting the long-term population of the species.
Because bluefish do not store well and begin to spoil quickly after being caught, they are mostly a recreational fishing target and are not typically fished commercially.
What Is Bluefish?
Bluefish (also known as shad, elf, and tailor in various parts of the world) is a toothy pelagic species of fish that can be found in oceanic waters worldwide in both subtropical and temperate water.
The only oceanographical area where bluefish are not usually found is in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean.
Bluefish are blue-green on their dorsal side to act as camouflage from the top of the water, with a white belly to act as camouflage from underneath.
This generally reflects the bluefish’s position in the middle of the water column, where it can be predated from either above or below.
Among fishermen, bluefish are most commonly known for their razor-sharp teeth, capable of cutting through some of the toughest types of lines.
Because of this, steel leader lines are a popular choice for those who are chasing bluefish, and bluefish are known as a nuisance to those who are chasing other fish because they tend to steal bait and cut the line in the process.
When surf fishing, anglers are most likely to run into “snappers,” or juvenile bluefish.
These fish usually range around seven inches in length and can be hauled in on a light rod while still making for a feisty fight on the line.
Bluefish tend to feed in feeding frenzies as they attack smaller groups of baitfish.
Due to this very aggressive feeding behavior, bluefish can be caught easily in a feeding frenzy as they’ll attack anything that gets too close to their mouths, even other bluefish.
Like sharks, this species is known for cannibalistic behavior—there’s always a bigger fish.
Where To Surf Fish For Bluefish
Bluefish are a shoaling fish that tends to hunt and attack smaller groups of baitfish as a ravenous pack, so the best way to determine where to find them when you’re fishing is to look for where the baitfish are.
If you see a boil of activity beneath the surface of the water or a flock of circling seagulls or other ocean birds, chances are you’re looking at some kind of feeding frenzy.
In most surf fishing conditions, this means checking around underwater structures such as piers and jetties or casting out into the channel cuts just beyond the coastal breakers, where erosion from the tide cuts a deep trench for baitfish and their predators to run through.
The best way to figure out where the bluefish are at any given time is to be aware of the temperature of the ocean is where you’re trying to fish.
Bluefish prefer a water temperature of sixty-six to seventy-two degrees and will begin to move if the temperature rises or drops below that range.
Depending on the weather and the time of year, bluefish will move up and down the Atlantic coastline chasing this perfect temperature.
Best Season To Catch Bluefish
Temperature is the main determinant for finding bluefish at any given time, as we’ve said before, so that means that whether you’ll catch any bluefish in a particular section of the coast will depend on what season it is.
Bluefish can typically be found in the Gulf of Mexico year-round, but on the Atlantic seaboard, bluefish will remain in Florida waters throughout the winter months to take in the warm weather.
As the temperatures become too hot, these shoals of fish will move north into Northeastern coastal waters off the Massachusetts shoreline, venturing as far north as Nova Scotia during the hottest months of the year.
Above all, this means that bluefish are a highly seasonal fish, so if you want to catch them, you’ll need to pay attention to what time of year you’re going to be fishing—and where you’ll be fishing from—to determine how good your chances of success are.
How To Surf Fish Bluefish
Because they are such aggressive feeders, there are few special tricks necessary to get a bluefish to hit your bait or lure if the bluefish are running.
There are still some different tactics you can try to help improve your odds, though. Here are some of the things you can do to help improve your chances when surf fishing for bluefish:
Cast past the breakers:
When surf fishing, it’s crucial that you cast beyond the shallow surf and into the deeper water just beyond where the waves are crashing.
Casting directly into the waves can make it difficult to control where your lure or bait ends up, which is crucial when you’re trying to cast into a specific spot, such as a shoal of baitfish that are under chase.
Don’t cast too far:
If you’re using light tackle to go after bluefish, you don’t want to cast out too far. Finding the balance between casting too close into shore and casting too far out is key for successful surf fishing.
You should aim your casts at the trench-like area just beyond the breakers and no farther. This is the best place to catch juvenile bluefish.
Use a wire leader:
Bluefish are notorious for cutting lines with their knife-like teeth, so the monofilament fishing line is a bad idea (at least anywhere near your terminal tackle).
Instead, you can use a monofilament line as your main line and tie on a steel wire leader to keep bluefish from either stealing your bait or taking off with one of your favorite lures.
Learn their migratory patterns:
If you fish the same area of coastline year after year, you’ll learn approximately the best time for bluefish in your area.
Because they’ll move through at roughly the same time each year give or take a few weeks to allow for oceanic temperature fluctuations.
That means that to successfully fish bluefish, you’ll need to schedule to fish for them seasonally.
Fish in low light conditions:
Baitfish are most active in the surf zone In the hour right before and after the tidal movement, because the incoming or outgoing currents force them to move or be tumbled along in the waves.
Larger game fish are attracted to the movement of the baitfish, so hunting bluefish when the baitfish move at dawn and dusk is optimal.
If you catch one bluefish, keep casting in the same position:
Bluefish are a shoaling fish that tend to hunt together, so if you get one of them to strike your bait, you can usually get another strike soon afterward by simply placing the bait right back in the same place you cast it before.
If you cast into a swarm of baitfish that is being predated by bluefish, you can land bluefish after bluefish this way.
Bluefish are sight-based predators:
What your lure or bait looks like matters. While scent-based lures will draw bluefish in, it is the frenzied activity of wounded or panicked baitfish that ultimately cause a bluefish to strikeout.
This makes live bait an especially good choice for catching bluefish.
Since bluefish are pretty easy to catch due to their shoaling and hunting behaviors, the biggest issue with tracking them down is figuring out when they’re going to show up in your waters.
If you follow the above tips, however, you’ll be sure to find some bluefish.
Gear and Setup to Surf Fish For Bluefish
Snapper or juvenile bluefish stay pretty small when they’re hugging the coastline during their migration, which means that a light rod and reel are all you need if you’re targeting bluefish specifically.
The largest bluefish you’ll probably run into on the shoreline is around five to seven inches so that they can be easily handled on light rods, and heavy rods on the coastline for bluefish are overkill.
These light setups can offer the most fun when fighting a fish on the line, but be forewarned—bluefish are caught in the same part of the ocean as larger fish, and you might end up with more on the line than you bargained for.
Here are some of the other pieces of tackle that you’ll need to take on bluefish:
J or Circle hooks:
You can use either J or circle hooks to catch bluefish effectively, but circle hooks are a popular choice since bluefish strike a lure or bait so aggressively that setting the hook usually isn’t a problem.
Circle hooks can lower fish mortality rates if you plan to catch and release, but J hooks can be easier to set for some anglers.
20-40 Pound Test Line And a Wire Leader Line:
A twenty-pound high impact monofilament line is an excellent choice for a mainline when you’re surf fishing bluefish, but you need to remember their teeth.
To keep a caught bluefish from sawing itself free, double up your monofilament line with a steel wire leader line. Not even a shark will be likely to cut itself free from that kind of setup.
Sinker and Swivel:
A sinker weight can help you keep your casted bait or lure in a single spot if you’re fishing in strong current conditions.
And a swivel is a piece of terminal tackle that connects your wire leader to your mainline and allows it to swing independently of the mainline.
This both reduces twisting and will enable you to add a different type of leader line than your mainline, which is necessary when using a wireline.
When using a heavy terminal tackle on a leader line, one of the most important aspects of surf fishing (or any fishing requiring a leader) is knowing how to tie a secure knot.
This is especially important when hunting bluefish, as bluefish should ideally be caught with a wire leader, and wire leaders can’t be tied quite like other types of line.
The best knots for tying wire leader lines are the Haymaker Twist, the Albright Knot, and the Alberto Knot. You can find video tutorials for tying these wire leader knots here.
Rigs Set-up for Bluefish
While bluefish aren’t particularly picky about what kind of bait or lures they hit, there are a few tackle rigs that can make catching them a little more efficient.
Here are two good rigs for catching bluefish:
allow you to use two hooks at once, and these are good choices for bluefish because they can allow you to multiply your catch more quickly.
Since bluefish are a shoaling fish, multiple hooks can even lead to catching two fish at once in a feeding frenzy. To see how to tie a fireball rig, check out this diagram here.
Fishfinder rigs are a good rig for making several quick casts in succession to try and get a strike and figure out where the shoal of bluefish is running. To see how to tie a fish finder rig, check out this diagram here.
These two rigs are good for catching bluefish while they’re running, but they’re also just effective rigs for surf fishing in general.
Baits and Lures to Surf Fish For Bluefish
As mentioned earlier in the article, one of the most effective ways to catch bluefish is to use live bait. Live bait is a good combination of both visual-based and scent-based attractants.
A wounded baitfish or squid on a hook will release chemicals into the water (and blood) that alerts other fish in the proximity to the presence of wounded prey.
The live bait movement amplifies this attraction as it thrashes and attempts to free itself from the hook.
Here are some of the types of live bait that are used to surf fish for bluefish:
Shrimp is a very effective type of coastal live bait since they make up a large part of the diet of many fish that live in the surf zone.
To hook a live shrimp and keep it alive longer on the hook, hook the shrimp through the tail rather than the middle of the back.
Pinching off the last joint on a shrimp’s tail will also help release its scent into the water more effectively.
Live squid will attract a variety of coastal game fish, and squid can also be an effective cut bait.
Squid is an especially good choice for cut bait because it can be frozen easily for long-term storage and can also be easily cut to size for different hooks’ sizes.
A bunker is also known as pogie or menhaden. Depending on where you’re getting them, these small oily baitfish are very sensitive to the oils in a person’s hands and must be handled gently if they are going to survive in a bait bucket for extended periods.
Cut bait can also be used effectively to catch bluefish since they are such aggressive feeders. Other than squid, popular types of cut bait include the following:
An advantage of cut bait over live bait is that with cut bait, you don’t have to worry about keeping the bait alive during a long fishing session.
Whereas keeping baitfish like menhaden alive in a bait bucket can be challenging for extended periods.
Cut bait can also be frozen and stored for later use if you don’t use it all up in one trip.
One thing to keep in mind is that as you continue to cast and reel in cut bait, it will lose a lot of its attractive scent.
It’s a good idea to replace your bait with a fresh piece for better scent draw after twenty to thirty minutes.
Best Lures To Catch Bluefish
Since they’re a visual hunter, any kind of artificial lures which emphasize movement and reflection are good choices for bluefish.
These are some of the lures you can use to tempt bluefish to strike:
Spoon lures are metallic concave oval-shaped lures that spin and flash when reeled, imitating the shine of the sun (or moon) on baitfish scales.
Spoon lures chosen for surf fishing should be saltwater spoons, since these metallic spoons are made out of non-corrosive materials that won’t be tarnished by surf zone conditions.
Plugs (also known as minnow baits) can be worked around shoals of bait in a jerking manner to imitate the movements of a wounded baitfish.
When bluefish are feeding in a frenzy, throwing a plug can be a good way to get a hit very quickly.
This old-fashioned lure is a good choice for surface casting techniques, as light bucktail jigs can be bounced through the water quickly to locate a shoal of bluefish. The movement of these lures is a tempting draw to any sight-based game fish.
Bluefish will hit just about any kind of lure in the right conditions, so the type of lure you use isn’t as important as where you’re casting it and what time of year you’re doing it.
Smaller lures like bucktail jigs can be combined with live or cut bait to increase the chances of a fish being drawn to the hook.
If you’re going to use artificial lures, you should bring several backups just on the off-chance that you hook something bigger than you can reasonably haul in (like a shark) and end up needing to cut it loose instead to save the rest of your tackle.
Size and Limit to Catch Bluefish
Bluefish have historically enjoyed a large bag limit among surf anglers of fifteen fish per individual.
Beginning in 2020, this bag limit has been severely reduced to three bluefish per individual and five bluefish per for-hire fishermen.
This reduced fishing schedule is in response to the overfished status of the bluefish. There are currently no minimum size requirements for bluefish, so bluefish of any size can be harvested.
Tips and Techniques to Catch Bluefish
We’ve gone over many of the gear and tactics you’ll need to catch bluefish, but here are a few more tips you can take advantage of to get the best out of your surf fishing experience the next time the bluefish are running:
Younger Fish Taste Better.
This is good news for surf anglers since the bluefish caught in coastal waters tend to be young juveniles under a foot in length.
One of the reasons that bluefish are not fished commercially is that the larger, more mature bluefish caught offshore tend to be gamey and “fishier” than most people prefer to eat.
Put Fish on Ice Right Away.
One of the significant disadvantages of bluefish is that it tends to spoil very quickly at ambient temperatures, so fish should be put on ice as soon as they’re caught for the best flavor.
Because bluefish is one of the fishier-tasting types of pelagic fish due to their diet of oily baitfish, they test best when smoked.
Don’t Bother With Sand Spikes.
Sand spikes can be used to drift cast in a slow leisurely way for some species of surf zone fish, but if you’re fishing into a shoal of running bluefish, you’ll likely be getting too many strikes to stick your fishing rod in the sand.
Look for a flock of birds to figure out where to set up camp.
Because of the way bluefish feed, wounded and dying baitfish are reeling in their wake as they chase and attack.
This, in turn, brings in scavengers like seagulls, so if you see a flock of seagulls, chances are there is a shoal of running bluefish nearby.
Be Careful of The Toothy End.
Bluefish are aggressive and can deliver a nasty bite when you’re trying to take them off the hook.
Bring along a pair of protective gloves such as welding gloves for added protection from bluefish teeth and fins.
If you’re planning on keeping the fish, it’s also a good idea to club it before attempting to remove the hook from its mouth to help avoid a bite.
Clean The Fish Immediately After Hauling It In.
The enzymes in a bluefish’s stomach are very strong and begin to break down a dead bluefish quickly if the fish isn’t cleaned right away.
All of the bluefish’s innards should be removed immediately after hooking it to keep the fish’s flavor as mild as possible.
When serving bluefish for dinner, avoid the bloodline.
This is the dark red section of meat down the center of the bluefish filet.
This area of the filet is where most of the fishiest flavor of the bluefish is concentrated, so if you want a milder-tasting dish that isn’t fishy or gamey, remove this section during cleaning.
Bluefish has a somewhat iffy reputation as a fish that goes off quickly, so it’s important to know not only the best ways to catch them but also the best ways to make them taste good.
Not everybody might like the flavor of bluefish, but it’s hard to find a fish in the surf zone willing to give more fight on the rod even at a smaller size.
Going after these toothy, feisty fish can be some of the best fun you have while surf fishing as long as you have the gear that you need.
And you’re fishing for bluefish during the right time of year for your location on their migratory route along the Atlantic coastline.