South Cape plugging for big gator blues with bad attitudes.
It seems like a most beautiful dream, with turquoise and green, mixed with varying shades of blue and grey. The ocean playing games with the palette as the clouds rolled across an otherwise brilliant sky. The wind howled from the southwest as the flooding tide, brought life across the bar. Herring, pogies, squid… with yellow-eyed devils casually in pursuit, triggered by a slight twitch of a fin, or a subtle splash of a popping plug. But there was no need for subtlety on this day.
Bluefish, by nature, are voracious predators. They typically don’t play games requiring a finesse approach. Sometimes? Sure. No, a blazing pencil popper or skipping lure will bring the choppers alive when in pursuit of prey. The south side of Cape Cod in May of 2017 played out as many springs before it, with the aforementioned selection of baitfish and ravenous blues going to work. That spring saw oily slicks and shimmering scales cover the flats as we plied the surf, with blues into the upper teens. Days when a 10-pounder would draw a casual shrug.
When It’s Red Hot
In 2018, as the days grew longer, mid-May signaled the beginning of our annual, springtime bluefish season. The conditions were perfect, and two hours before high tide, in a location that has given up untold numbers of blues over the past three decades, we found ourselves tracing the shoreline, destined for a repeat of last year’s bonanza. Now, I’ll admit, 2017 had been one of the greatest surf years for bluefish I have ever witnessed; and I would’ve been more than happy if it turned out to be even half that . The years leading up to 2017 had seen an increase in quality over a three year span, as is typical with a bluefish cycle nearing its pinnacle. So, with expectations boiling over, our party let fly with the various topwater lures, readying for the onslaught… that never came. As the days turned into weeks, without a single blue, the reality set in. And the drought would continue for the following two years.
It Begins Again
The calendar flipped to May, 2021, and with it came renewed anticipation of what we hoped would be the return of the blue bombers. Preparations were set, slightly adjusted with more variety and sizes to offer, and the day arrived when the waders were drawn, footprints trailing my path. Conditions were ideal for the first trip of the season. A slight southwest breeze, overcast skies, and a late morning high tide. As is typical of our favorite Nantucket Sound beaches, the incoming tide usually fishes better than the ebb, and arriving a few hours before slack will give you time to assess the water and allow for prospecting.
My buddy, John Rice, and I made our way westward, towards an inlet with heavy current, casting along the way. Poppers in the 1- to 2-ounce size were the plugs of choice, and they chugged seductively across the slight swell. A couple of striped bass would find the mark, and an hour later we were headed east on the beach, past our starting point, towards a deep hole in an otherwise uniform bottom. This structure has been a hotspot for many years, but easily overlooked, as you would only know it from years of wading the flats.
As we approached, a lone figure could be seen in the distance, clearly tight to a fish. Our first thought was a striper. The wind carried a slight scent of watermelon, in reality this comes from a mix of oils in the water from bluefish crushing bait. Their presence confirmed when the fellow angler wrapped his hand around the fork-tail of a bluefish. The blues were back!
However, a dozen or so casts later, and the poppers had yet to raise a chopper. This is when the pre-trip preparation pays off, as the unknown angler had now caught two more bluefish. He was tossing metal. While it is true that some days, it seems as though you could literally throw anything to hungry blues and get bit, this is not a guarantee, by any means. And today was not one of those other days. Today was a day for Kastmasters. The sweet spot was the 1-ounce range; and for the next two hours, the action was steady, producing a couple dozen yellow-eyed devils, mostly in the 5- to 7-pound class, with one specimen pushing 10.
Not the giants that haunted our memories for the last few years, but decent, healthy fish that held promise for the coming years, in what appeared to be the beginning of a new cycle. The drought was over.
Getting The Blues
As the year changed to 2022 and New England was digging out from its first blizzard in many years, friends talked of heading north for skiing or snowmobiling, but I was already standing in the May surf in my mind and my hands were busy making preparations. My poppers, tins and pencils were all refitted with new hooks and splits, dozens of new leaders waiting in their pouch.
My preferred springtime outfit is a medium action spinning rod in the 9- to 10-foot range. These are not the rods you would take to the Cape Cod Canal, or climbing the rocks in the deep of night in Rhody for giant bass. These rods are meant for beaches, rated 1 to 3 ounces, but with enough finesse to throw plastics. A soft tip allows for getting those topwater plugs to dance just right, but also transmits the wobble of metals and tins to ensure your retrieve is right. Currently, my go-to outfit when plugging the beach is a Black Hole Suzuki 9-1/2-footer, paired with a Shimano 5000 class spinning reel, filled with 30-pound braid.
For leaders, I’ll tie 40-inch stretches of fluorocarbon or monofilament, but will typically opt for fluoro if there are big bass in the mix. I never use wire leaders, as most of the time, blues will attack the tail. My springtime beach surf bag will include the following: the previously mentioned poppers, a variety of pencil poppers in the 2-ounce range, such as those from Guppy and Left Hook, metals and tins including Kastmasters, Hopkins and Deadly Dicks, along with plastics like Hogy paddletails and swim shads (for bass). Also, I’ll keep an old school, Robert’s Ranger on standby. In addition, I’ll modify some of my pencils to replicate the single tail hook of the Ranger, which obviously is less harmful to the fish, and safer for the angler when unhooking a big, gator bluefish. And of course, pliers.
If 2021 is the start of the next cycle, then 2022 should be even better. I usually start looking around the Nantucket Sound beaches during the second week of May, and some years, I’ve even had fast action just after the first of the month. More importantly, keep your eyes peeled for the squid boats working the Sound, a constant precursor to the bluefish arrival. And of course, while whispers on the “quahog telegraph” might ring in your ears, social media isn’t shy; so be on lookout for fresh posts and reports. The May bluefish bite on the South Cape is a rite of spring that I look forward to every year, give it a try and I’m betting you will too. I’ll see you in the suds.