Search the surface for finning blues, the best sight fishing on Long Island Sound!
“There’s one at two o’clock, 50 feet, heading right at us!” This is a common phrase you might hear when fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys or permit in Belize, but sight casting for finning blues in western Long Island Sound? Wouldn’t that be unheard of? Not at all.
‘Finning’ is a term that refers to the act of swimming just beneath surface of the water, so close in fact, that their tail and dorsal fins often stick out of the water. It can easily be mistaken for a school of bunker or even small sharks to the untrained eye. This is a unique and amazing phenomenon that I feel privileged to have witnessed, and excited to now share with you. This exciting phenomenon is nothing new, big blues have been doing this for centuries, check out this 1992 quote from Lou Tabory.
“Open water finds bluefish finning on top, primarily in the spring, and these fishing conditions can be great. The fish are visible on calm days as they spook from boat wakes. Rocky shorelines are also ideal in Midsummer, with Fish occupying bays, sometimes milling around large rocks right near shore. Both instances find the fish spooky, indicating a possible link to spawning, for these are the only times bluefish hold for long periods in quieter water.”
Big bluefish arrive in Long Island Sound in the springtime and will spawn soon after arriving. When they finish up their spawning rituals, they shift their focus to eating. These ‘racer’ blues will gorge themselves on bunker and squid to the point that their bellies are visibly distended. Once they’ve had their fill, they swim away from the food source to digest. Big blues can be seen exhibiting this finning behavior on calm days when they are spawning or when they are “solar heating,” a term used to describe the slow swimming/floating behavior they exhibit on the surface of the water.
I asked local captain and veteran fisherman Ian Devlin about this behavior, “Blues will solar digest just like tuna, or billfish. They will swim along the surface of the water purposefully, in order to use the sun’s warmth to increase their body temperature. This aids in the digestion of their nutrient-dense meal and to metabolize their system better.”
Blues of all sizes can be found finning in this manner, but my experiences have shown that they are usually quite large. Many of the fish that I have caught are in the 7- to 10-pound range with many others between 15 and 20 pounds and pushing 40 inches. You can find these fish in open water lazily cruising on the surface on calm warm days, flashing (turning on their side) and swimming around each other like they’re in a trance. Much of this activity in recent years has happened out in open water, however it can happen near shore as well. I have caught finning blues as early as May and as late as October.
The cool thing about this type of fishing is that it’s not a spot-oriented fishery. Typically, anglers will just stumble upon these gators when traveling from one spot to another. You may see splashes out of your peripheral vision, or spook a school while driving through. These fish tend to ride the current which may push them a mile or two, or more in any direction during any given tide. I have stayed on a school of blues for hours and noticed on my GPS that I had traveled a long distance, only needing to start the motor when the fish drifted out of casting range.
Trolling motors can be used to sneak up on tailing fish to make a well-placed cast. I do not have a trolling motor but I do fairly well just riding the tide and periodically starting the engine to move at a slow speed. You may be able to go back to the same general area for a few days until the fish move, forcing you to begin the search all over again. These schools may be as few as five to ten individuals or as many as hundreds if not thousands.
RODS & REELS
This is a light tackle game. Medium to medium-light action rods in the 7- to 8-foot range are ideal for throwing surface lures ranging from a half to 3 ounces. Spinning reels are all I use, in the 3000 to 5000 size range, which are more than enough to handle bluefish into the teens, since you won’t have to worry about being busted off on structure. Just let them pull drag, and enjoy the fight. Fifteen- to 30-pound braided line is ideal for long casts, just be sure to add a 30- to 40-inch leader of 30- to 50-pound mono tied to a fast clip. A short wire leader is optional since the length of the lure can also act as a bite guard.
Most of the time the blues are more than willing to blow up on anything that crosses their path. I have done well with standard, poppers and spooks in just about any color in the 5- to 7-inch range. If they are being finicky, downsizing to 4, or even 3 inches can turn on the bite, sometimes when sizing down, you may want to try something like an Epoxy Jig. I don’t like to mess around with extra hooks, so I will typically remove one treble, or I might remove both in favor of a large siwash on the tail.
Before we begin, let me lay a few ground rules to follow when it comes to landing large blues. For starters, I never use a net because I hate dealing with trebles tangled in a net, especially with a large fish attached. Instead, use a Boga Grip or other type of fish gripper, this will allow you to gain control of the fish while keeping your hands safe. A set of big and reliable pliers is also a must – you don’t want to be dealing with 15-pound gator that could literally take your little finger off with a dinky pair of rusted pliers – make sure your pliers are in good working order before you leave the dock. Lastly, never bring a hooked bluefish into the boat, an angry bluefish set free in the cockpit, will wreak havoc and if it’s swinging a hook with trebles, you or one of your deckmates might end up painfully attached. It’s also advised to get them in as quickly as possible to avoid exhausting the fish which they may not be able to recover from, especially during the heat of the summer.
I will usually reel the fish to the boat, leaving a rod’s length of line out so that I can lift the fish to the surface, drop (or hand off) the rod and grab the leader. I kneel down in the stern of the boat, take a wrap of leader around my hand, then carefully and quickly slide a Boga Grip into its jaws. I will unhook the fish while it is hanging vertically over the side of the boat, to avoid hooking myself or other people in the boat. Sometimes with a particularly angry fish, I will lay it over the gunwale so its tail is outside the boat and just its head is resting on the rail. Sometimes this helps to subdue it. Then you can take a quick photo and release it. As I write this, it occurs to me that I’m making this sound much easier than it actually is. It takes practice and care and it really helps to have another person onboard to help out.
For a long time Long Island Sound was synonymous with big bluefish. Heck, there was even a Minor League Baseball team called the Bridgeport Bluefish! Long Island Sound is also home to “The Greatest Bluefish Tournament on Earth”, a tournament that offers $20,000 to the angler that can catch the largest bluefish during the three-day August event. However in recent years, bluefish populations have dropped and fishermen are seeing the effects.
Anglers across the board are reporting fewer bluefish every year, it seems. This is why, starting in 2020, bluefish regulations were changed to three fish per angler, per day. Prior to the change, anglers were allowed to keep as many as 10 bluefish per day. No one is exactly sure why we are seeing fewer bluefish, however lowering the creel limit is a good first step that can only help the population. I am hopeful that bluefish preservation and regulation will be on the forefront of lawmakers’ minds in upcoming years to salvage the fishery and promote healthy populations for years to come.
Captain Ian Devlin (a naturalist, and fisherman) has helped me through his willingness to share a deep knowledge for these waters and the species that live in them. He is a great resource and a great fisherman. Thanks Ian.
MAIN – Finding and catching finning gators is a guaranteed cure for the summertime blues.
TIN – If the fish get finicky, downsizing to a small plug or tin can sometimes fire up the bite.
FINNING – Finning blues may look like barely-perceptible wakes, splashes, streaking v-wakes or little triangle fins poking out of the water.
BIG BLUE – These bruiser blues are a ton of fun on light tackle.