The way we fish for blackfish and fluke has changed a lot over time.
Okay, I know most of you hate history, but what if by learning some history about something you’re passionate about, you end up becoming more successful at it? Would you be interested then? I, like everybody else, has a history. I know that I wasn’t born with a spinning rod with a reel filled with braid in my hands, so I’ve sometimes wondered: how did I get here?
One advantage of living as long as I have is that I’ve fished through many phases, and styles of fishing. Armed with a little knowledge of decades past I’ve been encouraged to try my own ideas because I’ve seen how even radical notions sometimes turn out to become standard as time passes. So, I’ve come up with a few notions of my own and many of them improved my fishing dramatically. If I had not been open to the evolution of fishing techniques over time, my progress and enjoyment may have been stymied.
No doubt, fishing has changed during the decades since the end of World War II. A few examples that are beyond the scope of this article include, monofilament and braided lines, fiberglass and graphite rods, the advent of spinning reels, more durable and techno-manufactured reels, fiberglass boats, and superior four-cycles outboards. Although all of these changes have contributed to the evolution of fishing, it’s the changes in how we fish that are even more interesting.
Perhaps one of the most outrageous bits of history I can offer involves fishing for blackfish. In the 1950s, I was handed a stiff boat rod with a conventional reel spooled with 35-pound test linen line. The terminal rig consisted of two Virginia-style blackfish hooks attached to short pieces of chord that had been dipped in tar and attached to a sinker. The tarred chord was used as protection from rugged bottom and those human-like blackfish teeth. So, we were told. You may be shocked, but we caught blackfish with those rigs; probably because there were so many more blackfish. The tarred leaders gave way to heavy monofilament leaders once mono became available, and even when fiberglass rods did appear on the market, the ones available for bottom fishing tended to be “meat sticks.” In addition, fiddler crabs were “the best blackfish bait.” Slowly that transitioned to green crabs, but who knows, the best bait one day might be Buffalo chicken wings.
Although we fished for blackfish in May and in the fall, we always used crabs, because no one knew the reason why blackfish were caught so shallow in the spring until scientists revealed that blackfish move onto shell beds in May to spawn. The myth then evolved that you must use soft baits in May because blackfish have soft mouths and they wouldn’t eat tough-shelled crabs. Sandworms became the “standard” until a few anglers with inquisitive minds tried clams. They reasoned that since they were fishing on clam beds, why not use clams? I should point out that this occurred about the same time that sandworm prices sharply increased. Cause and effect? By the way, I’ve never caught a blackfish with a soft mouth. Just pointing that out.
Gradually, the rods became lighter, the conventional reels got better, then tough spinning gear emerged on the scene, monofilament lines became superior, and anglers began thinking about light tackle approaches for this species. At one point, I decided I’d use my flounder tackle for blackfishing. Did I catch fish? Yes. Was that tackle all that light? Not really. Some concepts persist today, such as two-hook rigs, but clearly, a door had opened for light tackle enthusiasts.
Thanks to the explosion in commercial potting for blackfish in the 1990’s we saw a precipitous decline in tog numbers followed by a collapse. Fisheries managers appeared afraid to act and things got pretty bad before potting was heavily regulated. Perhaps the collapse was an opportunity for fresh air to sweep away the old ideas. So it was that when the fish increased in numbers, anglers began to use light spinning tackle, braided line, and either a single baited hook, or a jig tipped with bait. Of course, there are limitations. It would be foolish to fish this way in spots featuring an abundance of snags, as well as in deep water where light tackle is overwhelmed by depth and conflicting currents. It is also true that depth requires heavier sinkers to get to and stay on bottom. However, one of the joys of blackfishing is that they move shallow in spring and fall. We’ve fished successfully in water as shallow as seven feet, where light tackle is not only feasible, but a lot more fun. I enjoy the fight, the excitement, and the terrific sensitivity that light tackle and jigs make possible.
At one time, regulations governing fluke harvests were minimal. Size and bag limits aren’t the only thing that has changed. In the old days we used heavy tackle; regardless of whether you fished in 10 feet or 100 feet, lures weren’t a consideration. There was “the” way to fish for fluke. The approach included conventional rod and reel, monofilament line, a single hook on a very long leader quite close to the sinker, and the hook was baited with a killifish, a strip of fish belly, or a combo of a squid strip with spearing or sand eel. Many anglers continue to use the “drag” technique with relatively heavy tackle but, as with all other angling forms, change happened, providing light tackle fans fluking options, aided by technology.
I suppose the first significant change occurred when fluke fans started using bucktails tipped with spearing or squid, and this change was feasible because of better spinning rods and reels. Although initially a shallow water technique, it wasn’t long before deeper water fluke enthusiasts adapted the style, when Spro came out with a bucktail style that was ideally suited to deeper fluke fishing. I had always been put off by the poor fight of fluke on heavy tackle and realized that the sinker inhibited the fight by pulling the fish down. Using a bucktail meant a straight connection to the fish with fewer gut-hooked fish, and that was important to me.
And then there was Berkley Gulp. Fluke fans who tried these scented soft plastics became aware that fluke loved the scent and it was more difficult to strip Gulp off the bucktail. An abundance of sand eels in those years made the Gulp Sand Eel model very popular. But since then, anglers have proven that all models work, because it’s the scent more than the profile that grabs a fluke’s attention.
Shall we dare to try ultralight gear on fluke? Many a fluke angler had that thought as light tackle saltwater fishing grew more popular and then exploded in the new millennium. Fishermen all along the East Coast began experimenting with light tackle on a great variety of species. Clearly, there were limitations. For example, I never use braided line when bait fishing; such as chunking and live-lining for stripers and blues. Also, strong currents and ultra-light tackle aren’t easily compatible. However, I was quite impressed when the late Fred Golofaro and I fished together and I watch him use light gear in the deep rips under the Montauk lighthouse to catch porgies and sea bass. I’ve figured out the deep-water part, but the strong current part still eludes me. Rich Lazar and I obviously aren’t the first to use the technique. In addition to Fred’s demonstration, there have been a number of articles written on the subject. Still, it was new to us. Rich suggested it, and I followed suit with some doubts. My doubts have been washed away in a river of fluke. I’m hooked!
We both use the same rods and reels we use for freshwater panfish. I refer to them as light crappie-style rods. The reels are filled with 10-pound test braided line. The leader is a foot-long length of 15- or 20-pound test mono, with a 35-pound test Spro mini swivel connected to the braid and, although I prefer to tie direct to the lure, Rich uses a small snap to facilitate quicker changes.
The lures are 1/8 and 1/4 ounce; the same ones I use to catch bluegills, perch, and crappie in freshwater, although I do avoid using heads with wire hooks, preferring forged hooks. I like Eagle Claw and Gotcha brands. I tend to use 1/4-ounce when the drift is a little stronger and 1/8-ounce when the water moves slowly. Lately we’ve been using either Gulp shrimp or 3-inch swimming mullet styles.
There are clear advantages to this style. First, the feel is so sensitive, and I’m convinced I now feel hits that I missed using heavier gear. Second, I believe the presentation to the fluke is more natural. The angler can let the head sit by giving line, bounce it along, or jig it occasionally. I believe it looks more like a natural bait skittering around. Third, even a 16-inch fluke can bend the rod over, take a little drag, and surge in all directions, while a 23-inch fluke can fight with significant enthusiasm.
The evolution of fishing is a two-pronged process as technology and angler curiosity merge. You may not agree, but I believe most of these changes in angling techniques has provided us with more exciting and varied angling experiences. If you haven’t yet tried it, I say why not?