Catch winter blues
rusty chinnis | sun
Captain Rick Grassett with a 5-pound bluefish that took his
top water popper in the shallows off Longboat Key
When the weather gets cold, savvy local anglers get the winter blues. Bluefish that is, one of the hardest fighting fish that swims local waters. Bluefish are a pelagic species that are found worldwide in temperate and subtropical waters. They are a migratory species in the waters of the Atlantic coast and range from Florida to Massachusetts, leaving Florida’s east coast and migrating north during the spring and summer months. However, they are found in the Gulf year-round.
Bluefish are a more predictable catch locally during the winter months, which is perfect timing as many other species get harder to find and catch. Bluefish are a hard fighting and very aggressive fish that are perfect targets for anglers fishing both conventional and fly tackle. They will attack live bait, trolled plugs and spoons and Clouser flies, but they are especially fun to catch on top water plugs and top water (popper) flies.
This past Friday I was invited to experience the aggressive bluefish action with Captain Rick Grassett. When a strong cold front blew in, we moved the trip to Saturday – a cool and cloudy day that threatened rain. I met Grassett on City Island, and we motored to the east side of mid Longboat Key, where Grassett has been having consistent action on blues to six pounds – very respectable fish in area waters.
To make things even more exciting, we would be targeting them on top water plugs and flies. When we arrived at the flat, Grassett measured the water temperature at 58 degrees, a full 10 degree drop from two days before. We started to question if the sudden drop of temperature might have put the fish off the flat, when on the third cast with a popper Grassett got a hit. That fish threw the hook, but a few casts later, he was hooked up solidly to a hard fighting fish. The blue was strong and took Grassett close to his backing on three different runs before it began to tire. After several more short bursts near the boat, we were able to net, photo and release the 5-pound blue.
Grassett’s fish took a popper that he ties using a product called Rainey’s popper foam. Grassett cuts the 6-inch sticks into three, 2-inch popper bodies. The foam is cut with a square back and a forward angled face that pushes the water. He uses a 1/0, long shank hook with a large eye gap and ties in (with mono thread) a heavy tail of flash using a product called Flashabou. Grassett ties lots of flash in to compensate for the sharp teeth of the bluefish, which trim the flash with every strike.
The mono thread is wrapped back to the bend in the hook, where he palmers (wraps) in ice chenille and a small bump of estaz as a filler, finishing on the body of the fly. He then makes a hole in the popper body about two-thirds of the way to the bottom and inserts the hook. The last step is to color in eyes using waterproof marker. This fly is very effective, pushes a lot of water and can catch up to a dozen blues before needing to be changed.
Grassett and I took turns on the bow, and while he was busy with three more blues on the popper, I caught and released a nice bluefish and a Jack cravelle on an Azuma top water plug. When I took to the bow he picked up the spinning tackle and was soon fighting a large Spanish mackerel that ended up topping the scales at five pounds.
Grassett has been finding the blues mixed with mackerel and Jack cravelle in shallow water right up on grass bars. He has noticed that the bluefish roam in packs and work the bars back and forth from north to south. Using noisy poppers and plugs that push lots of water is a good way to attract fish.
While Grassett normally works a bar using a wind anchor and a Wang stake out pole he theorizes that staying in one place and working the area might be just as effective. Bluefish have sharp teeth, as do the Spanish mackerel that inhabit the same area. To prevent a break off Grassett ties about 8 inches of knot able wire ahead of his flies and plugs. He ties the wire to his standing line using a surgeon’s knot.
Bluefish are a terrific target for anglers fishing the cold winter months. They are a hardy species that can be found under adverse conditions and best of all they are eager to take a top water plug or fly, one of the most exciting ways to experience the winter blues.