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The Bluefish

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"Fisherman. Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea. Master. Why, as men do a-land : the great ones eat up the little ones." — Pericles.

Not far from the isle of Patience, in Rhode Island waters, an old longshoreman and fisherman once informed me that he had taken one hundred and forty " horse-mackerel " in a single day. In Georgia at the mouth of the St. Mary's not far from Dungeness, my sable boatman told me of the delights of "skipjack" fishing in the proper season. The retired New Bedford whaler, who fishes near there, will show you a rod bent by "snappers," and the Jamaica Bay angler esteems himself in great good luck when he makes a catch of "skip mackerel." I offended the Patience Island fishermen by intimating that one horse-mackerel a season would be considered a good catch by some people, and then he produced the game. It was a bluefish. So, in Georgia, the bluefish was the skip-jack, and in all these localities it was the same hard-fighting, bluff, line-breaking, hook-taking, devastating bluefish, not travelling under an incognito, but having alias upon alias forced upon it by the fishermen and beach-combers alongshore from Maine to Florida. Even the most rigid adherents of the school of rod fishermen, who look upon the hand-line as a contrivance of the pot-hunter, will have to cry peccavi, when the bluefish is mentioned, as the largest number of these gamy creatures are taken with a hand-line, and find the ruthless slaughter which they carry on among the small fry turned upon themselves. No one can deny the fascination of the sport ; the fresh wind, the rushing boat, the skipper sitting on the edge of nothing to windward, to hold her down, the angler from the city perchance lying in the lee scuppers holding on for dear life, his arms wrenched and chafed by the gamy fish which seems to be in league with the " old man " at the helm to complete his demoralization. But when the same ancient mariner has had his joke, and luffs at the strike, then there is sport for the hand-liner, who, seized with the lust for killing, plays and is played, with shout and laughter.

No one can watch the bluefish amusing itself at the expense of a party of dry-land fishermen but is convinced that this blue-backed, slashing creature is the fish of the people. Off Newport and all along the coast the bluefish has been successfully fished for with rod and reel, and I have enjoyed the sport at Fisher's Island, off New London, and am convinced that if proper boats were employed, after the fashion of the yellowtail and tuna launches of California, bluefishing with a rod would become as popular as the quest of the striped bass among the islands of strange names, of which Cuttyhunk is the most familiar.

My first attempt to take a bluefish with a rod was disastrous to the rod. The current at Fisher's Island was particularly fierce where the fish were biting, so that a rowboat was impossible; and, with a stiff breeze, I had my boatman beat up and down across the tide-rip, which reminded me, in its intensity, of the "rip raps at Old Point Comfort, or " Pull and be d ____Point" at Portsmouth. The water was clear and beautiful, aerated with constant whitecaps, hence exhilarating to the fish, which were evidently feeding, breaking water here and there. I had the mainsail triced up so that the main boom, from a distance, looked like the topgallant yard of a three-master ; at least, it cleared my head when it swung around. My rod weighed twenty-six ounces, was eight feet long, with a far too slender tip, and was rigged with a number twelve cuttyhunk line, which would pull a dead weight of twenty-two pounds. The skip-per had orders to luff at the strike and hold her in the wind until I brought the bluefish to gaff — this is a well-planned theory, and, as the boat-man said later on, "it looked all right." Presently we were bounding over the water, the silvery bait flashing from wave to wave sixty feet behind. We had reached halfway over the " rip," the little cat-boat flying along, lee scuppers under, with a big bone in her teeth, the skipper, with one hand on the tiller, and the other grasping the main-sheet, ready to slack away when the strike came — the reel screamed, " Tuff ! luf-f-f-f-f!" shrilly, then madly, and up into the wind came the boat, caracoling, shaking her sails, and making a prodigious protest at being stopped in so ruthless a manner. But all was not well with me ; the bluefish had made a prodigious rush, and aided by the speed of the boat, literally ran out my line, and, despite a desperate effort to save it, took line and tip. But there were more lines, more tips, and more bluefish, and the next time we close-hauled the cat-boat, ran her into the very eye-teeth of the wind, against the current, and at the strike pushed her into the wind, and let the main-sheet run ; and then I was 'initiated into the delights of real sport with the rod. No fish makes a better or more vigorous fight, pound for pound. Amid the clanking of boom, the tattoo of reefing points, the jangle of the block along the traveller, I played the bluefish. How it played and bore away ! What mad rushes it made in and around ! now far away at the surface, where the dark green waters rolled in silvery laughter; now plunging off, forcing the fight, and making the reel sob and cry. For ten minutes I played this gallant fish, and when at last it came in, I was forced around the mast and under the sheet several times to meet its circling ; finally it came to gaff, fifteen pounds of vigor and unsuppressible animation.

The bluefish is one of the gamiest of American fishes with a rod, but rods and a sail-boat rarely agree, and the strain on the nerves of the average angler, not to mention the skipper, who is expected to luff at the right moment, is too great. With an eighteen- or twenty-foot four-horse-power gasolene launch, built light, with a canvas hood, which can be used forward, rigged with two chairs facing astern, resting on a plank on the rail, blue-fishing with a rod could be enjoyed, and would become a popular sport around southern New England, as such a boat can be stopped and reversed almost immediately.

There is something infectious and extremely exciting in bluefishing, no matter how taken. The big cat-boat off Nantucket, with two or three lines astern, and a large party of men and women all eager for the fray, bright eyes sparkling, red cheeks splashed by the dashing spray, the shouts of laughter, the hissing of lines through the water, the beating of powerful tails on the planks, are all features which add to the gayety and joy of life and in making it worth living, especially when fish are biting and bait is plentiful. The bluefish attains a weight of thirty pounds, possibly more, and the record catch with a rod, according to the Forest and Stream, is a twenty-five-pound fish, the fish being taken by L. Hatherway, from the bridge at Cohasset Narrows. The bluefish is now caught with rod and reel wherever found in this country, and as the young at nearly all ages are equally gamy, the angler has a wide range from snappers" of two or more pounds with a fly-rod, to eight pounds with a bass rod, adapting his tackle to the size of the game at hand. In trolling, the jig is used — bone or metal, menhaden or any silvery fish, or even a white rag. Along the Jersey shore and many wide sandy beaches they are caught by casting far out beyond the breakers, the men running the fish in with the line over their shoulders as soon as hooked. Others, again, at very favorable localities, wade out and cast with rods, but the best rod-fishing is in some locality where the boat can be rowed by a boatman or anchored near a tide-rip, when the angler can cast his menhaden or sardine out into the water, and by reeling in hook the gamy fish.

The bluefish is a comely creature about three feet in length, long, fairly slender, with a robust, well-proportioned body, the dorsal fins low, the tail large and powerful. Its color, as the name indicates, is blue above, appearing green in the water, and bright silvery below, and altogether a beautiful fish, the embodiment of vigor, grace, and pugnacity. It belongs to the genus Pomatomus, and has many synonyms, twelve at least, and is now known as Pomatomus saltarix (Linn.).

It has a wide geographical range, being found from Nova Scotia to Brazil. It is a common fish in Australian waters, in the Malay Archipelago, and off South Africa. Its movements are singular and erratic. Thus, in the Mediterranean, it is caught at Algiers, but is rare on the Italian shore. It shuns the Atlantic coast of Europe in the latitudes in which it is common in America. It never crosses from Florida to the Bermudas, and it apparently avoids the islands of Cuba and Porto Rico. Doubtless it disappears from certain localities, reappearing again only after many years. Thus, so far as known, it was not chronicled north of Cape Cod prior to 1837.

The bluefish moves north or south according to the weather. It appears along the shore of Delaware, Virginia, and New York in May, gradually reaching the higher latitudes as the summer approaches, and remains until October. During this period it moves in large schools, feeding on menhaden, squid, and various fishes allied to sardines, herring, and mackerel, and is so voracious that it is a factor to be considered in the depletion of bait fishes. I have seen blue-fish charge a school of small mackerel, leaving the water filled with silvery fragments which sank like stars in the blue sky of the ocean, to be picked up by hungry dogfishes attracted by the slaughter. The bluefishes seemed, like "jacks," to eat what they wished, then, crazed by the excitement of the chase, amused them-selves by biting the fleeing victims for the mere wanton pleasure of killing. Such a killing can often be recognized from a distance by the flying foam and the vociferous notes of gulls which hasten in that direction. The enormous numbers of bluefishes off the American coast in mid-summer are beyond computation. Professor Baird refers to a thousand. millions, and to afford some idea of their voracity he says that if each one eats ten small fish per day, then ten thou-sand millions of small fry are needed to supply the daily commissariat of this fast-moving army: The fisherman in Pericles " who wondered how the fishes of the sea lived, doubtless had never been a bluefish fisherman.

Considering the vast number of bluefish very little is known regarding its spawning. On Cape Cod and at Nantucket the fishermen believe that it spawns in midsummer, depositing its spawn on the clear sandy bottoms. G. Brown Goode suggested that they spawned late in the year, as small bluefish were seen at Beaufort in December ; but the question is an open one. About ten per cent of the young of each fish are supposed to attain maturity. When about fourteen inches long the weight is a pound. A fish two feet in length will weigh about seven pounds, and the early spring fish often range from seven to ten pounds in weight, larger and more robust specimens appearing later in the season. As to the spawning habits of the fish in the Gulf of Mexico there is more definite data. According to Mr. Stearns it is very abundant on the Gulf Stream coast as far west as the mouth of the Mississippi River. It arrives in April or the last of March, there being several distinct " runs." The first to arrive are smaller than those coming later. Then, every fish Mr. Stearns found in spawn, and that it is deposited at this time, in the months of May, June, July, and August, he is confident, as he has caught young bluefish in June and August not over three-quarters of an inch in length. In June nearly all the adults disappear from view, and in November and December the young fish are seen to pass through the inlets and go to sea At this time fishes ranging from three and five inches to fifteen inches are observed. In observations covering six years I never saw or heard of a bluefish on the outer reef.

The bluefish is a valuable food-fish —one of the most delicious table fishes in America. After being kept or frozen, its delicate flavor is, to a certain extent, lost. Over eight million pounds of bluefish are consumed annually, valued at about half a million dollars, and all alongshore wherever found they rank high as game or food fish, or both.

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