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The Fish Called Chopper

While diving in some 50 feet of water off the south-east corner of Block Island, a huge school of baitfish appeared just above us. As we watched them swirling about like a flock of small blackbirds, bluefish made their entrance on the scene. Though the baitfish scattered, seemingly in every direction, the area was quickly inundated with bits and pieces of bluefish prey. We had witnessed the “choppers” at work. Back on our boat, two other divers were preparing for a second dive. They watched the churning waters with baitfish leaping from the surface. The baitfish were trying to escape aggressive predators considered “among the most ferocious and bloodthirsty fish in the sea.” Though the two divers below had their underwater camera in hand, they were both equally struck with “buck fever,” unable in time to get a decent picture of the melee. Bluefish range from Cape Cod to Florida, Bermuda, the Gulf of Mexico, and south as Argentina. They are said to also be occasionally found as far north as Nova Scotia but are entirely absent in parts of the Pacific. The young-of-the-year (juveniles) take up residence in estuaries and brackish water while adults inhabit coastal inshore and offshore waters. Both adults and juveniles are tolerant of salinity down to10 ppt (average ocean salinity 35ppt). Blues are seasonal migrators. Swimming in large schools, adults setting out from southern New England can cover more than 1,200 miles before arriving at their Florida winter destination. Other adult bluefish however, winter-over in the deep and warmer waters of the continental shelf, offshore of the Carolinas. A resident adult Florida population swim inshore and offshore within the same region. Juvenile (snapper blues) remain close to shore in their southward migration. The spring migration is closely tied in with reproduction. Spawning occurs in two different events. The first occurs in the early spring along the edge of the Gulf Stream, between northern Florida and Cape Hatteras, NC. The second spawning takes place in late summer, in offshore waters between Cape Hatteras and Cape Cod. Females ready to spawn, roll themselves to release their eggs. Done so in spurts as they migrate, as many as 1.4 million eggs are spawned by 3 to 4-year-old females. As the eggs are spawned, attentive males release their milt. Fertilization occurs by mixing. In less than two days, the eyes of developing embryos can be seen peering out of their transparent egg. Their heart rates increase as they move around within the confines of their protective environment. A few hours later, the barely.08-inch long creatures break free, escaping into the surrounding waters. To help assure their survival, they carry a supply of yolk on their underside. Within about 4 days, the yolk supply is exhausted. The tiny fish then begin to feed on copepods, small planktonic crustaceans. Spring spawned juveniles drift northward, eventually making their way into bays and estuaries. Summer-spawned young of the mid-Atlantic coast generally remain out at sea throughout the season. During March and April, returning adults generally arrive along the shores of Georgia and the Carolinas. They find their way to Virginia and Delaware by late April and then from May through September for New Jersey, Long Island and New England. Tagging of adults around Long Island Sound revealed that many of them “returned to the same general area year-after-year.” Most juveniles in the Sound tended to be found over mud bottoms at depths of 30 to 80 feet. From June through August, snappers accounted for 93 percent of the catches during a fisheries study of Long Island Sound. Male and female bluefish reach sexual maturity by 2-years of age. They can live from 9 to 11 year and rarely exceed 20 pounds. Some of the largest fish caught frequently run between 10 to 15 pounds. In 1972, James Hussey landed the IGFA World Record bluefish while trolling off Hatteras. The 47-inch blue weighed in at 31 lb 12 oz! Recreationally caught blues have generally far exceed commercial landings, especially between New York to Virginia. Snapper blues tend to dominate recreational catches, with most landed between August and September. Snappers are usually caught in bays and estuaries, while landing adults is generally more successful surf fishing from a high-energy shore, pier fishing or by boat near a harbor entrance, jetty or rocky shore. On Florida’s east coast, the best time to go after bluefish is during the winter months. The state has a 10 per trip bag limit. The same is true for Connecticut while other states use a different bag limit and size restrictions. Check with your local authorities for their regulations. Hooking into a bluefish can be a real kick! The aggressive fish often leap and pull away several times as they attempt to break free. Once landed, any fisherman should beware of their sharp teeth! More than one angler has endured a bluefish wound. The taste of bluefish can leave something to be desired. If not cared for correctly, the oily fish can taste very fishy. Larger adults tend to have a stronger flavor than snapper blues. However, none of them should not be exposed to heat of sunlight for any lengthy period. Instead, they should immediately be iced over to minimize their fishiness. Proper handling can reward you with a tasty fish. Be sure to go to the web for an appetizing variety of bluefish recipes.

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