What does a country boy from Nashville, Tennessee use that is tooth-proof for bluefish? Guitar strings, of course.
I'm from Leipers Fork, a small community that's about thirty miles south of Nashville. I play a fair guitar but I fish a whole lot better and if catching fish paid off in gold records I'd have enough to swamp my boat.
I had been reading about bluefish and how blues go after baitfish like our stripers go after shad. Bluefish will herd up a school of minnows and plow right though them. Sometimes they beach the minnows and sometimes they beach themselves. I love to catch fish with spunk.
They will eat anything born, hatched, or came into being some other way, such as plastic lures. They tear into mackerel, eels, shrimp, squid, alewives, menhaden, and human beings. But they bit the humans by mistake, I hope.
Between 1973 and 1985 along the Atlantic coast, 24 people were bitten by bluefish. The fish were feeding on a school of baitfish in some murky water along the beaches where people were swimming close to shore. One girl said she saw a fish bite her, then back up, and bite her again. Innocent bystanders just got caught in a feeding frenzy. Still it takes a spunky fish to make a mistake that big.
I wanted to see one of those critters up close. Since it was time for blues to be running in Destin, Florida, my wife, Cathy, and I loaded up our gear and headed south.
To find out where we should go fishing we made some inquiries at the harbor. It was suggested we fish from one of the jetties. The local anglers said the west jetty was better but it was a lot longer walk. We chose the east jetty.
We carried our gear out to the end and started fishing. There were three young fishermen out there already. We started talking about fishing, not wasting words on names or such pleasantries. They were just like the good ol' boys back home. We did find out they were airmen from nearby Eglin Air Force Base. They asked what we were fishing for. We told'em bluefish.
They looked at our Tennessee bass rods, they looked at each other, and smiled funny little smiles. Right then I got the feeling that they wanted to tell us something but they weren't sure how to go about it. I'm sure you've had it happen to you, when someone looks at you like you're a helpless Martian but doesn't feel up to telling you all you need to know about living on Earth.
I didn't mind asking what we needed to use. When they said our rods were too little, our reels were too little, our line was too little, and we needed steel leaders, well sir, I felt like a Martian. We weren't equipped to catch anything that swam around those rocks. Something they called a sheepshead had teeth like a Dracula pup and would bite right through our wimpy 10-pound test line.
We thanked them for their help and went on back to town to buy what we needed. A nice fellow helped us pick out new rods and reels and told us how to fish for blues.
By the time we left we felt as proud as a first-grader after his first day of school. We felt like we knew a lot but we weren't quite sure what it all meant.
It was too late to go fishing but we drove by the jetty to see what was going on. We watched the airmen dragging a blanket down the beach. They had about a dozen bluefish that would all together weigh about 130-pounds. Back in Tennessee we don't have as much trouble carrying a 130-pound buck out of the holler as these boys had dragging those fish through the soft sand.
Cathy and I were severely impressed with those fish. We couldn't believe what those teeth were like. I don't carry a knife with a blade that sharp for fear of loosing a finger. Perfect little round pyramids that bring blood before the pain. Like when you cut yourself shaving, you don't know you've been had until you see the red.
Later that night when we were planning the next day's events - I was going for blues and Cathy was going shopping for a few hours before joining me. While preparing our new rods I realized we didn't have any of those tooth-proof leaders and all the sport shops were closed.
At 10 p.m. it was time to improvise, but where was I going to find some wire. I started cogitating. I got my guitar. There were six strands of various sizes. Which size would make a leader?
The top strings struck me as being too big. Judging from the size of a blue's teeth, I figured that a small string would slide in between the teeth next to its gums out of harms way, like Dental Floss.
If you don't have guitar strings you can use any strong thin wire. The salt water will rust all but stainless steel. When you don't have what you need, you use what you got.
With pliers in hand, I transformed the two skinniest strings into leaders. One of the articles I read about blues mentioned the size hook to use, a 3/0 short-shank O'Shaughnessy. I didn't have one. So I used what I had, a hook we use for stripers back home. This hook was a piece of steel, strong enough to break even a blue's tooth.
I sharpened it with a stone I carry for such occasions. Then I put the string through the eye of the hook and made a loop. Then wound the string up around itself. I did the same thing at the other end with a barrel swivel. We had four leaders about a foot long. I felt like we were ready.
The next morning I went fishing and Cathy went shopping. The airmen were there plus a few other anglers. Nothing had happened yet, so I got ready. After opening my box of frozen cigar minnows, I separated a few so they would thaw. I didn't figure a fish would like a popsicle-minnow.
When the blues swam by, a herd of about a dozen, rods started bending and reels started singing. One line popped like a rifle shot. One of the boys told another one to cast towards his fish, that there was another blue close by. He played it longer than he normally would have so his friend could cast at it. When that other blue hit there were three fish on at once. Not me, I was still waiting for my fishsicle to thaw.
When that run was over and everybody got their fish in, one of them asked where my fish was. I told him my bait hadn't thawed yet. His face went blank. I know how to recognize a blank face, and he had one. I felt like a Martian again. He said it didn't make any difference if the minnows were thawed or not. I could tell that boy had lost all confidence in me.
I just loaded my hook and cast that minnow as far as I could. They had told me not to add any weight, just let the bait float or sink on its own. I was the only one fishing. The blank-faced boy told me that they cast to the school when they were in sight and that would be my best chance of hooking a blue.
My line was moving in with the tide around the point and before I could reel it in something just about broke my arms and snatched my rod. My first thought was one those boys was playing a trick on me, a pretty rough one at that. But my fishing instincts were sharp and I set the hook. I don't know what it's called when a fish "sets" back at you, but this one did. Just about set me on my rear too.
My reel was smoking. I hadn't tightened the drag enough. By the time I twisted down on it and turned the fish I was down to black plastic. There was close to two hundred yards of mono heading for the Gulf of Mexico. I was right embarrassed. The boys were laughing, shouting advice, and teasing this hillbilly about catching his first real fish.
Now I'm not all that inexperienced. I have caught a few stripers over twenty pounds that came close to wearing me out but this one felt like it must be forty pounds. As it turns out, a long time later when I got my first look at it, it was the same size as all the other blues, about twelve pounds.
I was glad to see the blank-faced boy had a lot more enthusiasm showing. He said, while casting his bait out, he had always waited to see the blues before casting. Now he had learned a new trick.
Cathy joined me and brought lunch. The blues had gone with the change of the tide and so had the boys. She "oohed" and "aahed" over the bluefish and made me feel good so I told her again how it happened. After the third telling the "oohs" became "ohs." I could tell she had the picture.
I'd tell you what else I read about these fish but you'd probably think I've pulled your leg too much already. But I swear, every word is the fisherman's truth. And if you or any of your friends are guitar pickers and like to catch blues, you can make those old strings sing again. Happy Hooking!