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Murder at Sea


It is nothing new, bluefish madness. The story is told of a bright Sunday morning long ago: a crowded Cape Cod church, the door flung wide, and a breathless voice shouting, "The blues are in." And of the dust from horse-drawn buggies suddenly darkening the day, and a beach aswarm with figures in black.

There are all kinds of religions on the bluefish coast, though only two are seasonal. These are practiced anew each spring with the sight of the first bluefish and striped bass, but a typical bluefisherman says, "Hell, anyone can wrestle in an old cow bass." It is like comparing the U.S. Olympic boxing team to an Apache war party. Bluefish do not play by the rules. Nothing is safe in their path, not other bluefish, not careless sea birds that venture too close to a surfaced school, not even fishermen ashore. The blue is the only true fish that will actually take aim at a man out of the water and bite him, or so claims Hal Lyman, the much-scarred author of Successful Bluefishing, the bible of the sport. That murderous temperament accounts for the tendency of bluefish to all but explode on a surface lure, sometimes leaping clear of the water. And the graceful body, steely hard and blue, gives the bluefish fighting strength out of proportion to its size.

The bluefish is not big game, by any means, but it has all the attributes of a superb game fish. Small blues, under a pound, are called snappers, and they snap until the day they die, their teeth growing from needles to daggers. While their elders prowl in deeper waters, the young fish are mostly found in protected bays and inlets, where they provide good fun for youngsters who fish with bamboo poles. A grown-up snapper is a chopper, and a dozen six-pounders will chew a wooden lure to splinters. Bluefish have even been known to cleave a metal lure in two. At any age the scientific name is Pomatomus saltatrix, Latin for a sheathed, leaping, cutting edge. But whatever the bluefish is called, pound for pound it is one of the most feared killing machines that swim.

Clearly the bluefisherman is a blessed species, and for the same reasons the bluefish is a cursed one. Unlike most fish, it can never stop swimming; always the bluefish must have water flowing through its gills. It has the metabolism of a blast furnace, the endurance and appetite of a wolf.

Bluefish prowl the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean and Black seas, and for many years reports of giants—40- and 50-pounders—have come in from the coasts of North Africa. Recently an enterprising New Yorker wired a fisheries scientist in Dakar, Senegal about angling prospects. A reply came back weeks later: "To get the big bluefish you must go to the Nantucket Islands or to the Montauk Point." And that is where most of the world's rod-and-reel bluefishermen are right now, fishing a stretch of teeming sea from Cape Cod to Cape May, N.J.

It is near the height of the season. The murky entrance to New York Harbor is all but solid decks and floorboards—rubber rafts to 80-footers, all chumming with oily baitfish. The home of 8 million people looms behind them, and the boats are full of novices, snarled lines and 10-pound fish—chaos. But everyone goes home happy, though some are minus a fingertip or two.

Elsewhere the favored baits are artificial—at Nantucket, the Vineyard, the Cape and Montauk, in the tide rips and surf of Great Point, Chappaquiddick, Nauset and North Bar—shiny metal lures, enameled popping plugs and swimmers with treble hooks. All of them are catching bluefish, and big ones, a few to 20 pounds and more. But to some this is an ominous sign.

Fish populations run in cycles, both of size and numbers. A decade ago a 12-pound bluefish meant drinks all around; the world record then was 24 pounds three ounces, and it seemed unbeatable. But the blues kept growing, and in 1972 a monster of 31 pounds 12 ounces was taken off Cape Hatteras. Blues are also more abundant, so get 'em while you can, for who knows how long the boom will last.

And now it is 5 p.m. in that triangle of the Atlantic where New Jersey meets New York's Long Island. The fleet has been out all day, chumming the ocean to an oily, churning froth of bluefish. The boats are preparing to weigh anchor and head for shore, blood in the scuppers, most of it from bluefish, burlap bags full and arms sore all around. The schools are cruising, like goldfish in a pond searching for bread crumbs, all set for the second shift. Call that one madness at midnight.

One boat, from Point Lookout, Long Island, moves out into the darkness with 35 fishermen aboard. That should be good for 17 fights, with one man left to mediate. The blues, up to 15-pounders, grab a bait, then run beneath the boat, becoming entangled in other lines. One fish to one bent rod is ideal, but on this night one-to-two prevails. "It's mine," come the screams. At 1 a.m. the decks are slick with gore. Men are crashing down among the fish. The water around the boat is boiling. The harried mate with the gaff is yelling for help. A 12-pounder yanked from the water by a muscular construction worker goes crashing through the cabin window, just missing the captain's head. A real-estate man from Manhattan carelessly places a heavy fish in a burlap sack and loses a chunk of finger flesh. Floating out over the dark ocean is a strange mix of screams and hysterical laughter.

The blues are in. Praise the Lord.