I grew up in New Jersey where bluefish formed the backbone of a huge sportfishery. My dream fishing day as a boy began with a long ride in a slow party boat out of Point Pleasant, NJ. After two or three hours of cruising, we’d arrive at the “Acid Waters” – which was essentially a large patch of brown water caused by open ocean dumping. For reasons unclear, bluefish loved this water and so did people who sought these toothy beasts. Upon arrival, our deckhand would ladle ground chum; we’d stand at the rails of the boat drifting chunks of butterfish on conventional fishing rod. Sooner or later, a bluefish would pick up the bait, run off with it and you engaged the reel to set the hook. The fight that followed seemed epic at the time – powerful runs, head shaking and the occasional jump. Thankfully, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the acid waters were cleaned up and my bluefishing took on more interesting and less polluted forms – casting surface poppers or flies to surface feeding fish.
In 1975, I headed west and began catching another fish that formed the backbone of a huge sportfishery – coho salmon, better known as silvers. The inshore fishing world of the late 70’s in the Northwest offered two primary targets: kings and silvers. The inshore world of the Northeast offered striped bass and bluefish. My mind formed some parallels – kings and stripers were bigger, more highly prized, and it seemed you needed to be an expert to catch them. Silvers and blues, on the other hand, were the fish of the people – abundant, aggressive to a fault, and less demanding of expertise. Here’s my highly subjective comparison of the two.
Bluefish vs. Coho salmon
Location: Bluefish provide lots of action along the entire Atlantic seaboard of the U.S. They will migrate up to Maine most years, but it’s not guaranteed. They are distributed worldwide except on the west coasts of North and South America. You can catch them in Argentina (pez azul) or Australia (tailor). Coho salmon are native to the west coast of North America from California to Alaska and down the Asian side of the Pacific to Hokkaido Japan. They have been transplanted to Chile, New Zealand, and the Great Lakes. Two small coho runs were established in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but I believe that effort has been terminated.
Size of fish: Silvers and blues have strong parallels in size. The world record bluefish is 31 pounds 12 ounces caught off North Carolina in 1972. The world record silver is 33 pounds 4 ounces caught in Lake Ontario in 1989. Coho appear to grow larger in the Great Lakes due to abundant supplies of alewives, a herring like baitfish. The State of Alaska record coho is 27 pounds. The magic mark with silvers or blues is the same: 20 pounds. Breaking 30 pounds is basically the impossible dream for either. We see a few 20 pound coho in Sitka, but they are rare. I’ve seen a precious few 20 pound blues. Both species spend a lot of their lives feeding inshore and are taken by sport anglers . Fly fishermen in Puget Sound catch resident coho that are 10 to 18 inches long. Bluefish are caught as wee snappers in estuaries and bays, making them great targets for kids. Most coho taken in the North Pacific range from 5 to 15 pounds, numbers that are pretty close to the bluefish catch in the North Atlantic.
Proper gear/tackle: We mooch silvers with top of the line G.Loomis rods ranging from 8’6” to 10’6” in length. I especially like a like a G Loomis 1261, a 10’6” light action steelhead rod. You can get this rod in a trigger handle configuration and rig it with a Shimano Tekota 300LC if you like conventional gear. For silvers, I really like the Canadian style handle and an Islander single action mooching reel. While there’s no doubt, the Shimano Tekota 200 LC will catch you more fish much of the time, the single action set up is just a lot of fun. For charters, we spool the reels with Berkley Big-Game 20 pound test in solar collector green because we run into a fair number of kings while coho fishing. If you’re in a pure coho fishery, 12 pound test is plenty. Sliding mooching sinkers from Metzler work well for silvers, but I prefer non-sliding sinkers painted either bright red or chartreuse. Tie your leaders with Berkley Big-Game 30 or 40 pound test leader and use the world’s sharpest hooks from Gamagatsu. For bait, we use a plug-cut herring 99% of the time, but we’re developing a growing interest in artificial baits, specifically Berkley Gulp. For fly fishing, long thin baitfish imitators like clousers or deceivers work great, as do tube flies. I prefer flies with a lot of green in them.
Bluefish are taken by many methods ranging from cut bait on the bottom, to trolling, to throwing surface poppers, to casting flies. People use all manner of tackle from heavy trolling rigs to light fly rods. Given the willingness of blues to come to the surface along the shoreline or in open water, light salt water spinning gear or an 8 or 9 weight fly rod are perfect. For spinning gear, I like a G.Loomis IMX 1024-2S SUR paired with a Penn 550ssg. This combo works well from boat or shore. I spool the reel with 30 Berkley Gig-Game spectra line and attach a 60 pound fluorocarbon leader. If I had to pick a fly rod for blues, it would be a G. Loomis Cross Current single piece 9 weight – FR1069-1 CC PRO-1. I use a Redington Delta 9/10 reel and Rio Saltwater floating line – 6-20682 because it will turn over big flies and poppers. If you don’t want bluefish biting your flies or popper off, you’ll need at least 18 inch shock tippet of at least 50 pound test fluorocarbon.
Silvers and blues are both aggressive to a fault. They feed with such abandon that, at times, they can seem either suicidal or stupid or both. The big difference between the two is teeth. Bluefish got them, coho don’t. Bluefish will attack and chop up much larger baitfish and feed with such frightening abandon along the surf line that baitfish will jump onto the beach and die rather than stay in the water. Coho amidst a torrid bite will chase bait to the surface and eat nearly anything including bare hooks. Coho will put on a pound a week during their last summer in salt water, doubling their weight from June until September.
Both fish can be taken on the surface – which is the most fun. With coho, you’ll increase your odds immeasurably when you pick the right location for this method. Specifically, the rips in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca (southern BC and northern Washington) provide world class surface action for silvers. The waters of Southeast Alaska have more coho, but they are far less inclined to hit surface flies. Surface fishing for bluefish seems to improve as you move inshore – along beaches and in shallow bays. The offshore populations will hit the surface on occasion, but often prefer to stay down.
Blues and silvers both stage absolutely wild bites that form indelible memories for anglers lucky enough to participate – things like get a fish on every cast or drop or seeing dozens of free swimming fish all around the boat and following hooked fish. The visuals are hard to beat.
Simply put – bluefish are strong and stubborn. Coho are crazy. Both species have a critical mass at around 10 pounds where they gain the ability to take long runs instead of thrashing around. Both jump when hooked at times. Coho are not as strong, pound for pound, as bluefish, but they are crazy. When hooked near the surface, they will often take to the air immediately. They are capable of clearing the surface by 5 or 6 feet. They will race left, then right, then bolt under the boat, then swim right at the boat. We’ve had silvers jump into the boat and jump right into the transom. One second they’re peeling line of the reel, the next second you’re slack as the fish bolts toward you and the surface. If there are four of them on at once, it’s pure chaos.
Blues seem a lot more predictable – making powerful runs away in long steady surges. Once they get tired, they put their considerably broad side and muscle to a fight of resistance. It can take a long time to gain the last 20 feet of line on a stubborn bluefish. They are extremely strong and have a lot of endurance. If they have a fault from a fighting point of view, it’s that all of them seem about the same. Every coho seems different from the last.
At the table:
To a lot of people – this is a no-brainer: they’d say coho salmon are a lot better eating than bluefish. I like both species, with some qualifications. Bluefish have a very short shelf life. I’m a big believer that almost all species of fish taste better the day after they are caught. The almost in this equation applies to bluefish – you need to eat them very fresh. Size also matters with blues – the bigger the badder. I let all the large ones go, but if I get a 3 to 4 pound “cocktail” blue to the boat, I bring it aboard, bleed it immediately, and then bury it in ice. I fillet a blue within an hour, bag it, and put it back on ice. That evening, I cook it almandine and it’s extraordinary. My daughter Evelyn is lucky enough to have constant access to king salmon, coho, rockfish, lingcod, halibut, striped bass, and bluefish. If given a choice of all – she’d take the fresh caught blue.
Coho salmon have less oil and a lighter flavor than kings, which some people, including my wife, prefer. They are delicious regardless of size, but the big ones in late summer are the best. Again, how you handle them makes a big difference. Bleed them, gut them and ice them right away. Coho are constantly eating and digesting. They have what is called a hot belly – meaning the digestive acids are very active and the moment you whack one, those juices start eating their way out of the stomach and into the meat. This is particularly true when they are feeding on krill.
And the winner is?
I like coho salmon better but they have to be over 10 pounds to really light me up. In praise of bluefish, nobody should go through a lifetime of fishing without seeing a wide open bluefish blitz. Very few events in nature produce the total mayhem of a large school of blues which has corralled an acre or two of baitfish. They will bite anything you throw at them and if you get tired of catching them (it can happen) take the hooks off, cast your lure, and watch one of the most aggressive predators in the ocean strike your popper or fly repeatedly.