How thick were bluefish at the beach last weekend? So thick that Washington orthodontist Robert M. Connors waded out into the sea and caught all he wanted in a crab net.
Connors was sitting in his Ocean City condo Saturday when he noticed seagulls dive-bombing in the surf. He went outside to investigate and found great schools of small blues being driven out of the water by rampaging bigger blues.
Connors said the little fish, six to nine inches long, were skittering onto a breakwater to avoid the lethal lunges of their bigger kin. He got a dip net, rolled up his pants, waded bravely into the shallows next to the jetty and began filling the net with small fish on every dip, he said.
Connors waded a bit deeper and took aim at some of the bigger blues, whose dorsal fins protruded from the water. It took a while, but he managed in the end to corral a six-pounder and throw it up on the beach, Connors said. When he cleaned the fish that evening, he found a six-inch, undigested blue in its belly.
"I've been going to Ocean City for 50 years," said Connors, "and I never saw anything like it."
There wasn't a fisherman in sight, he added. "I kept saying, 'Where is everybody?' "
One fisherman who wasn't there was John Gnall of Silver Spring, who was doing just fine 20 miles up the coast near Indian River Inlet, bailing blues with a rod and reel on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"It was fisherman's heaven," said Gnall. "They were taking anything you threw. Bait fish were swimming all around my legs. I was catching fish on every cast, five- to 10-pounders."
Gnall said the bonanza was the last thing he expected. "I kept calling the tackle shops all week and they said, 'Nothing doing yet,' but I decided to go anyway, and here they were. It was unbelievable."
Along the coast from Lewes, Del., to Ocean City, folks are still buzzing about the great weekend bluefish blitz of 1986. It was three days of the best fishing he has ever seen, said Indian River State Park ranger Gregg Wilson. "Everybody caught them."
"The guys around here are saying, 'Enough of these damn blues,' " said Harry Aiken at Hoss's Tackle Shop in Lewes. "It was too easy. They were catching them on every cast."
"It was like the first day of trout season," said Roland Johnston of Teaneck, N.J., who with his wife Miriam caught 27 blues in two evenings at Indian River Inlet. "One guy got 48. It was wall-to-wall fishermen, and a very congenial group. Everybody got all they wanted."
These were the sorts of comments flooding my fevered brain as I sped east in the middle of the week to partake. I like nothing better than catching blues on topwater lures in the surf, and I had the biggest cooler I own stowed in the back seat to bring home the booty.
So where were the fish?
You could see it the moment you set foot on the beach. There were fishermen aplenty, but you could have called the picture, "Still Life with Hot Sun." Not a muscle twitched.
Here sat the Hughes brothers, L.W. and Al.
"You should have been here Sunday," said Al, wistfully. "It was all you could handle. But I've only seen one fish caught today.
"We're just waiting, now," he said, gesturing down the white sand toward the high-rises of Ocean City, lost beyond the horizon. "We just keep watching that direction. When we see the seagulls coming up the beach, that means bluefish are cutting bait underneath and it's time to get ready."
I waited for a while with the Hughes brothers, and then waited a while longer with L.D. McVicker of Tahlequah, Okla., who caught a dozen blues Monday night. "It got so it stopped being fun and started being work," said McVicker.
Then I waited a while with Ed and Rita Yoder of Valley Forge, Pa., who had 49 blues in two days. "My father-in-law said the same thing happened last year," said Yoder. "They went wild for two or three days, then it was over."
As day wore into evening, it became apparent that half of Delaware had the same idea for intercepting the vanishing blues. They would go to the Indian River Inlet jetty and wait for schools of the predators to swarm up into Rehoboth Bay on the last of the evening flood tide, pursuing bait.
They gathered on the jetty rocks, hundreds strong, rods at the ready, staring out to sea for a glimpse of gulls wheeling and pitching over terrified bait.
The sun sank. The breeze played out. Gnats came out in hordes. The tide rolled in like a river in flood. And finally, a few minutes before dark, a few people captured a few small blues.
"I knew I shouldn't have come up here," grumbled an old man in the parking lot. "I was down at Ocean City last night and the night before, catching blues as fast as I could cast out, three- to nine-pounders. We left 'em biting."
Hmmm. Sounds familiar.
Surf fishing the Delmarva coast is a waiting game, and sometimes those who wait are rewarded beyond their wildest imaginings. Generally, May and October are the best months. The blues may yet return, and surf anglers expect the first sea trout to be caught in the foam any day.
Most beach casters fish cut bait on the bottom, while inlet anglers favor small, white bucktails tipped with plastic worms, fished near the bottom on surprisingly light (10- to 12-pound test) tackle.