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On the night of August 13, 1964 Robert Wicklund and Stuart Wilk, diver-biologists with the U.S. Marine Gamefish Laboratory at Sandy Hook, N.J., were 35 feet below the surface of the Atlantic 10 miles east southeast of Monmouth Beach. Equipped with scuba apparatus, both men were observing fish life from a protective diving cage attached by cable to the research vessel Challenger above them. Four floodlights mounted on the cage lit up the depths, and as the cage slowly drifted with the Challenger, Wicklund and Wilk began to notice round herring feeding on plankton. At first there were several hundred of the cigar-shaped, seven-inch fish, then there were thousands. Soon the cage was in the middle of a vast school numbering into the millions. Suddenly both men were startled by a tremendous roar in the water. The millions of herring had panicked, and their fright was such that many of them rushed through the bars of the cage and beat upon the bodies of the divers. At one point the cage was so thick with herring that Wicklund could not see Wilk only four feet away.
A school of bluefish had caused the panic. The bluefish, each about 15 inches long, had knifed into the middle of the herring and were feeding ravenously on them. For fully 15 minutes the roar set up by the millions of fleeing fish continued, and when the massacre was over and the divers were back aboard the Challenger hundreds of herring littered the bottom of the cage. A camera that Wicklund had tried to use to take photographs of the event was clogged with fish. "It was a thrilling and amazing experience," Wicklund recalled recently. "It was almost frightening in the beginning. The whole thing was eerie and exciting."
Of all the game fishes in the ocean none has a more murderous reputation than the bluefish. Marauding blues, from snapper size of less than 10 inches to lunkers three feet long, periodically range the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. In the summer months the northeast coast from Cape May to Cape Cod is one of the world's great fishing grounds for blues, which throng there by the millions. Only last summer—a banner bluefish season off Long Island—a commercial-fishing-boat captain, searching for menhaden, reported that he had passed through a 30-mile-wide school of blues at sea. The holds of his boat were empty; the blues had ravaged every menhaden in sight. Even normally sober government reports testify to the savagery of blues. No less formidable a Victorian figure than Professor Spencer Fullerton Baird (whiskers, frock coat), the first head of the old U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, cast aside academic caution to denounce the blue, in Sunday-supplement terms, as "an animated chopping machine." In 1871 Professor Baird wrote, "Going in large schools, in pursuit of fish not much inferior to themselves in size, they move along like a pack of hungry wolves, destroying everything before them. Their trail is marked by fragments of fish and by the stain of blood in the sea, as where the fish is too large to be swallowed entire, the hinder portion will be bitten off and the anterior part allowed to float away or sink." The professor estimated that in the four summer months off the southern New England coast bluefish destroyed the incredible number of twelve hundred million millions offish.
Later writers have thought Professor Baird's toll perhaps exaggerated, but none has kind words to say for the blue. In Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, published in 1953, Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder brand bluefish as "sea pirates" and call the species "perhaps the most ferocious and bloodthirsty fish in the sea, leaving in its wake a trail of dead and mangled mackerel, menhaden, herring, alewives and other species on which it preys."
To commercial fishermen blues are a curse. They cannot be caught in most nets, because they can chew through them. One old name for them, tailors, is said to come from their ability to cut their way free. Anglers account for the vast bulk of blues taken annually, a staggering 50 million pounds. When blues are present, they are there in numbers. A school can be found by seeing fish break water. Excited gulls and terns, eager to feed on the remnants left behind by rampaging blues, are another sign. When blues are feeding, the birds wheel and dip but rarely dive into the water as they do on a school of striped bass. According to Henry Lyman, author of Bluefishing and publisher of The Salt Water Sportsman, bluefish and killer whales are the only species in the sea that keep birds from diving. Some veteran anglers can locate bluefish by smell. Various fishes, such as the round herring and menhaden, feed on an odorous plankton, and bluefish, in turn, arrive to feed on them. James R. Bartholomew of the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard likened the telltale odor to "a cross between a pea-soup fog on the Grand Banks and a crate of honeydew melons."
Bluefish are delicious to eat, and they can be caught on lures ranging from streamers to plugs. Wire leaders are ordinarily employed because of the fish's sharp teeth. Lyman has written of a 12-pound blue that bit a solid metal one-pound lure in half. The story is authentic, for the fish was caught a few days later with half the lure in its stomach. There is no fish gamer than the blue. Even when boated, blues keep up the battle, and removing a lure sometimes takes doing. The father of Edward Migdalski, the Yale ichthyologist, lost the forepart of his right index finger to a two-pound blue.
The bluefish bears the scientific name Pomatomus saltatrix. Pomatomus is a combination of two Greek words, poma (cover) and tomos (cut), which perhaps refer to the indentation on the gill cover, and the Latin saltatrix is a tribute to the blue's gameness, meaning "one who leaps." The bluefish is the only member of the Pomatomidae family. In fishes, this family stands between the Serranidae, which includes the striped bass, and the Carangidae, the jacks.
Blues are found all over the world. They are off the east coast of South America, off southern Africa and Madagascar, the Malay Peninsula and southern Australia. They are also found in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and off the Azores and northwest Africa between Agadir and Dakar. Reports have long had it that the biggest blues in the world, supposedly up to 45 pounds, are off the Moroccan coast, but Emile Postel, a biologist with the French Office of Scientific and Technical Research of the Deep Sea, says the largest he has seen there weighed 15� pounds. The present world record on rod and reel is a 24-pound 3-ounce blue caught off the Azores in 1953. Before that the rod-and-reel record was a 20-pounder landed off Montauk, N.Y. in 1951. The alltime whopper, taken on a handline, was a 27-pound blue caught near Nantucket back in 1903.
As fascinating and desirable—either as game fish or food—as bluefish are, it is surprising that until recently next to nothing was known of their life history. They hit the northeast coast in the summer, they were caught, then they disappeared and that was that until the next summer. Now, however, as the result of research under way at the U.S. Marine Game Fish Laboratory at Sandy Hook (SI, March 9, 1964) and also at the University of Connecticut Marine Research Laboratory at Noank, some of the mysteries surrounding the bluefish are being solved. The most extensive work is being done, on the usual meager budget, at Sandy Hook, and there perhaps the most spectacular research is being done by Bori L. Olla, an animal behaviorist.
Bluefish are usually difficult to keep in captivity, but last year Olla was able to keep and observe eight blues in a 32,000-gallon filtered-seawater aquarium in the basement of the lab. The aquarium, built of concrete, is 35 feet long, 15 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The sides are fitted with six viewing windows, and special overhead fluorescent lights enable Olla to approximate dawn, daylight, dusk and moonlight.