First and foremost, this is NOT the time of year to troll for bluefish or striped bass near Sandy Hook. Sure, there are some stripers there, but water temperatures have nothing to do with air temperature except for the top few inches near the water's surface. Water temperatures are predicated primarily on the number of hours of daylight and the sun's angle. The same factors are also what triggers migratory patterns.
Both species are most active when water temperatures range 65 to 72 degrees. And, both primarily feed upon Atlantic menhaden, followed by various forage species such as river herring, alewife, and a variety of juveniles of various, local species of finfish.
Both species are primarily migratory, schooling fish, particularly this time of year. The blues tend to migrate more east to west as the water warms and prey species arrive in the vicinity, while the striped bass will be migrating into the upper reaches of estuaries and rivers in preparation for spawning.
Most of the striped bass will be large, roe-laden cows, some approaching 60 or more pounds. The smaller males will already be at the spawning grounds awaiting the arrival of the females. When the water temperature in the spawning area reaches approximately 53 degrees the stripers will begin spawning. This usually takes place in early to mid April and lasts through the end of May, at which time the larger females will slowly migrate back to the coastal waters and move north to New England where they'll spend most of the summer months.
The larger bluefish, many ranging 12 to 20 pounds, will migrate inshore to feed on migrating schools of herring, mackerel and menhaden. They'll roam in relatively large packs, foraging primarily closer to the surface where water temperatures are a few degrees warmer and baitfish are more abundant. Any lure that resembles a herring or mackerel will be slammed like a freight train. Keep in mind, though, that the lure must be relatively close in size to that of the baitfish. Additionally, if the water is too cold for the blues to actively feed, the lure must be trolled at a snail's pace, 1 to 3 knots at most. When the water temperature is above 65 degrees, bluefish will hit a lure moving at speeds exceeding 5 knots and I've seen them slam a skip-bait trolled for bluefin tuna at 8 knots.
Now, lets get to the eating quality of each species. Striped bass are OK, but they're not fantastic, especially the larger ones caught during the spring spawning run. In fact, those old cows can taste pretty nasty. The best tasting stripers are those measuring 18 to 24 inches and caught from cold water. As water temperatures climb above 75 degrees, stripers tend to feed almost exclusively on Atlantic menhaden and bay anchove, both of which are very oily and nasty smelling.
Bluefish, particularly those weighing 3 to 5 pounds, while fairly oily, are quite tasty when properly cleaned and prepared fresh. Larger bluefish, those in the 12 to 20-pound range, are best when smoked.
With both species, be sure to ice the fish down immediately after landing, then skin and fillet your catch as soon as possible. Rinse the fillets thoroughly with cold, fresh water, but if that's not readily available, cold, clean ocean water works equally as well. Neither species lends itself to freezing for extended periods, and both are best when prepared fresh.
Some folks, particularly those residing south of Connecticut, tend to put bluefish in the same category with carp. That is an injustice to the species. I've used several recipes for bluefish, and while I love them smoked, fresh fillets coated with about 1/8-inch of mayonnaise and sprinkled with Old Bay Seafood Seasoning, then slowly charbroiled, are tough to beat. Most of the people I've prepared bluefish for using this recipe ask for more.
You can also use the same recipe for striped bass fillets, and it's equally as good tasting--maybe a bit better. With both species, be sure to remove the skin and dark meat along the lateral line, then rinse and pat dry before coating with the mayo. That dark meat is quite oily and somewhat bitter, and most of the toxins found in finfish are usually found in the fatty tissue just under the skin. Removing the skin and dark meat sure makes those fillets taste a lot better.
For smoked fish, oily species tend to be the best tasting, bluefish, salmon, makerel, herring, marlin, mahi-mahi, etc... Here's a recipe I developed for salmon and found it also works great for bluefish.
There are lots of good recipes for smoked salmon. Unfortunately, there are not many great recipes for smoked fish, but this particular one seems to be the best of all. After more than five years of experimentation, using every species of fish available in the mid-Atlantic region, the recipe has been modified until it has finally reached the pinnacle of perfection. If you enjoy the flavor of smoked fish, especially oily species such as salmon, bluefish, Atlantic mackerel, king mackerel and cobia, you'll love this.
2 qts. Water
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 tblsp. Old Bay Seafood Seasoning
4 tblsp. chopped, fresh Vidalia onions
˝ cup kosher salt
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tblsp. Montreal steak seasoning
6 drops Worcestershire sauce
1 tblsp. lemon juice
Thoroughly mix all ingredients of brine solution in a plastic container until salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Using a flat, Tupperware container pour in a small amount of bring solution (about one-inch deep). Cut fish fillets into inch-thick, four-inch squares and place them in the container in layers. After the first layer is in place, pour in enough brine solution to cover them, then add the second layer and continue until all the fillets are covered with brine. Cover the container using a sealable lid or Saran Wrap and refrigerate for five days. Be sure to agitate the container at least once daily to prevent the brine ingredients from settling–this is important. If there are several layers of fillets, it's also a good idea to occasionally separate them at least once daily to ensure all surfaces are exposed to the brine.
At the end of the brining period, remove the fillets and pat dry with paper towels. Place them on a broiler pan sprayed with Pam non-stick vegetable oil and bake in a 350-degree, preheated oven for 25 minutes, then place the fillets in the smoker. Using an electric smoker, smoke for approximately two hours using hickory chips. When the fillets are golden brown in color, remove them from the smoker, allow a few minutes for them to cool, then place them in Zip-Loc bags and refrigerate overnight before serving. While they taste good fresh from the smoker, the hickory flavor penetrates the meat completely when refrigerated in air-tight bags. The smoked fillets will last up to six weeks in the refrigerator and may be frozen for up to three months. Smoked fillets can be shredded and used with your favorite dip, or you can make a fantastic smoked salmon salad to be used as a substitute for tuna-salad. Enjoy!