Have you seen it? Maybe while kayaking or stand up paddling, or just standing along a shoreline. The drama has been playing out for a few weeks in local tidal waters. It’s only going to increase as fall migration kicks in.
It’s frenzied feeding time in New York Harbor by gluttonous and greedy bluefish. Just like piranhas, they have sharp teeth, a varied diet and are aggressive eaters that often will create feeding frenzies when there is an abundance of food offered
A scary time if you are a puny peewee baitfish, such as spearing, killifish, bay anchovies or juvenile bunker. Right now small fish are scared for their life and a little on edge. The little fish literally burst or leap out of the water to escape being a meal for a big hungry bluefish.
It’s not just adult bluefish that are hungry either. Juvenile bluefish locally known as snappers are feeding frantically on small fish too. Around June, snappers are about two inches in length, but as they feed and feed, the fish grow fast, up to 10 inches by the time they leave New York Harbor in late September or early October.
Just like birds, both adult and juvenile bluefish need food this time of year to fuel their energy needs for their annual migration southward. The fish will spend the winter in offshore waters between Cape Hatteras and Florida. Bluefish will return in the spring to spawn and feed in waters in and around New York Harbor.
During their first year of life, little snapper blues feed intensely and grow rapidly. They are not selective on what they eat. Snappers get their name because they will snap, slash, or bite on just about anything that swims in their path, including other fish, squid, crabs, and shrimp. They are pure eating machines.
Some local fishermen even call bluefish "marine piranha" because of their assertive and aggressive feeding habits. Bluefish have been known to attack anything. So ravenous, I have even found a few adult flounder washed up dead on a beach with bite marks on their belly from a recent bluefish feeding frenzy.
Bluefish will bite practically anything that moves. Sometimes this might include a person’s ankles if that person is unlucky enough to wade in the water when a hungry school of snappers are swimming in shallow waters. Over the years I have seen quite a few people fishing in the water with bare feet and leaving the water with bloody ankles.
Bluefish and snappers often feed on large schools of baitfish, creating a disturbance known as “blitzes” in the water. In an attempt to escape the mouth of a hungry bluefish, small fish will spring out of the water and into the air while the bluefish churn up the water with tails and snapping jaws. During these feeding frenzies or surf spectacles, the water actually looks like it is exploding with baitfish.
These frenzied feeding activities can happen anytime when large schools of fish are present. Over 70 species of finfish, including river herring (alewives), butterfish, Atlantic silversides, and even juvenile bluefish, have been identified in bluefish stomach contents.
It’s a sensational late summer and early fall sight that happens every year in New York Harbor, including in Jamaica Bay, Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and the tidal portions of local rivers such as the Passaic, Hackensack, Hudson, Navesink, and Shrewsbury. Our waters are prime feeding habitat for these saltwater feeding machines.
Of course, since snappers will snap at just about anything, this makes them easy and fun to catch. Snapper fishing is fun and a great way to introduce young children to saltwater fishing. Once a child catches his or her first snapper, they are often hooked on fishing.
Bluefish are closely related to jacks and pompanos. They get their name from their color. The fish are a greenish blue with silvery sides and a white belly. They have a pointed snout and large mouth with razor sharp triangular teeth.
Set in a busy, bustling, urban-suburban landscape, New York Harbor teems with wide diversity of different species of fish. The abundance of bluefish over such a imposing area is exciting, and helps to form the basis of the region’s estuarine ecology, angling economy, and coastal culture.
With so much blitzing and fishing going on there is no doubt that New York Harbor and nearby waters are important feeding and nurseries areas for snappers. Just like piranhas, bluefish are tough fish that seem to do well in bodies of water that are even murky, muddy, dark and dirty.