Summertime ‘blues’: North Fork Outdoors

A female blue crab tagged with a DEC tag. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

As we enter August, the summertime blues will slowly creep-up as the realization that we are halfway through our summer vacations begins to sink in. I however, welcome a different type of summertime blues. They have created many fond memories over the years and are the foundation of many of my summer cookouts.

My favorite is the blue crab. Another is the bluefish

This former can be found throughout the small back bays, creeks, and harbors of the Peconics and the Sound. Their olive-colored carapace (topside) allows them to go unnoticed while they lurk along the seafloor searching for their next meal. Although they are scavengers, their sharp, powerful claws can crush through the shells of armored prey such as clams, mussels, oysters, snails and even other blue crabs. Additionally, their paddle-like rear legs enable them to chase down fast moving prey, such as fish, with ease.

Blue crabs are sexually dimorphic, meaning they possess external characteristics that enable the sexes to be easily distinguished from one another. Male blue crabs are often referred to as Jimmies, while immature females are called Sallies and mature females are known as Sooks.

The most notable way to tell the difference between a Jimmy, a Sally and a Sook is to look at the abdomen of the crab. The underside of a male has a pattern that looks like a rocket. Female crabs, depending on their maturity, will have one of two patterns. A triangle will be found on Sallies, while Sooks have a dome shape that will also be much darker in color than the surrounding abdomen.

Blue crab mating takes place from late spring through early autumn. It begins with a male searching for a suitable mate in the form of a Sally. Upon finding one, he will cradle her underneath his shell with his walking legs. He will carry her for several days until she is ready to molt (shed) her shell. This molt is known as a terminal molt and it is at this point when she will develop the dome shape on her abdomen. Mating will commence immediately after molting and the male will then continue to hold her until her shell hardens. This is the only time in that female’s life that she will mate. The male on the other hand, will mate with several additional females over the next couple of months. Although she will only mate once, this one event has given her the potential to produce several broods, each containing between 700,000 to 6 million eggs.

Biologist from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have started to investigate the migration patterns, habitat preferences, and life history traits of blue crab by tagging mature females. Being that a mature female will no longer molt her shell, they will not shed an attached tag. Part of their research area has been on the North Fork. If you should capture one of these tagged crabs, it is important to record the 5-digit tag number found on the left side of the tag, the specific location of where you captured the tagged crab, and the date of when you captured the tagged crab.

Then there is the bluefish. They go by many names, especially when distinguishing them according to size and ferocity. The largest, which can be up to 30 pounds, are often referred to as gator blues. Their extremely sharp teeth and powerful jaws make them very deserving of this title as they can easily tear through the flesh of fish that are much larger than them.

Smaller bluefish in the eight to 10-pound range are called choppers as they will relentlessly “chop” their way through any fish that gets in front of their mouth. At around two to four pounds they are known as cocktail blues. However, do not be misled by the name. They are far from being laidback, as if they were relaxing and sipping on a refreshing drink. They behave as if they had one too many “cocktails” and will attack schools of baitfish in chaotic blitzes that make the water appear as if it is boiling.

The smallest (up to 12 inches) class of bluefish are known as snapper blues or simply snappers. These are young of the year bluefish that hatched earlier this spring/summer and will bite through a baitfish faster than you can snap your fingers. These tiny marauders prowl the back bays feeding just as voraciously as their adult counterparts, which causes them to grow quite rapidly.

Although each class of bluefish can be found on the North Fork, it is the snappers that attract the most attention during the month of August. Easily caught from shore, these feisty fish are a great way to introduce children to fishing. There is no need for fancy fishing equipment. In fact, my first snapper rod was a bamboo pole with a piece of monofilament, a hook and a bobber.

These two “summertime blues” go hand in hand. While soaking crab traps or hand lines baited with fish heads or chicken necks, break out a hook and bobber or your favorite metal lure and see if you can catch some blues before summer’s end.