Land & Conservation

A Bluefish Blitz for the Books

Why a bonanza of beached fish is overwhelming Ocracoke’s shores

photo: Heather Johnson

“I’ve heard about blitzes before, but this was my first time witnessing one firsthand,” says Ocracoke Island native Heather Johnson, who captured the photos in this story. “The sound was more impressive to me than the sight—the sound of the ocean, the birds chirping with glee, and the splash of the fish flailing around.”

Ken DeBarth has never seen anything like it: thousands of small fish coughed up on the shores of North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island. The Tradewinds Tackle clerk has been fishing at this quiet Outer Banks isle for years, but in recent weeks he’s witnessed a weird twist on a seasonal phenomenon—a “Bluefish Blitz” gone wild, resulting in piles of dead fish on the beach. 

A Bluefish Blitz—fishermen-speak for a special kind of bluefish attack—is when, during the species’s seasonal southern migration, the aggressive hunters herd smaller swimmers together in a feeding frenzy, essentially creating their very own moveable buffet. In recent weeks the attack has become an all-out amphibious assault, with fish flinging themselves surfside in a last-ditch suicidal escape.

photo: Heather Johnson

“It’s pretty wild. It’s been going on now for a couple of weeks,” DeBarth says. “I talked to some old-timers, and they said the last time they’d seen anything like it was in the seventies.” 

The ecological marvel reached a fever pitch on Friday, October 14, when hundreds of spot fish, speckled trout, and mullet were found flapping and flailing in the sun.

“Schools of bluefish feed on schooling fish like this throughout the year, but we usually don’t see it because it is offshore or deeper in the water column,” says Jeffrey Buckel, professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University.

The striking display was a matter of lucky timing (at least for the bluefish). The smaller schools migrated from estuaries out into the ocean just as the bluefish happened to arrive on their swim south, according to David Behringer, a biologist with North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. “Bluefish have a good set of knife-sharp teeth on them and are really fast swimmers, so the smaller fish try to escape by racing into shallow water,” Behringer explains. “What makes this unique is the magnitude of it.” Chased by so many bigger fish, the small schools just kept going until they landed where visitors typically set up their towels and beach chairs.

photo: Heather Johnson

The rather scary and stinky situation is not without its positives. For one thing, Behringer says it’s always good to see nature in action, as it shows that an ecosystem is doing well. And it’s a boon for fishermen; DeBarth says eager anglers have rounded up all the bait fish they could want. “They can just go out there and pick them up by the bucketloads,” he says. As for the bluefish, there’s plenty of them to catch as well. But look out for those aforementioned fangs. “They’ll bite a line straight through,” he says. It’s best to use a thicker wire, adds Behringer, an avid fisherman himself—and if you attempt to hook a bluefish amid its ecstatic feast, be careful: “They might nip you.” 

If you’re just angling for a look at the Ocracoke curiosity, stop by Tradewinds Tackle to get the locations of the latest Bluefish Blitz boneyards.