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Rhode Island

Saltwater Fishing

Saltwater Fishing

Fishing for Pelagic Species

By J.A. Macfarlan, Principal Marine Biologist, RI DEM Division of Marine Fisheries

They provide spirited fights, high-speed runs, and many can be easily targeted by inshore anglers. As a group, they are in our region from mid-spring to around Thanksgiving.

In the past few years, a group of colorful and athletic pelagic fish have captured the attention of Rhode Island’s coastal anglers. These animals are predators that migrate up and down the east coast and across the continental shelf in pursuit of forage and spawning opportunities. They provide spirited fights, high-speed runs, and many can be easily targeted by inshore anglers. As a group, they are in our region from mid-spring to around Thanksgiving. Last year, hungry schools of chub mackerel showed up early in the season, followed by bonito and false albacore, an explosion of small dolphinfish in late summer, and an exciting fall visit of giant bluefin tuna off the south shore beaches. However, in between the arrivals of those better-known species are several others that are just as fun to target.

The ten pelagic fish profiled here belong to three main families: Scombridae (tuna and mackerel), Coryphaenidae (dolphinfishes), and Carangidae (jacks and trevally). These groups have few or very small scales and obvious countershading (dark on the top or dorsal surface and light beneath on the ventral surface) that results in effective watery camouflage. Favoring a diet of other schooling organisms such as small fish, squid, and crustaceans, the species described here can typically be found under flocks of diving birds or by spotting surface disturbances. All are evolved for speed, are streamlined, and most can be targeted with light to medium duty rods and reels, with obvious exception to some of the larger species on the list.

Depending on your personal tastes, all of these fish are edible with a variety of flavor profiles from mild to gamey. When keeping any fish for consumption they should be humanely stunned, bled, and iced down to ensure the highest quality meat. Eating any fish that has not been properly chilled and is then consumed can result in “Scombroid” poisoning. Symptoms can occur within minutes, last up to two days, and include headache, blurred vision, cramps, diarrhea, facial flushing, and irregular heart rate.

The following fish descriptions are ordered by their proximity to the coast, with “1” being most accessible via shore or kayak, versus “10” most likely to be caught offshore by boat. If you do not have a boat, but you would like to target offshore species please refer to the back of this magazine and the section on “party charter” vessels that specialize in trips to the outer continental shelf waters!

  1. Banded Rudder Fish - Seriola zonata: The banded rudder fish is a highly predictable visitor to our waters during the warmer months of the year. At smaller sizes their dark vertical bands are prominent but fade with maturity. These typically small and feisty animals congregate around lobster floats, channel markers, and flotsam from areas far offshore up to the Providence River. Banded Rudder fish are a close relative of Amberjacks and share similar attributes such as delicious meat and an incredible fight. Though rarely targeted by anglers in RI, they are fun to catch on light tackle. If the bass bite is slow and the kids are getting bored, finding a school of these fish can help turn around a frustrating day. Tackle/Strategy: Locate floating or submerged structure and use light resin jigs, or small chunks of bait paired to small weightless hooks.
  2. Chub Mackerel - aka “Chubs” or “Tinker Mackerel”- Scomber colias: In the past several years numerous schools of this scombrid have shown up in April and persisted until Fall. They are easily spotted on the surface by their thick, boiling, fast-moving pods that feed on small baitfish and large zooplankton. Tackle/Strategy: Casting 0.50-1.5-ounce resin or metal jigs with a single treble hook, color varies day to day however, bone, pink, and green/yellow have all worked in past years, find a school and stay ahead of their movements.
  3. Bonito – aka “Bones”- Sarda sarda: Pods of bonito have been reported as early as April, but typically are associated with summer fishing and persist through the fall. Bonito have large eyes, a mouth studded with small sharp teeth, and bright bluish-black stripes along their back with a white belly. Tackle/Strategy: Sight casting for these fish on surface feeds with jigs, spoons and small plugs, trolling with small to medium sized swim baits at ~5+ knots over ledges, drop-offs and near other structure.
  4. False Albacore – aka “Albies”, “Little Tunny” – Euthynnus alletteratus: Although not the fastest fish on our list, but capable of blistering 40 mph runs that elicit “run and gun” chases by anglers along the beaches and bays throughout RI. Similar in overall shape to a bonito but with a deeper, rounder body, Albies have several dark blotches and worm-like greenish blue camouflage patterns on their backs. Tackle/Strategy: Locate birds circling over fast-moving small pods that include fish jumping out of the water, use a range of small soft and hard baits to tease out a bite.
  5. Atlantic Mackerel - “Boston Mackerel” or “Common Mackerel”- Scomber scombrus: A distinctly spindle shaped body is marked by bars along their iridescent blue-green dorsal surface which gives way to a white belly. Large schools were typical in years past, however recently landings have declined substantially. Similar to a few other species on our list, Atlantic Mackerel are very fun to catch when fishing with kids particularly when getting multiple fish per cast. Tackle/Strategy: Sabiki rigs are the most popular, however red devils and small swimming lures also work well, watch for surface finning, or cast and jig a sabiki rig methodically to find a school’s location.
  6. Spanish Mackerel – “Spotted Mackerel” or “Bay Mackerel”- Scomberomorus maculatus: Spanish Mackerel are toothy schooling scombrids that prefer warmer water temps and will show up in August and peak in abundance in September. They are distinctive looking with a prominent under-bite jaw, a sickle shaped tail, dark blotches along their sides, and a blueish-green dorsal surface. In our area they typically school with other mackerels and at times small bluefish. Tackle/Strategy: Find surface feeding fish and cast shiny spoons, soft plastics, and swim baits.
  7. Dolphin and Pompano Dolphin - “Dorado”, “Mahi-Mahi”, or “Dolphinfish”- Coryphaena equiselis, C. hippurus: These animals have thin bodies, with a large foldable tale that exhibits coloration from whitish gray to bright blues, yellows, greens and turquoise flecks throughout. The two species co-occur in our area and are typically referred to by their market name “mahi mahi”. Dolphinfish are the most colorful on our list, and they also exhibit sexual dimorphism in which the males tend to have a large square head compared to the smaller rounded head of females. They are likely the fastest growing and maturing species in our list, rarely living more than 5 years, and reaching sexual maturity within the first few months of life. Tackle/Strategy: Casting jigs, dropping cut bait on circle hooks, and trolling around weed lines, buoys, and other structure works well, commonly found with banded rudder fish.
  8. Bluefin Tuna - Thunnus thynnus: The largest scombrid on our list can grow to 1500 lbs and 10 feet in length. Bluefin tuna have a deeply rounded body with a large powerful sickle-shaped tail. Their dorsal surface is bluish black above and silvery below with bluish yellow second dorsal and anal fins. In the past several years we have seen a “giant” fishery within state waters and regular sightings of pods of smaller “school-size” bluefin along the ocean-front within striking distance of kayaks and small boats. Tackle/Strategy: Live-lining bluefish, bonito, or mackerels and chumming menhaden and other oily species for larger fish. Smaller bluefin can be trolled, jigged, popped, and baited with a variety of presentations. Highly Migratory Species (HMS) permit required.
  9. Yellowfin Tuna - “Ahi” - Thunnus albacares: Yellowfin tuna are at times confused with bluefin tuna which both can have yellowish fins and finlets. A dark bluish black dorsal surface is bordered by a yellowish lateral line and fins that are brighter yellow than a bluefin tuna. Yellowfin also have a torpedo shaped body and longer second dorsal and anal fins that are also bright yellow. Tackle/Strategy: Typically, a warm water visitor, these fish can be found just south of Block Island and further east on Coxes Ledge during the summer and early fall, popping, jigging, or trolling spreads of various lures all work well. HMS Permit Required.
  10. Wahoo - Acanthocybium soladri: This elongated and spindle-shaped mackerel has 20-30 dark lateral bars along both sides and a bluish-black dorsal surface with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. The fastest fish in our list, it has been reliably clocked at speeds of upwards of 60 mph. These non-schooling pelagic torpedoes are capable of overheating drags and quickly stripping 100s of yards of line from reels. Tackle/Strategy: Locate sargassum weed patches, or areas near wrecks and other deep structure in clear blue water toward the shelf break, can be jigged, commonly trolled using heavily weighted swimming and feathered trolling lures at speeds of up to 16 knots .

Common Name

Size (in/ft)

Time of Year

State Record

1. Banded Rudder Fish

6-18 in



2. Chub Mackerel

10-20 in


1.52 lbs, 14.75 in

3. Bonito

8-30 in


13 lbs

4. False Albacore

16-30 in

Late Summer-Fall

16.2 lbs

5. Atlantic Mackerel

6-14 in

Spring and Fall

1.6 lbs, 14 in

6. Spanish Mackerel

12-30 in

Late Summer-Fall


7. Dolphinfishes

14 in - 5 ft


32 lbs

8. Bluefin Tuna

27 in - 8 ft

Late Summer-Fall

1142 lbs

9. Yellowfin Tuna

20-48 in

Late Summer-Fall

265 lbs, 6 ft

10. Wahoo

24 in - 6 ft

Late Summer-Fall

80 lbs