Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By midsummer, most game fish species will have settled into their normal feeding and foraging patterns inside of Virginia’s coastal inlets. For almost 80 miles, from the Maryland/Virginia state line south to the mouth of the Chesapeake, there are numerous seaside inlets that feed into expansive back bays and tidal creeks. It’s in these areas that anglers have a shot at some of the most popular inshore gamefish this region has to offer.
These fish — spots, croaker, flounder and seatrout — are not heavy pullers like rockfish or redfish, but what they lack in strength they certainly make up for in accessibility and table fare. They truly are crowd pleasers for the thousands of anglers who descend upon the Eastern Shore of Virginia each summer.
Spots, croaker, flounder and seatrout are all migratory fish. And like all migratory species, specific factors including seasons, water temperatures, spawning, and food drive their movements. These variables dictate the time of year they arrive and how long they plan on staying. And by the time July rolls around along the coast of Virginia, these fish will have established their traditional summer haunts. So once anglers know their migration schedules, catching fish on a good day is just a matter of locating their summer feeding areas. But sometimes it’s not that easy, since though each fish may overlap in biotic needs, their specific demands on tides, temperatures and food are not always the same for any one location.
Species like spots and croaker are school fish and the temperamental seatrout is supposed to be, though he doesn’t always act that way. These fish tend to travel in large groups and will infiltrate areas that have accessible forage food. Thus, when you catch one spot or croaker, usually their friends are right behind them.
Seatrout will also school up in age-classes, but this normally won’t occur until the late summer when they begin to stage for their annual migration out of the inlets. But big trout tend to feed as singles or in small groups and hold in cool water areas throughout the summer.
On the other hand, flounder, which are bottom predators, are more individualistic and usually are found in groups only by proxy.
To find the fish, the first step is to look at the morphology of the fishing areas. We’re talking about the numerous inlets that line the coast of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Each one opens into back bays and channels, which in turn are fed by tidal creeks. In these areas, tides are the most influential variable in determining where fish position themselves, and anglers must consider the tide phase when targeting sport fish. Tides flush through the inlet twice a day, fluctuating on new and full moon phases. On the incoming tide, cool water and food will be swept into the inlets and game fish will be there to meet them. Outgoing tides pull fish food out of tidal creeks, sand flats and marsh drainages.
Water temperatures of midsummer will dictate where sport fish are and when they will feed. During summer, fish such as seatrout and flounder will stay in deep holes and channels, feeding primarily during the cool times of early morning and evening. And during long hot summers, flounder will actually move back out into inlets to find deep, cool water.
Spots and croaker will stay in deep channels and holes to feed. And in a season of heavy rain, fish will seek areas of higher salinity. So in order to catch these fish, anglers need to understand both their water temperature comfort and optimum feeding locations in any given area.
During late summer, croaker will stage near inlets and throughout deep channels, feeding on silversides, minnows and anything else that swims by. Spots, on the other hand, tend to migrate farther up the back bays into deep holes and deep creeks, where they feed on grass shrimp and small crabs. Trout, which feed on spots, will quite often be nearby. Big trout like to hunker down in deep holes, around deep dropoffs, near marsh banks and around structure such as bridges or docks. They feed on spots, silversides, crabs and minnows. In contrast, flounder like to lie along the slopes of channels and near flats on low tides ambushing baitfish and crabs as they pass by.
Popular ports for boat-anglers along Virginia’s Eastern Shore include the village of Oyster, Willis Wharf, Quinby, Wachapreague and Chincoteague. These towns have excellent boat ramps and nearby tackle shops, and all provide access to inlets, back bays and deep channels. Located between these towns are a number of other state-maintained boat ramps allowing access to a number of beautiful isolated inlets. Pick up a boat ramp guide from either Virginia Marine Resources or the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Or visit a local tackle shop for maps and local information.
Fishing for croaker, spots, seatrout and flounder is best done by boat, but you don’t always need one to find these fish of summer. I’ve caught some nice spots off docks and bulkheads that line channels and by late summer they are thick in the surf. Croaker and trout can also be taken from the beach and off seaside piers and docks as well. And many a flounder has been hooked from shore, especially near channels and around docks.
Spots, croaker and seatrout prefer baits fished on the bottom, and trout will also readily take lures cast from shore. Flounder, however, like their bait moving, so shore-anglers tend to score when casting squid or minnows and slowly reeling them back in.
Since all these species are relatively small and tend to hang at or near the bottom, you only need good, basic gear to fish for them. I prefer 6- to 7-foot spinning rods with cork handles in the medium to medium-heavy range. I’ll use these for drifting and casting. I spool these with 12- to 17-pound-test, depending on which outfit I go with. I also use a 7-foot medium-heavy conventional outfit for drift fishing, spooled with 12- to 20-pound-test. The lighter lines allow me to stay in touch with the bottom and fish lighter weights that will get down in holes or through current.
For spots and croaker, I go with light outfits that are a blast when catching these little game fish. There’s nothing like the pull of a fat croaker on light tackle. For flounder and seatrout, I usually opt for the medium-heavy spinning or conventional tackle, since these fish have a little more heft and you’ll need the leverage to get them to the boat. Bottom weights, always depending on tides, wind and current, will normally fall in the 2- to 4-ounce range.
Rigs for spots and croaker are fairly simple. I typically u
se a double dropper rig for both species. For spots, I like to use short-shank or wide-gap No. 4 hooks that can efficiently hold bait such as bloodworms, or pieces of clam or peeler crab and equal the playing field for these notorious bait stealers. For croaker, I go with long-shank or wide-gap No. 6 hooks. If the fish are mixed with larger fish in the school, I’ll move to a 1/0 wide gap. The larger hook helps in culling out bites from smaller fish.
When fishing for trout while anchored up, I’ll use a single 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook with a long leader, pearl beads for effect, coming off a three-way swivel. If I’m drift-fishing, I’ll use the same rig or a double dropper rig, which can hold chunks of peeler crab or cut baits.
Flounder are best taken on a singlewide gap or circle hook, sized at either 2/0 or 3/0 and fished on a 24-inch leader. I prefer a three-way swivel rig. There are plenty of pre-tied rigs available in tackle shops for spots, croaker, seatrout and flounder. Also don’t forget that bucktails and leadhead jigs can be deadly on seatrout and flounder.
This little guy is a light tackle dream. What he lacks in size he makes up for in being feisty. By mid- to late summer, spots will have moved into inlets, along the beaches and up into backwater bays.
Best fishing locations include deep holes in channels and over shell bottoms. You can find them by drift-fishing, and then anchoring up after you catch a few. The top of high tide and through the ebb tends to be the best fishing.
Good baits for spot include bloodworms, pieces of clam and small chunks of peeler crab. But small squid strips will catch them, too. Though expensive, my first bait choice is always bloodworms. Spots are excellent to eat. They are sweet and do well fried, broiled or steamed. By late summer and early fall, they will have “yellow fins,” and the large ones can be filleted.
It’s too bad croaker don’t get any bigger than they do. For their small size they can pull like a small pony on light tackle. I can only imagine what a 10-pound croaker would be like on the end of the line.
There has been both good news and bad news concerning croaker. The bad news was that there was a large croaker kill off Virginia near the Maryland state line area this past season. Tens of thousands of large croaker were found dead on beaches or seen “piping” for air on the surface. It is believed a sudden up-welling of cold water killed them, but the jury is still out on this one.
The good news is that after Hurricane Isabel, biologists documented up to eight times the average number of baby Atlantic croaker in some parts of the Chesapeake Bay. Marcel Montane of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) reported that the croaker-hurricane connection was not unique to Isabel. Montane found that from 1956 to 2003, there were three times as many croaker in hurricane than in non-hurricane years. But he said “this does not necessarily guarantee a boom to croaker numbers for next year.” We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed.
Croaker are a warmwater fish and Virginia is almost at the northernmost fringe of their range. When they move into coastal inlets, they often will stack up in channels and back bays in huge numbers. When the “run” is on, just find the groups of boats drifting through them. On most occasions croaker will hit almost any bait dropped down to them. Squid and clam work and they are cheap and easy to come by. Seaside fish can run large, feeding before they move back out to their offshore spawning grounds along the continental shelf.
Big croaker can be filleted and are best eaten fresh, either fried or broiled. They are a “heady” fish, so the meat-to-body yield is somewhat small. I have found that using an electric fillet knife makes the cleaning job go quick. Keep only what you can use.
Flounder are one of my favorite fish in the world. I like them because it takes some fishing finesse to catch them, and they are great to eat. I believe more time, effort and money have been spent on catching flounder in Virginia that any other species. They are certainly a species that is enjoyed by all classes of fishermen, from the novice to the veteran angler.
By midsummer, flounder have scattered throughout the back bays and channels of coastal inlets. They are predators, using tides and currents to their advantage. The best place to find flounder is along channel edges and dropoffs, especially where they come up to shallow flats. I tend to do best drifting dropoffs from the top of the high tide down through the first couple of hours of the falling tide. I also fish areas near where small creeks and drains empty into larger channels, especially during an ebb tide. Baitfish, grass shrimp and crabs will tumble out and flounder will be there to ambush them.
Prime baits for flounder include long squid strips, fresh cut bait, live minnows, or small live spots or bluefish. You have to be on the bottom to catch these guys, so make sure you have weights to match the currents. Bucktails and lead jigs also work great on flounder, fished with either a plastic shad or with a squid strip. Bounce these slowly along the bottom.
For the past several years, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has been tracking flounder movement through an aggressive tagging program.
“We are seeing fish caught, tagged and re-caught sometimes within only a few hundred yards of where they were first hooked during the summer months. But when they migrate, we are seeing tags returned from hundreds of miles away. And we find they tend to stay in age-classes,” said Jon Lucy, a VIMS sportfishing biologist.
Unfortunately last year was a bust for seatrout (weakfish). They made a poor showing during the spring and summer, with only a flurry of action in the fall. They are a highly regarded species and their low numbers cause concern among both fishermen and biologists. So far there is no smoking gun, and everyone hopes this season they will rebound in numbers. I personally saw large schools of juvenile fish last fall, hopefully a positive sign for the future.
By summer, seatrout are well entrenched and will chase baitfish and crabs along channels, around bridges and in deep holes. Big trout will feed along marsh banks, especially on a moving high tide and during the first hours of the ebb. And they tend to be low-light feeders, so best chances for catching fish is usually early mornings, evenings and on overcast days.
For trout, I use peeler crab or cut fresh bait such as spots. Live baits are also deadly on big trout, especially live spots, silver perch or small bluefish. Trout can be taken either by drift fishing or anchoring up over deep hole or near a cut bank.
I also like to drift and jig over deep holes or under bridges, especially early in the morning on a moving tide. If conditions are right, I will anchor up and work jigs or metal spoons. Effective weakfish jigs include bucktails, spoons and leadheads with a plastic shad. And you can’t go wrong with the classic white bucktail coupled
with a purple-colored soft-plastic worm either jigged or cast around marsh banks.
Summer fishing along Virginia’s coastal inlets can sometimes be challenging. But working the right tides during the cooler times of early morning or evening can pay off in spades. Croaker and spots are true crowd-pleasers when they show up in large schools and summer flounder are a perennial favorite for many anglers. And one can only hope for a great seatrout run this season. The “boys of summer” are back, so get out and play the game.