Saltwater anglers start fishing the inshore reaches of Virginia’s coastline in April for mammoth rockfish that are headed up the bay and into the rivers to spawn. As the water warms, many different species begin following bait into the bay. One of the better conservation comeback stories over the past few years has been the red drum fishery. Conservation efforts have brought these fish back from a time where they were an accidental catch. Now anglers and charter captains are able to actually target these fish and enjoy some great fishing.
One of my favorite charter boat captains, and favorite fishermen to fish with, for that matter, is Captain Ryan Rogers. He lives and breathes the bay and is on the water constantly. He began his professional career by doing time as a mate on the boat he ended up buying and running as his own, The Midnight Sun. Captain Rogers, or Captain Ryan as he prefers to be called, really enjoys seeing his clients fight a trophy red drum. Captain Ryan explained that the fish fight hard and make for a memorable trip on the bay.
“They are one of the hardest-fighting fish in the bay and one of the most fun to catch. We really take care to preserve this fishery by getting a quick photo and releasing the large fish immediately to fight another day,” he said.
The captain points out that once the calendar turns to May, the red drum begin entering the bay down around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and start following the bait up the bay. Some of the fish go as far as Annapolis, Maryland.
The interesting thing is that while the fish are often found along the edge of the channel in their travels, they can ultimately be found anywhere, in any depth, at any time. Captain Rogers has a few techniques that he was willing to share with us in targeting red drum.
First, he uses his fish finder to locate the trophy fish. Because he knows that the fish are following bait, he watches his finder for distinctive marks, usually quite large arcs. Each fish finder marks each fish species differently and with enough practice anglers can determine what they are seeing. Captain Rogers watches his fish finder as he approaches bait along the channel edge or over or near structure. Sometimes the birds mark where red drum are feeding and sometimes he reports that you can actually see the fish near the surface as they are feeding or swimming along.
Structure is often the key to finding the fish, though. The CBBT is often a popular spot to look for these fish. The 17-mile-long bridge/tunnel complex has plenty of concrete tubes, rock and boulder islands that create swirls and channels. These channels are turbulent places to boat, but the same turbulence forces bait to go through certain areas. These areas can be incredibly good places to fish as they concentrate the fish.
Other top places to fish include the Northern Neck Reef and the Stone Piles. However, any reef or structure can attract and hold fish. A good mapping fish finder or chart book will have these locations. To pattern fish for future outings, mark areas that produce fish for you and jot down the time of year when you encounter the fish and any conditions that are noticeable.
Captain Ryan noted that although no certain time of day or tide is really better than any other, but he likes to fish the early morning or late evening bite when the tide is moving.
“A lazy tide tends to make the fish lazy,” he noted.
Another tidbit he shared with me was that in years when the water is saltier (generally a result of a dry year) the fishing for red drum is better. On wetter years, anglers may see better fishing in the lower bay where the brinier water exists.
TROLLING SET UPS
When trolling for the big reds, Captain Ryan stresses that quality gear is a must.
“You can find out really fast how powerful these fish are if you don’t use a quality rod and reel. Even your lures should be well made,” he advised.
Captain Rogers and Wes Seigler have teamed up to create their own line of reels which we have mentioned in previous articles. Red drum were actually one of the game fish that they tested the reels on. Therefore it was no surprise to me that he uses his own Release Reels (www.releasereels.com) mated to an Ugly Stik to do the job.
“I am a big fan of Ugly Stiks. They have a soft tip but plenty of backbone for fighting the fish,” he said.
When rigging trolling rods for red drum, our expert explained that he uses both inline sinkers and planers, depending on the depth of the marked fish. He has three favorite spoons that he uses for big red drum. The first is a Hopkins Hammered Spoon that is 4-to 6-inches long. He also will tie on a silver Tony Accetta or a big Drone spoon of the same size. These big spoons are dynamite lures for schooling reds. Use a 50-pound leader and a quality swivel to get the job done.
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