Chesapeake Bay Fishing Smorgasbord

Stripers, bluefish and croaker are on tap right now throughout Chesapeake Bay. Read on for top places where you can intercept each of these fine fighters! (June 2006)

When it comes to catching big fish and lots of them, June is an incredible month to go fishing in the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay. Not only have weather conditions warmed and stabilized by this time of year, but a significant number of big stripers and bluefish will still be lingering in the bay's confines. Croakers -- which have made a remarkable comeback since their near-extinction during the early 1960s -- will also be available in much of the bay's middle and lower reaches, where anglers fishing from the decks of small boats will be able to reach some of the season's largest fish.

The striped bass fishery seems to be relatively stable throughout the species' range, but independent scientists and conservation groups have expressed some concerns as to the fishery's makeup. Much of their worry stems from to the extremely high number of smaller fish, and the lack of Atlantic menhaden, which comprises a big part of the forage base for larger striped bass. Some of this problem is now being addressed by state and federal agencies, but a growing number of individuals feel that needed steps to reverse the trend won't be implemented until the menhaden fishery's untimely demise brings about the total collapse of dependent fisheries such as striped bass, weakfish and a host of others.

Bluefish have made a remarkable comeback during the past decade, particularly in the lower reaches of Chesapeake Bay and the inshore Atlantic coastal waters. Much to the delight of individual anglers and area charter captains, chopper blues to 10 pounds appeared mysteriously in the Chesapeake's lower reaches last June. These fish remained in the bay's confines well into late fall and increased in size and numbers until they migrated south in late October.

Some fishermen believed that the reason for bluefish's resurgence is a lack of commercial fishing pressure and lower market demands for the species. If this is indeed the case, there's a good chance these fish will return to the bay each season.

SUSQUEHANNA FLATS STRIPERS

Significant improvements in environment -- particularly the resurgence of submerged aquatic vegetation, combined with an exploding population of freshwater clams -- has vastly improved water quality at the North East River's mouth in an area known as the Susquehanna Flats. The surging currents of the Susquehanna River washing past Stump Point created this massive delta, thereby creating a massive eddy that entraps and deposits large quantities of silt from Pennsylvania and New York during the spring thaw.

When the aquatic grasses emerge during early spring, the delta becomes a massive nursery for juvenile shad, striped bass, herring, white perch, yellow perch and a host of forage species. This in turn attracts larger predators such as largemouth bass and striped bass, both of which roam the flats in relatively large numbers and sizes if conditions are favorable.

"We get a couple of waves of larger stripers that show up on the flats in late May and sometimes stay around until the end of June," said Captain Mike Benjamin, a well-known local fishing guide with more than 30 years' experience fishing this region of Chesapeake Bay.

"Everything depends on water temperature. If we have a colder-than-normal spring, the bigger fish -- some measuring 40 inches or more -- will stick around the flats until the temperature is right for spawning. The first bunch will usually spawn in late April or early May when water temperatures range 53 to 63 degrees. After spawning, they'll move out and a couple of days later, another bunch will show up. They will likely not spawn until the temperature gets to 65 or 67 degrees. But when the water temperatures hits 70 degrees, all the larger fish will migrate off the flats and head for deeper water."

Benjamin says that when the water is relatively clear, as is sometimes the case during May and June, he likes to toss mid-size surface plugs, shallow-running crankbaits, spoons and Bass Assassins at fish foraging along the lower North East River's channel edges, mainly in the vicinity of Rocky and Red points.

The depths here range from 2 to 5 feet along the dropoffs, while channel's center falls off to as much as 25 feet. "If the fish are in the deepest part of the channel, I'll switch to jigging spoons, which are pretty effective in clear-water situations. But if the fish are on the edge of the flats, Bass Assassins, spoons and surface plugs can be deadly."

Benjamin says that if the water's muddy, live bait may be the only option. Early in the season he dip-nets sufficient quantities of live herring and stores them in a small, aerated pond to be used as bait. "There is something about live herring that a big rockfish can't resist. I don't know what it is, but if I'm right alongside a boat where live-lined white perch are being used, and I'm using live herring, I'll outfish them ten to one every time."

Benjamin says that as the season progresses, he frequently follows the stripers as they migrate up the nearby Susquehanna River to the base of Conowingo Dam, where large numbers of stripers ranging from 18 to 32 inches are caught from early June through the end of September.

"Live white perch and herring are pretty effective here as well. But just like down on the flats, the herring will usually out-catch the perch. Sure, you'll catch fish using perch, but you'll catch them a lot faster using herring. I've had a days when I took my wife fishing and actually limited out within five minutes, then spent the next couple of hours catching and releasing big rockfish just about as fast as the lines hit the water."

BIG ROCKFISH AT BUOY 72A

Large schools of migrating striped bass will quickly head south after spawning in the Chesapeake's upper reaches and a host of designated spawning rivers in the estuary's middle reaches. Many of these fish will measure 32 to 48 inches. All of them will be hungry and will readily be attracted to the scent of ground menhaden being ladled overboard from dozens of charter and private boats anchored near buoy 72A.

Most of the charter boats running from Crisfield, Solomons, Hooper Island and Point Lookout will converge on this location, which is right in the middle of nowhere. The closest launch ramp for small-boat anglers is nearly 15 miles to the southwest at Point Lookout State Park, which on a rough day can translate into a long, bumpy ride. When weather conditions are favorable, however, the ride to 72A is a piece of cake, and the fishing action can be nonstop.

Most of the fishing action usually takes place during periods of moderate tidal flow. If those tidal changes coincide with periods of low light, early and late and the day, that seems

to be when most of the larger stripers feed. When moderate tidal currents occur during midday, most of the bass tend to be somewhat smaller. The same location can yield rockfish in the 24- to 48-inch category just after sunrise, and again just before sundown.

Veteran anglers usually anchor along the steepest segment of the bay's eastern channel edge, where depths fall rapidly to more than 100 feet. These chasms hold a host of baitfish, many of which can be found taking refuge against the channel's steep, rugged walls. Savvy fishermen will create a steady stream of fresh-ground chum, creating an oily slick that often extends a half-mile astern of the boat. It usually doesn't take more than a few minutes for foraging schools of big stripers to detect the scent and move toward the chum-line's source.

Under normal circumstances, you attach a 10/0 circle hook is to the end of a 6-foot length of 35- to 50-pound- test fluorocarbon leader material, which is fastened to the running line of a heavy-action spinning outfit with a ball-bearing barrel swivel. A large slab of fresh-cut menhaden is attached to the hook. Lower the bait into the chum slick and slowly feed it out to the feeding fish at rod-length intervals. At the slightest indication of a strike, the line is free-spooled, thereby allowing the fish to swallow the bait completely and head away from the boat.

The beauty of fishing with circle hooks is that the fish actually sets the hook without any intervention from the angler. And circle hooks almost always hook the striper firmly in the corner of its jaw. This amazing device rarely results in deeply hooked fish with internal injuries, thus the rate of mortality of fish caught and carefully released is extremely low. Additionally, the percentage of hookups is considerably higher than when using standard "J" hooks, especially if the rod is sitting in the rod holder while the angler is doing other things.

At this time of year, anglers are limited to two striped bass per day measuring 18 inches or longer. However, only one of those fish can measure more than 28 inches. That can pose a minor problem when all of the fish in the chum slick are big ones. At this point you have two options. You can either move to another location where you may (or may not) find smaller stripers, or go fishing for another species -- croakers.

TANGIER SOUND CROAKERS

The season's largest croaker will arrive in the fertile waters of Tangier Sound sometime in late April or early May, depending on the severity of the preceding winter and the average water temperatures. Most of these fish will quickly migrate into the shallow flats adjacent to Janes, Fox, Watts, Smith and Tangier islands, where they'll forage on tiny pea crabs, bay anchovy, grass shrimp and worms washed over the flats from the nearby tidal marshlands.

Croakers are on the flats because water temperature here may be 10 degrees warmer than in the depths of Tangier Sound. These warmer waters seem to hold vast quantities of their favorite foods.

This is where Captain Kevin Josenhans, a light-tackle and fly-fishing guide running from Crisfield, finds huge numbers of big croakers. Josenhans concentrates his fishing activity along the edges of flats where he finds shallow troughs or slight depressions in the muddy bottom. Those troughs act as pathways that give croakers access to the shallows without becoming stranded when the tide begins to recede, which is when most of the forage species get caught up in the currents.

The guide's secret to success is to quietly position his boat on the flats within casting distance of a couple of troughs. And while he prefers catching the fish with a fly rod, his most productive technique is to toss a small piece of bloodworm to the far side of one of the depressions, then drag it slowly over the bottom and let it descend into the deeper water and drift naturally with the tide. It usually doesn't take more than a few quick seconds before a big croaker gulps down the tasty morsel.

A twitch of the rod tip, and the battle is on. And what a battle it is! Most of the croakers found in the flats this time of year range 16 to 18 inches in length, or more. When hooked in very shallow water, they tend to go berserk. Their broad sides and wide tail provides them with lots of muscle power, especially if they're moving with the surging tidal currents. When hooked on light spinning gear, an 18-incher can take 10 minutes or more to land. Croakers are tough customers, even when hooked on heavier tackle.

CHOPTANK RIVER CROAKERS

By mid-June, croakers will have migrated as far north as the Choptank River. A large contingent will enter the river and migrate as far northeast as the U.S. Route 50 Bridge, putting them within reach of shore-bound anglers fishing from the state's longest fishing pier. Most of the fish caught here will range from 15 to 17 inches, but a few real trophy fish are caught from the bridge structure nearly every season.

A majority of the larger fish will be caught at night. Often the action kicks off just as the sun dips below the western horizon. This night forage is thought to be triggered by the mating rituals of tiny pea crabs and mantis shrimp, which become active after sundown. Consequently, these two species provide a perfect food source for foraging croakers, particularly the larger fish.

Knowledgeable anglers will launch their small boats, or set up lawn chairs on the pier just before sundown. The boaters usually try to find a sharp dropoff near the edge of the river's channel, preferably near the mouth of a deeper tributary. Pier anglers do essentially the same thing, setting up their rod holders and chairs close to the channel edges where most of the larger fish are traditionally found.

At this time of year, bait shrimp, chunks of peeler crab, and squid strips will lure croakers from the river's channel edges. The largest fish come from the stretch between Chancellor and Cook points. As the season progresses, imitation bloodworms and squid strips will be the best game in town, especially when water temperatures rise to 70 degrees or more during the day.

Limit catches of 25 croakers are usually commonplace throughout most of June, July and into early August. But by the middle of August, the fish will begin moving to the bay's deeper channel edges to forage on small crabs and worms before migrating south in September.

SMITH POINT BLUES

Nothing, absolutely nothing that swims, is meaner than a chopper bluefish ripping through pods of fleeing baitfish. They'll fill their bellies to capacity, gulping down huge mouthfuls of peanut bunker and bay anchovy until they resemble silver footballs with fins. You would think they would stop feeding at this point, but this is rarely the case. More often than not, they'll regurgitate their stomach's contents and begin the carnage anew -- that's the nature of the beast.

During the past few years, increasing numbers of larger bluefish have been showing up in the confines of Chesapeake Bay. Ranging in size from 12-inch snappers to 8-pound choppers, these highly aggressive predators usually begin arriving in Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay sometime in late April or early May, with the largest fish entering the estuary as s

oon as water temperatures rise into the low 60s.

Bluefish tend to show up with the arrival of large schools of Atlantic menhaden, their primary source of food. Granted, a bluefish will eat anything that swims, including smaller members of its own kind. But like all other species, they have particular dietary preferences, and menhaden are right at the top of their list.

Among the first locations to see large schools of big bluefish is an area known locally as the Triangle. This particular spot is just a short distance north of Smith Point Light near the Potomac River's mouth. A 75-foot deep chasm surrounded by flats ranging from 40 to 45 feet deep provides perfect structure to attract swarms of menhaden. Three small wrecks and Buoy 67 mark the Triangle's point, where swirling tidal currents produce ideal conditions for foraging bluefish to find an easy meal.

SOUTHWEST MIDDLE GROUNDS BLUES

As the season progresses, bluefish will begin congregating over dozens of lower Chesapeake Bay lumps and bumps, where the structure holds large quantities of both menhaden and bay anchovy from June through October. Among the most productive sites is the Southwest Middle Grounds, a vast uprising from the bay's floor, situated along the bay's eastern channel edge approximately seven miles from Point Lookout State Park's launch ramp. Buoy 68 marks the southwestern edge of the lump, whose southernmost point rises to within just 12 feet of the bay's surface.

When water temperatures rise well into the mid-70s, those larger chopper bluefish will often be joined by schools of 12- to 15-inch snappers fresh in from the Atlantic and looking to fill their bellies with schools of anchovy. Most measuring just 2 to 4 inches in length, they congregate at the Middle Grounds in massive schools, often covering an acre or more. When the water is relatively clear, you can readily see them darting just beneath the surface, picking off tidbits of food carried by the bay's tidal currents, making easy targets for larger predators lurking just a few feet beneath them.

Under ideal conditions -- relatively calm winds, modest tidal flows and low light levels -- massive schools of marauding bluefish and striped bass will begin ripping through the pods of foraging anchovy.

With any kind of luck at all, you will enjoy a wonderful day on Chesapeake Bay this summer, filling your cooler chest with limit catches of a smorgasbord of the bay's bounty.

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