A Saltwater Bonanza At Hampton
September 30, 2010
Hampton is rich in history and tourist attractions, but what keeps the saltwater anglers coming back are the trophy fishing opportunities.
The Chesapeake Bay's earliest and largest catches of cobia are taken from the Hampton area in late May and June.
Photo by Charlie Coates
Hampton is not Virginia's best-known fishing destination (that distinction belongs to Virginia Beach), but when it comes to both quantity and quality of saltwater angling opportunities, this all-America city takes a back seat to no one. In recent years, Hampton has emerged from the formidable shadow of its Tidewater neighbor, as savvy Commonwealth anglers discover all the piscatorial delights the area has to offer.
Like Virginia Beach, Hampton provides easy access to the fertile fishing grounds of the lower Chesapeake Bay, including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), arguably the world's greatest manmade fishing structure. The prolific bounty of the Atlantic Ocean lies just 15 miles to the southeast, and the fish-rich Poquoson and York rivers provide anglers with good action a short run to the north.
But Hampton's unique geography makes it a fishing haven in its own right. The city is bordered by some of the most productive waters in the state, including the James River to the south and the Back River to the north, both of which empty into the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton. The bayfront shoreline and nearshore structure between the mouths of the two rivers offer some of Chesapeake Bay's finest fishing.
The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT), which carries Interstate 64 traffic over and under the James River between Hampton and Norfolk, is a productive (albeit smaller) version of the CBBT. Farther upriver, the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (M&M) provides similar structure.
The location of so many fishing sites close to shore makes this area small-boat and foul-weather friendly. When windy conditions put the CBBT and open-bay and ocean waters off-limits for smaller craft, anglers fishing out of Hampton can almost always find a good place to fish out of the wind somewhere in the nearby waters that surround the city.
The HRBT's location at the mouth of the James River makes it a perfect place to intercept striped bass, croaker and flounder as they migrate in and out of the river during May. Many quality specimens of all three species, along with good numbers of large gray trout, will linger along the 3 1/2 miles of twin bridges and tunnels throughout the summer.
At least some portions of the HRBT are usually fishable for anglers in small boats, and are easily accessible from the Sunset Creek ramp just off the Hampton River.
The water here is considerably shallower than at the CBBT, about 10 feet deep on the Hampton side of the complex and dropping to 50 feet or more over the tunnel tubes. The shallow water and low bridge spans near Hampton actually favor smaller boats. While northeast winds and strong currents can sometimes cause problems for boaters on the Norfolk side of the complex, the Hampton side is protected by Old Point Comfort, which juts out into the mouth of the river.
Just inside the HRBT, sprawling across the entrance to the Hampton River, Hampton Bar provides excellent fishing along its dropoffs for some of Virginia's largest flounder and croaker. This huge shallow bar, with depths ranging from 4 to 50 feet, is easily found on a map or chart. A short distance up the James, the M&M bridge-tunnel and the James River Bridge offer additional options for those seeking croaker, flounder and stripers.
Bay waters just outside the HRBT also provide excellent fishing for a number of species. Thimble Shoal Light holds some spadefish during June, and the entire area from Thimble Shoal southeast to the East Ocean View Reef can give up flounder, gray trout and striped bass.
Hampton's entire bay shoreline from the mouth of the James up to the mouth of Back River holds a number of game-fish species during the summer, but in late May and all through June this area's trophy hunters turn most of their attention to cobia. The bay's earliest and largest catches are taken from this region each year, with the lion's share coming from the Buckroe to Grandview Beach sector, which is easily accessible from the ramp at Wallace's Bait & Tackle. Cobia to nearly 100 pounds are caught near shore here each year, many of which came from the piers before they were taken out by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003.
Bluefish Rock, east of Grandview, is a perennial producer of early-season cobia, and some years the action lasts well into the summer. Other species are available here as well, including, appropriately enough, bluefish. The state record, a 25 1/4-pounder, was caught here in 1986. Still, bluefish are mostly an afterthought here now, and a strong case could be made for changing the name to Cobia Rock.
North of Bluefish Rock, the Back River Reef is a dependable source of large flounder, and tautog can also be found here during May. York Spit, directly north of the reef, also holds cobia, as well as some large spadefish. The lower portions of the Back and York rivers offer good numbers of citation-sized croaker and flounder, especially in late spring and early summer before the larger specimens move to deeper water in the main portion of the bay.
Light-tackle and fly-fishing enthusiasts can find entertainment on the shallow Poquoson Flats that harbor speckled trout and puppy drum willing to take small plastics, spoons and flies.
A host of other species from spot to black drum can be found in the area, including striped bass of all sizes (catch-and-release only after June 15, when the season closes until October).
In short, any game-fish species that swims in Chesapeake Bay or its lower tributaries can be found somewhere in the vicinity of Hampton this time of year, although some are more plentiful and sought after than others.
Each spring, huge croaker migrating up the rivers of the Hampton area are met by waiting anglers, many of whom are fishing from piers, bridges or shore. Good numbers of citation-sized fish (3 pounds or heavier) are caught each year during May and June in the James, Back and York rivers. While the James was not as productive as usual for big croaker last year, the York took up the slack with a steady supply of fish. Last year's biggest croaker entered in the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament was a chunky 5-pounder taken from the lower York during June.
One of the York's most reliable hotspots was around the Gloucester Point Bridge, which carries Route 17 traffic across the river. Big hauls of croaker were taken from the p
ier by landlocked anglers, and a public boat ramp offers easy access to boaters.
The James River still gave up good catches of croaker last year, just not up to its usual lofty standards. Captain Chandler Hogg, who operates a charter boat out of Hampton, feels that cold, fresh water coming down the river last spring hampered the fishing, but he still found his best option for citation croaker was at the mouth of the James.
"There were plenty of decent fish (2 pounds or so) farther up the river," said Hogg. "But most of the bigger fish were between the two tubes of the HRBT." He suggests drifting the entire length of the tubes. Best baits are squid and cut fish on a double-hook bottom dropper rig. When conditions are too rough over the tubes, try drifting between the James River Bridge and the M&M crossing.
There are no size or bag limits on croaker. Citation minimums are 3 pounds for creeled fish and 20 inches for releases.
From mid-May into June, flounder can be found along dropoffs in most of the waters around Hampton. As waters warm in June, most of the larger fish will seek deeper water.
Hampton Bar will usually hold flounder, especially along the ledge on the channel side of the river. A few in the 8-pound class are caught here each year. Most anglers drift the ledge with a minnow and squid trailer on a fluke rig.
At the HRBT, anglers casting jigs around the bridge pilings during the beginning of a tide change score well on fish up to 26 inches. The sloughs on the Norfolk side of the HRBT can also be productive.
Many of the region's bigger flounder last year came from Back River Reef, with a number of them topping 7 pounds. Captain Hogg was one of those who enjoyed success at the reef, where he live-lined spot and finger mullet, letting the bait drift into the structure. He also employed cut bait, preferring strips of bluefish.
"Fishing was also good just outside the mouth of the James," said Hogg. "Flounder held off the Officer's Club at Fort Monroe, and between buoy 18 and Thimble Shoals Light. There's a drop from 17 to 30 feet, then another drop from 30 to 56 feet."
Other bay hotspots this time of year include Bluefish Rock and dropoffs in front of Buckroe Beach. In the York River, the Gloucester Point Bridge area remained productive through June last year. Under extremely windy conditions, this was the go-to spot for anglers unable to get out on bigger water.
Tackle needed for flounder fishing depends on where you are fishing and the size of the fish being targeted. Light tackle will suffice in calmer, protected waters for smaller fish, but doormats in the open bay call for heavier gear. A rod with fairly heavy action may be necessary to handle the weight required to reach bottom and to battle a large, angry flounder on the other end of the line. Use a fast-taper rod that supplies the needed backbone, but still has enough sensitivity in the tip to detect a light-biting fish.
A good basic rig consists of a 12- to 24-inch length of shock leader made of 20- to 30-pound-test line attached to a three-way swivel. Tie on one or two wide-gap hooks and an egg or bank sinker attached by dropper loops. Smaller fish are taken on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks, but 3/0 to 5/0 should be used when targeting trophies.
Anglers are permitted six flounder per day measuring a minimum of 17 inches. Citation minimums are 7 pounds for creeled fish and 26 inches for releases.
Gray trout can be found all summer throughout the Chesapeake Bay, its inlets and tributaries. Smaller pan trout will frequent many of the same areas as croaker and can be caught on the same gear and baits. Bottom-fishermen specifically targeting trout should add a little more action to their bait, moving it along the bottom with a slight jigging motion.
Numbers of larger trout, in the 7- to 10-pound range, were down throughout the state in 2004, with best catches coming from the CBBT and HRBT. The larger fish are often taken by jigging artificials such as bucktails, spoons and plastics. Chartreuse, yellow, green and white are all productive colors. Most strikes come on the drop, so it's important to keep control of your lure on the way down.
Big trout will often feed over the tubes at the HRBT, where suspended fish can be taken during a slack tide by anglers casting jigs trimmed with fresh crab. When the tide is moving, crawl a cut or whole peeler crab slowly across the bottom. Trout approaching double digits are also taken off Ocean View on the Norfolk side of the complex, and Fort Wool on the Hampton side.
Anglers may keep seven gray trout per day measuring at least 12 inches. Citation minimums are 9 pounds for creeled fish and 30 inches for releases.
When big cobia reach the Hampton area in late May, many of them congregate in the relatively shallow waters between Grandview and Buckroe beaches, most within range of small-boat anglers. Boatless anglers scored regularly on fish in the 50- to 100-pound range before Hurricane Isabel demolished this area's piers.
Bluefish Rock is a perennial hotspot for big cobia, especially early in the season. Most are taken on live bait, with eels and croaker the most popular choices. Though action peaks in June and early July, trophy cobia can be found in this area throughout the summer.
"Cobia fishing was good during the first week in June last year," said Captain Hogg, who had his best catches at Bluefish Rock and off Grandview. Although many anglers use chunks of menhaden for bait, Hogg prefers to fish live bait in a chum slick of menhaden chunks and oil. "Eels were best during the first part of the run, then they seemed to prefer croaker, about 8 inches long. Cutting off the dorsal fin of the croaker makes it easier for a cobia to swallow the bait."
Like most of the bay, York Spit was slower than usual last year, but still gave up some big fish. The largest was a whopping 65-inch, 103 1/2-pounder (just 1 pound under the state record) caught on a live eel.
When gearing up for cobia, you'll want to prepare for some long, hard battles. Either spinning or baitcasting outfits will work fine as long as you don't skimp on quality. These fish are strong and make long horizontal runs that require a fast-taper rod with enough backbone to slow them down. Most anglers use 20- to 40-pound-test line attached to an 80- to 100-pound leader about 2 to 4 feet long. Use a 5/0 to 8/0 hook for cut bait, and a slightly smaller short-shank hook when using live bait.
Anglers are allowed one cobia measuring at least 37 inches. Citation minimums are 55 pounds for creeled fish and 50 inches for releases.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
A good map or chart is invaluable in locating fishing locations, as well as boat ramps and marinas. ADC's waterproof Chartbook of the Chesapeake Bay is available at most area tackle shops, or by calling GMCO Maps & Charts at (888) 420-6277.
For fishing information or charters, call Captain Chandler Hogg at (757) 876-1590, or visit his Web site at
For information on the latest fishing regulations, call (757) 491-5160. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission's Web site contains a wealth of information for anglers, including current fishing regulations, details of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, and boat ramps. Visit the site at
In addition to a multitude of fishing opportunities, the Hampton area is rich in history, culture, dining and entertainment experiences. For more information, including places to stay, contact the Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau at (800) 487-8778, or visit their Web site at