The Bay's Upper Peninsula Triple Play

The Bay's Upper Peninsula Triple Play

The northern Neck region of Chesapeake Bay offers access to hot summer action for a trio of game fish -- striped bass, Spanish mackerel and bluefish. (August 2009)

Outdoor writer Gary Caputi hoists a big striped bass.
Photo by Ken Freel.

Four hundred years ago while exploring the Chesapeake Bay, Captain John Smith turned into the mouth of the Rappahannock River to do some fishing. The first angler known to file a fishing report for the area, he recorded in glowing detail his experiences using swords and frying pans to battle various species of game fish. Today, visitors to this northernmost peninsula on Virginia's western shore come armed with more efficient tackle. But they still go home amply impressed by the prolific and diverse fishery of the Northern Neck.

Conveniently sandwiched between the Potomac River to the north and the Rappahannock River to the south, the Northern Neck offers a multitude of fish habitat and species to choose from throughout the summer. Admittedly, the area often has to concede top billing to bay hotspots farther south that enjoy higher salinity and longer seasons.

Summer and early fall, however, is payback time for anglers farther north. Striped bass -- arguably the most popular game fish in the entire Chesapeake Bay -- cannot be legally kept in Virginia waters from June 16 through Oct. 3, limiting anglers in other parts of the state to catch-and-release only. Thanks to their location just across the Potomac River from Maryland, anglers fishing out of the Northern Neck have other options.

A reciprocal license agreement between Virginia and Maryland allows anglers with a license from either state to fish anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay. As luck would have it, a short run across the state line will put Northern Neck anglers in the middle of some of the bay's very best summer and fall striped bass fishing. As a bonus, the striper-rich waters of the lower Potomac River are also open for business to anglers with a Virginia license. Can it get any better than that?

As a matter of fact, yes, it can. It just happens that this entire interstate region of the bay, encompassing both sides of the Potomac River, is also home to good numbers of the largest Spanish mackerel to be found in the bay. Throw in a generous supply of spunky bluefish, plus the tendency of all three species to be feeding on the same school of baitfish, and you have the makings of a busy day on the water.

Much of this three-pronged action takes place in an area known as the "Triangle," a large mass of fish-holding real estate off the mouth of the Potomac River. This area can be delineated on a map by drawing a line from Smith Point across the river to Point Lookout, then from Point Lookout southeast to buoy 68, and then back to Smith Point. The entire area, along with the nearby Southwest Middle Grounds, provides outstanding opportunities for all three species throughout the summer and early fall.

WAYS AND MEANS
Anglers fishing in this region not only have the option of targeting any one or all three of these species, but can also choose from various ways to fish for them. Each method has its advantages and adherents, but prudent anglers will go equipped to alter their game plans to suit conditions and the whims of their quarry.

Trolling is usually the choice of those fishing for all three species at once, often producing the largest specimens of each. It is a clear favorite when specifically targeting Spanish mackerel, which have been larger and more plentiful the last couple of years. Last summer, many of them ran in the 4- to 6-pound range.

Spanish mackerel are most often caught near the surface, where they join bluefish and striped bass attacking schools of baitfish. Anglers randomly trolling through such a fracas might hook up with any one of these predators, but those preferring macks need to tailor their efforts toward a fish that loves to show off its speed. While a lure moving at 4 or 5 miles an hour will likely interest a striper or bluefish, a Spanish mackerel will almost certainly shun it. These finicky speedsters also show prejudices regarding the specific type of lure and presentation being offered. Accommodating trollers will pull small gold or silver spoons on or near the surface at a fairly rapid pace.

Captain Ferrell McLain, who runs charters out of Smith Point, begins trolling for Spanish mackerel as soon as they reach his area. They usually arrive by late July, with the action peaking in late August.

"They eat small baits such as bay anchovies and shiners, so the best lures imitate those little baitfish," said McLain, who pulls small spoons, primarily 3- to 4-inch Clarks and Drones.

McLain usually finds the action for Spanish, along with their traveling companions, next to the channel edges, but will sometimes work the shallows as well when concentrating on mackerel.

"The smaller baitfish preferred by Spanish seem to be more concentrated there," he said. "Usually, if there are Spanish feeding, there are probably bluefish and striped bass also feeding in the area. Upping the trolling speed will yield more Spanish. I have caught Spanish trolling at 8 or 10 miles per hour, but 6 to 8 is better."

Trolling right through a school of surface-feeding fish, no matter the species, will spook both predators and prey, causing them to sound and scatter. Anglers should always troll the outside edges of the action instead. Small planers or trolling sinkers can be employed to get a lure down to larger blues and stripers, and occasionally, a better grade of mackerel.

Anglers targeting keeper-sized striped bass will want to get their lures down deeper. This is especially important when the sun is bright, as a striper's eyes are extremely sensitive. The larger specimens will be found well below the surface melee anyway, especially once water temperature reaches the 80s, at which time they will seek the comfort of the deepest water available. Summertime anglers who fish the early-morning and late-evening hours will usually experience the best results with all three species.

Striper specialists enjoy success trolling bucktails, spoons and plugs, as well as soft-plastic shad imitations, often behind umbrella rigs. Unless fish are visible and feeding on the surface, most anglers will troll along dropoffs, especially the edge of the shipping channel.

As summer progresses and bluefish become more prevalent, most anglers retire their surviving soft plastics from service in favor of something more tooth-resistant.

The minority contingents of anglers who actually target bluefish don't have to do anything special to please them. If there's a food party going on anywhere i

n the area and at any level of the water column, they'll find it. Almost any lure is subject to attack, although spoons and red surgical hoses are very popular and effective. A fluorocarbon leader will cut down on bite-offs from blues, as well as mackerel. Some anglers use a short piece of thin wire leader for this purpose, but that option will cut down drastically on the number of stripers caught.

Although larger fish of all three species are typically caught trolling, chumming will produce higher numbers. Chumming has long enjoyed great popularity in this region, with anglers taking advantage of the area's generous supply of productive structure and fertile feeding grounds.

Most chummers in the region will drop anchor upcurrent from the target zone along a channel edge or other dependable structure and set up a chum slick of ground menhaden. Menhaden is also the hook bait of choice, but there are times when stripers prefer razor clams, so it's best to have both baits on hand.

While it's important to fish with fresh bait, Captain McLain believes that frozen chum has a place in the arsenal as well. By using both fresh and frozen chum in combination, he feels he can cover more territory.

"Bait ground from frozen menhaden will float if it remains frozen," McLain said. "This can be good if it is used in combination with fresh unfrozen bait, or when there is a real weak tide. The frozen bait will get back farther from your boat, but will not get down deep over a steep drop­off."

McLain also cautions against giving large quantities of free food to the fish.

"Putting huge amounts of chum into the water seems like it ought to be the best way to draw more and bigger fish, but that is not necessarily true," McLain said. "If the fish can get their stomachs full way back behind the boat, they might just stop feeding. Also, your single baited hook is competing with all those chum particles, reducing the odds that the fish will take the bait."

Once fish have been attracted into the chum line, McLain recommends anglers dilute their chum with salt water, creating a soupy mixture.

"There is enough scent in the soup to keep the fish interested, but they don't get full," McLain said. "Add some of the ground meat every few minutes to tease them."

McLain stresses the importance of keeping the chum slick going constantly and keeping the bait moving to match the speed and rate of descent of the chum particles.

"Under normal conditions, it involves little or no weight added to the line," he said. "Usually, one or two small split shot is all that is needed. Hold the rod, and let line out slowly."

The popularity of live-lining with spot has grown in this region as anglers find that it usually produces a better grade of striped bass. Some anglers will use chum while live-lining, but doing so guarantees lots of bluefish and the accompanying bit-off baits.

The area's myriad structure is well suited for live-lining, and its rivers, creeks and bay shallows offer plenty of bait, including some that will be too big for live-line duties but just right for the frying pan. Preferred size for fishing is 3 to 5 inches, but larger ones shouldn't be ruled out, as they are likely to be taken by fewer but bigger stripers plus a few surprises.

By mid-August, jumbo-sized red drum, storing up calories before their migration to the ocean, sometimes take a liking to these offerings of live spot, providing anglers with some exciting catch-and-release action on light tackle. Some of the larger Spanish mackerel catches are taken by live-liners as well, including a Maryland state record of 12 1/4 pounds caught two years ago.

The occasional trophy fish notwithstanding, most of a live-liner's customers will be stripers measuring anywhere from 16 to 30 inches and bluefish weighing from 2 to 4 pounds, ideal sizes for a medium-light, fast-action spinning or baitcasting combo. J-hooks, treble hooks and circle hooks all have their supporters, but double live-bait hooks, available in many local tackle shops, have become increasingly popular. One hook is run through the top of the spot's back just behind the dorsal fin, with the other left bare for hooking game fish. Under normal conditions, no extra weight is required, but for strong tides and deeper fish, a split shot or two will usually suffice.

Most chummers in the region will drop anchor upcurrent from the target zone along a channel edge or other dependable structure and set up a chum slick of ground menhaden. Menhaden is also the hook bait of choice, but there are times when stripers prefer razor clams, so it's best to have both baits on hand.

While it's important to fish with fresh bait, Captain McLain believes that frozen chum has a place in the arsenal as well. By using both fresh and frozen chum in combination, he feels he can cover more territory.

"Bait ground from frozen menhaden will float if it remains frozen," McLain said. "This can be good if it is used in combination with fresh unfrozen bait, or when there is a real weak tide. The frozen bait will get back farther from your boat, but will not get down deep over a steep drop­off."

McLain also cautions against giving large quantities of free food to the fish.

"Putting huge amounts of chum into the water seems like it ought to be the best way to draw more and bigger fish, but that is not necessarily true," McLain said. "If the fish can get their stomachs full way back behind the boat, they might just stop feeding. Also, your single baited hook is competing with all those chum particles, reducing the odds that the fish will take the bait."

Once fish have been attracted into the chum line, McLain recommends anglers dilute their chum with salt water, creating a soupy mixture.

"There is enough scent in the soup to keep the fish interested, but they don't get full," McLain said. "Add some of the ground meat every few minutes to tease them."

McLain stresses the importance of keeping the chum slick going constantly and keeping the bait moving to match the speed and rate of descent of the chum particles.

"Under normal conditions, it involves little or no weight added to the line," he said. "Usually, one or two small split shot is all that is needed. Hold the rod, and let line out slowly."

The popularity of live-lining with spot has grown in this region as anglers find that it usually produces a better grade of striped bass. Some anglers will use chum while live-lining, but doing so guarantees lots of bluefish and the accompanying bit-off baits.

The area's myriad structure is well suited for live-lining, and its rivers, creeks and bay shallows offer plenty of bait, including some that will be too big for live-line duties but just right for the frying pan. Preferred size for fishing is 3 to 5 inches, but larger ones shouldn't be r

uled out, as they are likely to be taken by fewer but bigger stripers plus a few surprises.

By mid-August, jumbo-sized red drum, storing up calories before their migration to the ocean, sometimes take a liking to these offerings of live spot, providing anglers with some exciting catch-and-release action on light tackle. Some of the larger Spanish mackerel catches are taken by live-liners as well, including a Maryland state record of 12 1/4 pounds caught two years ago.

The occasional trophy fish notwithstanding, most of a live-liner's customers will be stripers measuring anywhere from 16 to 30 inches and bluefish weighing from 2 to 4 pounds, ideal sizes for a medium-light, fast-action spinning or baitcasting combo. J-hooks, treble hooks and circle hooks all have their supporters, but double live-bait hooks, available in many local tackle shops, have become increasingly popular. One hook is run through the top of the spot's back just behind the dorsal fin, with the other left bare for hooking game fish. Under normal conditions, no extra weight is required, but for strong tides and deeper fish, a split shot or two will usually suffice.

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