Beating the Drum: Virginia's Saltwater Best Bet
September 30, 2010
From the diminutive spot to the portly black drum, members of the drum and croaker family provide some great saltwater action this time of year.
By Charles Coates
Of the 270 species that make up the family of croakers and drums, half a dozen play major roles in the fishing plans of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay anglers throughout the season. During the month of August, with striped bass season closed for the summer and flounder fishermen facing stricter size restrictions, those roles become even greater. In fact, it's fair to say that these six sporting and tasty fish with the noisy swim bladders will be the prime targets of most Bay fishermen this month.
Although action peaks for individual species within the family at different times of the year, all are available during August throughout the entire Virginia portion of the bay. And while August is often a month of "dog day" heat and humidity for humans, it's a time of transition for many of the bay's nonresident species. Gradually decreasing water temperatures and shorter periods of daylight trigger an urge to fatten up and get on the move toward winter quarters. Successful anglers will move along with them.
The black drum is by far the largest - and noisiest - member of the family, averaging 40 to 60 pounds. The state record is 111 pounds, caught out of Cape Charles in 1973. Most of the bigger fish are taken during May when they first enter the bay along the Eastern Shore. By early June, they'll begin to scatter throughout the bay. Some smaller fish are caught outside the creeks of the bay's Eastern Shore, but the larger specimens become primarily incidental catches and pleasant surprises for anglers bottom-fishing for croaker and trout.
There is, however, a solid summer fishery around the first three islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT). Here, pods of big black drum congregate around the pilings and rocks, feeding on crustaceans and marine growth. A moving tide during late afternoon and evening is best. Standard baits of clam, crab or a combination of the two can be used on a fishfinder rig, but for more ambitious anglers, this fishery offers a rare opportunity to battle one of these behemoths on artificials.
Black drum are among the largest fish in the Chesapeake Bay, sometimes exceeding 100 pounds. The author caught this 60-pounder on a piece of peeler crab. Photo courtesy of Charlie Coates
Drum can often be seen in the eddies on the down-tide side of the islands, presenting the chance to sight-cast with a bucktail tipped with clam or crab. A 2-ounce leadhead jig tipped with a large rubber tail can also be effective.
Beefy rigs are required to subdue these brutes. Conventional tackle in at least the 30-pound class is recommended for bait fishing, with a 7/0 hook tied to a 50- to 60-pound leader. Depending on tide and current, a sinker from 6 to 10 ounces will be needed to hold bottom. Casting with artificials or bait can be done with heavy spinning tackle and at least 20-pound-test line.
Red drum enter the bay in mid-April, with the best trophy fishing from early May until the middle of July. During this time, the big fish are concentrated in relatively small areas, primarily the shoals on the lower eastern side of the bay. By mid-summer most have moved farther up the bay, many to the Pocomoke Sound near the upper Eastern Shore.
Around the middle of August, red drum begin their annual exodus toward the mouth of the bay and inshore ocean waters. They'll travel along the eastern channel edge on this month-long journey, providing outstanding action for 30- to 50-pounders along the way. The best fishing is usually found between Nassawadox Creek and Kiptopeke. Buoy 36A, just off Cape Charles, is a good place to start, but drum can be found anywhere along the edge of the channel. Smaller numbers of large fish can also be taken during August around Smith Point and York Spit on the Western Shore.
The best fishing is from late afternoon until dark. Watch your depthfinder for a jagged bottom in about 20 to 30 feet of water. Bottom-fished peeler crabs and cut bait are both effective. The best cut-bait options are from oily fish such as mullet, menhaden, spot or bluefish.
Big red drum are broad-shouldered, hard-running game fish that require a stout rod, a strong reel and at least 20-pound-test line. Attach a 7/0 hook to a fishfinder rig with just enough weight to hold bottom. Circle hooks are recommended to facilitate release of large fish. New regulations this year limit anglers to three drum measuring between 18 and 26 inches, essentially making this late-summer run a catch-and-release event.
Smaller puppy drum, which are better table fare anyway, are available to light-tackle anglers along shorelines and inside inlets along the lower Western Shore. Last August saw a good run inside and at the mouth of Lynnhaven Inlet during August and September. Fish the marshes at the edges of grass lines with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs and 3-inch plastic worms, or grubs in white, yellow, green or chartreuse. Tip the hook with a killifish or piece of shrimp, and crawl it slowly across the bottom. Falling tides will pull bait out of the grass, and the drum will be waiting for them. During high tides, look for them in the backs of creeks.
Croaker are by far the most sought-after and available member of the sciaenidae family during the month of August, and are continuing a remarkable comeback in the Chesapeake Bay. After years of few and small fish, numbers of trophy-sized croaker have been growing steadily over the last few years. That trend continued in 2002 as Virginia anglers enjoyed the best season ever for big fish, registering 382 croaker weighing 3 pounds or more in the state's saltwater fishing tournament. That number represented a 47 percent increase over 2001's respectable total of 261.
Croaker fishing is good from April into October, peaking throughout the bay system by mid-July. Early-season trophies are found in major Western Shore tributaries, particularly the James and York rivers. As water temperatures rise, most of the bigger fish begin to move out to deeper water in the main bay. Many will remain in the lower regions of rivers through most of the summer, but during August there is a general exodus to the bay. As the month progresses, larger fish will increasingly come from the main stem shipping channel edges. By September, large schools will be making their way to the mouth of the bay, where they'll provide excellent fishing, especially along the CBBT complex, well into October before heading offshore.
Still, good numbers of croaker can be found throughout the bay, its inlets and lower tributaries through the end of August. Any fish-holding structure, such as channel edges, reefs and oyster bars, will harbor medi
um-sized fish during the daylight hours, but most of the larger ones will be caught at night.
The upper Western Shore will usually hold good concentrations of croaker in the 2-pound class, with some larger ones available after dusk. Try the artificial reef about a mile and a half north of buoy 62, where drifting over the structure rather than anchoring usually yields better results. The edge of the channel off Smith Point Light is another hotspot to try, along with the lower Rappahannock and the Gwynn Island area at the mouth of the Piankatank River. Farther down the Western Shore, croaker season runs a bit longer, with good-sized fish taken from the Back River Reef, Hampton Bar and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel as late as October. Anglers in Lynnhaven Inlet and on lower-bay piers get in on the late-season action as well.
Croaker are also abundant on both the bayside and seaside of the Eastern Shore, although fish in the bay tend to run larger. All the bay ports from Onancock to Cape Charles boast a good fishery throughout August, and croaker from the ocean side begin to enter the inlets of Chincoteague and Wachapreague by the middle of the month.
Most croaker anglers employ a double-hook rig, using crab, shrimp, squid or cut bait on number 2 through 2/0 beak-style hooks. Use just enough weight to hold bottom. When targeting bigger croaker, try larger hooks with larger pieces of bait. Artificials, such as jigging spoons, can also be productive for bigger fish. Croaker can be taken by either drifting or anchoring, depending on conditions. Anglers fishing at night will usually drift until dark, and then anchor up over a school.
Gray trout can be found all summer throughout the Chesapeake Bay, its inlets and tributaries. They'll frequent many of the same areas as croaker and can be caught on the same gear and baits. Those specifically targeting trout should add a little more action to their bait, moving it along the bottom with a slight jigging motion.
Larger trout are often taken by jigging artificials such as bucktails, spoons and plastics. Chartreuse, yellow, green and white are all productive colors. Trout may be holding on the bottom or may be suspended just off the bottom. It's important to keep control of your lure on the way down, as most strikes will come on the drop.
The Smith Point area on the upper western side of the bay is usually a productive choice for gray trout fishing during August. Try drifting a bucktail tipped with peeler crab along the channel edges. Evening fishing around the Smith Point Lighthouse is a good bet as long as you have a moving tide. Other productive spots include the dropoffs between Smith Point Light and the SP buoy, the Smith Point Jetty and Blackberry Hang, south of the jetty. When schools of snapper bluefish are feeding on the surface, try dropping a jig or spoon below the topwater action. Trout will often lurk beneath the carnage, waiting for an easy meal.
Farther down the Western Shore, the Rappahannock, York and James rivers are all good producers this time of year, as is the Back River Reef. On the eastern side of the bay, try deep water out of Onancock and the Cement Ships below Cape Charles. The seaside inlets around Chincoteague and Wachapreague can also be productive.
Trout fishing generally improves later in August as dropping water temperatures get the fish schooled up more tightly. That's a good time to search dropoffs with a depthfinder to locate the schools that will often be suspended along channel edges. Mark the spot with a buoy, then drift back over the school with bucktails, spoons or plastics. Trolling can also be effective, and is a good choice when there is no moving tide.
Some of Virginia's largest gray trout are taken each year at the CBBT, especially between the fourth island and the High Level Bridge. The entire complex provides plenty of prime structure, and good numbers of trout in the 8- to 10-pound range are taken here by jigging, trolling and live-lining.
Speckled trout are available all summer, but larger ones are primarily participants in the spring and fall fisheries, showing little interest in getting caught during the summer months. However, they too begin to come to life as waters cool in August, at which time they can be fooled by a variety of baits and lures. Peeler crab, live shrimp, spot and mullet are all productive, and as specks begin to store up the calories for winter, they are more likely to hit artificials. Yellow, green, chartreuse and white plastic grubs on 3/8- to 1/2-ounce leadhead jigs are a favorite, but shiny plugs and bucktails will also get results. Fish guts along the shoreline with live or cut bait on the bottom. Artificials can be hopped along the bottom or retrieved above submerged grassbeds.
Speckled trout are found in marshy or grassy areas near shore on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. Productive areas on the Western Shore include the mouth of the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers, Windmill Point, Poquoson Flats, Mobjack Bay and Lynnhaven Inlet. Specks can also be found inside the Eastern Shore bayside creeks and in grassy areas around Watts and Fox islands in Pocomoke Sound.
Spots are an important component of summer fishing in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, providing easily accessible sport for a tasty and hard-fighting fish on light tackle. A mainstay of pier and shore anglers, spots can be found just about anywhere in saltwater and are easy to catch. Bloodworms are the most effective bait, but these bottom-dwellers will not hesitate to take other offerings, including peeler crabs and clam. Scale down your hooks to numbers 4 or 6.
For the second straight year, big spots appeared throughout the Chesapeake Bay during the summer months of 2002, and with a strong fall showing, accounted for 593 citations for fish weighing a pound or more. While considerably fewer than 2001's 928 citations, it was the fifth best total in the tournament's history.
Spots are available from June through October, but like most of their larger cousins, the bigger ones begin to get active in August as they prepare for their spawning run to the ocean. By early August, catch numbers will be noticeably increasing in the Western Shore tributaries. Productive locations last year included the middle reaches of the Rappahannock River, the mouths of the Piankatank and York rivers, and Back River Reef. Action also begins to pick up off Onancock on the Eastern Shore, as well as in the Chesapeake Bay's shipping channel.
As waters continue to cool in September, large yellow-bellied spots will head south toward the mouth of the bay, where they'll be found in abundance around the Cement Ships and the CBBT. A good number of spots over a pound are taken at this time, but most will run between 8 and 10 ounces. Fishing in the bay can remain good well into October when a major storm is likely to push most spots out into the ocean, where they'll continue to provide sport for pier and beach anglers. Still, some trophy-sized fish will remain in the lower portions of rivers even past October. The largest spot registered in last year's tournament weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces, and was caught in the James Riv
er in November.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Area tackle shops are a valuable source of information on the latest fishing conditions and hotspots, as well as locally successful baits and methods. They can also provide information on their region's boat ramps, piers and charter or head boats.
Charts and maps of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are available at most tackle shops or through GMCO Maps & Charts. Contact them at (888) 420-6277. For information on current fishing regulations, including sizes, seasons and creel limits, contact the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament at (757) 491-5160, or visit their Web site at www.state.va.us/mrc.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Virginia Game & Fish