Chesapeake Bay fishing offers Virginia anglers unmatched summer saltwater action. Here's how to get in on the fun.
By Charlie Coates
Virginia anglers who ply the fish-rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries enjoy the good fortune of outstanding action throughout the year. From huge striped bass migrating in and out of the bay with the seasons, to feisty and tasty flounder that take up spring and summer residence during the warm months, anglers have plenty to keep them busy all 12 months of the year.
Still, if a poll were taken of Virginia anglers to name their favorite month for pursuing the Old Dominion's plethora of worthy saltwater species, the winner would probably be June. Yes, May has earned serious consideration for its unofficial kickoff of the year's warm-water saltwater season, ushering in numerous popular species. The list is led by fan favorite jumbo striped bass returning from spawning chores in upper Virginia and Maryland tributaries. A host of other early crowd pleasers include such favorites as flounder, red and black drum, croaker and speckled trout.
But anglers need not mourn the passing of May, as June offers another whack at the same species along with some others that will test the mettle of those feeling up to the task.
For starters, anglers fishing the uppermost portions of the bay's western shore and its tributaries can find excellent action for post-spawn stripers on their way back down the bay. Many will make a left turn up the Atlantic coast while others will spend their summer enjoying all the food and structure that the lower bay has to offer.
WHAT, WHEN AND WHERE
Anglers fishing out of the Smith Point area, conveniently located at the mouth of the Potomac River where it pours into the bay, enjoy easy access to some of the estuary's best striper action. The good times for striper fishing keep rolling here throughout the season as resident fish see no reason to leave.
One of the region's most prolific producers for stripers is an area known as the "Triangle," a structure-rich fish haven off the mouth of the Potomac that extends east to the bay's shipping channel at buoy 68. Resident fish can be chummed up here all season. Other productive chumming locations include the Northern Neck Reef and Smith Point Light.
While chumming is a popular method of catching stripers throughout the season in this area, the big post-spawn fish coming out of the rivers are best dealt with by trolling along the edge of the channel. Bucktails, spoons, parachutes and 6- to 12-inch shad imitations are popular and effective. Favored colors are white and chartreuse. Similar action can be enjoyed farther south as post-spawners exit the Rappahannock, York and James rivers.
June's warming waters will move the bay's best striper action farther south toward the ocean. Many will linger around the lower bay's abundant bait-holding hard structure, notably the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT)) and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT). Trolling, live-lining and casting can all be effective along the tons of rocks and pilings. Many of the largest fish will be taken by anglers drifting live eels.
Eels are also welcomed by big stripers on the eastern side of the bay. The Kiptopeke area can usually be counted on to account for some of the year's largest fish, with eels being the bait of choice for most trophy hunters.
Kiptopeke State Park, located about four miles north of the CBBT, is a convenient launch point for pursuing striped bass as well as a number of other species that inhabit nearby waters throughout the season.
Sidebar: Drum on the Rocks
In recent summers, pods of black drum have taken up residence along the islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, feeding on crustaceans and marine life around the rocks and pilings. Standard baits of clam or crab on a fishfinder rig have accounted for good numbers of these big fish, especially on a moving tide.
Ambitious anglers, however, have found a way to hook up with these behemoths using artificials. Drum can often be seen in the eddies on the down-tide side of the islands, presenting the opportunity to sight-cast with a bucktail tipped with clam or crab. A 2-ounce leadhead jig with a large rubber tail can also be effective.
— Charlie Coates
Virginia's Eastern Shore is well known for its outstanding spring flounder fishery from Chincoteague to Wachapreague. While flounder were later arriving than usual throughout the bay last year, by early June action had picked up nicely with better weather and water conditions. As Eastern Shore waters heat up, anglers need to concentrate on fishing deeper than they did earlier in the season. Drifting and slow-trolling are effective methods for dealing with unruly wind or current. Bucktails adorned with minnows or flounder belly are popular and effective.
Farther down the bay, flounder hunters saw slowly improving action through late May last year. Catches picked up along the CBBT, but better results came from protected waters, especially the western shore's Rudy and Lynnhaven inlets. Both allow anglers in small boats to get in on the action throughout the summer for a number of species, including bluefish of all sizes that will attack just about any bait or lure. Puppy drum can be taken by casting lures or baits just outside the grassbeds.
Flounder will hang out in the inlets all summer, but most of the larger ones will move out to deeper water and hard structure as water temperatures rise. Those that remain can often be tempted by a strip bait and minnow combination drifted along the channels on a moving tide.
Jumbo-sized flounder seeking out hard structure and deep water for summer homes can do no better than the CBBT. The entire complex offers classic flounder structure in the form of rockpiles, bridge pilings, channel edges, multiple depth changes and numerous sharp and deep dropoffs.
One of the CBBT's many productive and popular areas that offer all of those doormat necessities lies between the complex's third and fourth islands. Here, one of 2-mile-long tubular tunnels carries traffic under the Chesapeake Channel. The steep channel edges and the tunnel itself provide prime habitat for huge flounder.
North of the channel, more prime flounder habitat lies between the Concrete Ships and Plantation Light off Cape Charles. The Cell, a manmade reef with depths of 30 to 60 feet, also harbors its share of the bay's largest flatties.
Fine fishing opportunities for flounder and other piscatorial delights are also available along the lower bay's western shore. Hampton, bordered by some of Virginia's most productive waters, is ideally located for catching a variety of fish. The James River to the south and the Back River to the north both empty into the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton, presenting exceptional opportunities for anglers to intercept striped bass, flounder and croaker as they migrate in and out of the bay.
With many choice fishing sites close to shore, this area is small-boat and foul-weather friendly.
Red drum, one of the earliest and most popular game fish to enter the bay, will normally show up first around the southern end of the Eastern Shore along the shoals and flats near Magothy Bay, Smith Island and Fisherman's Island. Bay action picks up in June around the CBBT, with best results coming along the shoals on the eastern side of the bay. Reliable hotspots include Latimer Shoal and the Inner Middle Ground Shoals just north of the CBBT.
Anglers who plan their efforts to take on red drum when they are most likely to pounce on a bait or lure will have an excellent chance of hooking up with a trophy. Reds are most active during low-light hours and changes of the moon cycle, especially a full moon. Anglers should concentrate their efforts on bottom variations such as holes or sloughs in relatively shallow water. With a stealthy approach, drum may be spotted swimming near the surface. Fresh menhaden and peeler crabs are favorite baits. Circle hooks should be used to easily return release-only trophies (more than 26 inches) back in the water.
Many of the season's early black drum arrivals are taken in these same locations by anglers targeting reds. Sea clams and chowder clams added to the bait bucket can make for a more interesting outing. As the season progresses, good numbers of both species can usually be taken off the shoals of the lower bay between buoys 13 and 16. Red drum will most likely be found on top of the shoals, while blacks will favor having their meals just off the edges. Black drum can also often be found hanging around the islands of the CBBT.
Cobia usually begin to show up in the bay in late May, with the hottest action taking place from mid-June through July. Last year, however, they arrived early, much to the delight of their legions of devoted fans. Early arrivals are usually available around western shore hotspots such as Bluefish Rock and the Hampton beaches. Later, the best action will take place off the edges of the same shoals on the eastern side of the bay that hold red and black drum. Latimer Shoal is well known for giving up big cobia, with good fishing along the entire shoal from buoy 16 off Kiptopeke all the way down to the shoal's southern tip.
Odds of catching cobia are greatly increased by the use of chum. Menhaden (preferably fresh) is the favored choice for both chum and cut bait, although live bait can be more productive, especially for larger fish. In addition to menhaden, cobia appreciate live offerings of spot and eels. Live baits can be free-lined or fished on the bottom. Cobia anglers fishing the shoals should not be surprised to hook up with some red drum that want in on the goodies.
When weather and water conditions are right for sight-fishing, anglers can enjoy outstanding big-game sport by casting to cobia around the Virginia Beach Ocean front or bay and ocean buoys where they wait for easy meals to come within range.
Wherever and however they take on these hard-running brutes, anglers will need to prepare for some long hard-fought battles. Spinning or baitcasting rigs will need a fast-taper rod with plenty of backbone.
MORE TO COME
By mid-June, anglers may be thinking bay fishing can't get any better. Actually, it can. About this time, hordes of Spanish mackerel start moving into and up the bay, starting off along the Virginia Beach oceanfront and eventually making themselves available throughout Virginia's portion of the bay right through the summer. As a bonus, bluefish are usually tagging along with them. Both can be taken by trolling channel edges with 3- to 4-inch shiny spoons. If only bluefish are taking the spoons, mackerel hunters should increase their trolling speed in order to accommodate the Spanish speedsters.
For those who still haven't had enough fishing fun this summer, there are plenty of options farther away from the dock. From spadefish at the Chesapeake Light Tower to seabass on the wrecks, a bit longer run can yield outstanding results. Those with enough boat or the means to charter one can get in on some of the best bluewater fishing anywhere. The warm current of the Gulf Stream off the Virginia coast serves as the major migratory corridor for pelagic species from dolphin and yellowfin tuna to white and blue marlin. Local charter captains on both sides of the bay can put anglers in the middle of the action throughout the summer.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
It's imperative that anglers be aware of all the current seasons and regulations for the various species that may be encountered on any outing as they can and do change at any time before or during the season. The best source for up-to-date information is available from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's Web site at www.mrc.state.va.us. The site also includes useful information including boat ramp and fishing reef locations.