As the temperatures warm in May, so does the striped bass action in the Chesapeake Bay. Our pro has the tips to help you hook the fish of a lifetime. (May 2009)
May is a tough month to be an angler in Virginia -- but not because there's no outstanding fishing. In fact, quite the reverse: Given the variety of choices of species of fish to chase this month, it can be tough to know where to point the boat and what to target on a given trip.
A leading contender for your fishing time is one of Virginia's most revered and sought-after game fish -- saltwater striped bass. They are now fresh from the spawning grounds, hungry and willing to make your reel scream if you know where to go and how to present the bait or lures to them.
We went to a local professional captain to get the inside scoop on what is going on regarding striped bass in May. Our pro has very quickly distinguished himself as a knowledgeable expert on striped bass fishing. Captain Max King has been fishing for Chesapeake stripers for 10 years.
He has fished the bay since 1985. Captain King has won the Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout in 2006 and 2008. In 2007, he finished fourth and seventh in the tournament. He also won the 2006 CCA Greentop Deltaville Tournament. In 2006, he was the American Striped Bass Association Top Angler of the Year Runner Up. He has repeatedly placed in the top 10. Without a doubt, our source has a reputation for finding and landing big fish in a variety of ways. Here are some of the strategies he uses for success.
During May, the striped bass have just finished spawning in the upper portions of tidal rivers and are now on their way back to the ocean, where they will head north. In the meantime, they will stop and "get groceries," as our pro puts it, in the Chesapeake Bay. Spot, eels, croaker and other fish are on the grocery list. Once the water temperature pushes past the 60-degree mark, the fish begin departing rapidly for ocean waters in New England, where they spend the summer.
During May, striped bass are most often found in the upper water column where the sun has warmed the water. Fish may appear to be more scattered too. Gone are the days when you might see acres of diving gannets plunging into boils of menhaden. That is a scene from December, January and February. Now anglers are more likely to find smaller pods of bait or even mark single fish rather than see their fish finder lighting up bright red as it may have done four or five months ago.
Anglers will find fish searching for dinner in a variety of places. Obvious structures like the CBBT, the "islands" at the CBBT, and boulders or riprap make good ambush sites for striped bass to hold and then dart out to get a meal.
Captain King stresses to anglers that they must be patient and sharpen their eyes when using their fish finders.
"What you saw on your finder in midwinter is not what you will need to be looking for now. If you see three-fourths, one-half or even one-fourth of the bait you saw in February on your finder in May, then you need to get your rigs overboard or the bait out. What you are seeing now is indicative of a pretty good fishing area."
However, Captain King does admit that occasionally you will find a large pod of bait, and when you do, you need to camp out on the bait until the fish begin feeding.
GEAR AND TACTICS
Anglers wishing to pursue trophy striped bass in the spring on the bay will find that a traditional spinning setup with a bait runner on it works great. Bait-casting reels work well too. It is most important to get a quality reel capable of handling the runs of a fish up to 40 or 50 pounds and one that will spool a ready amount of 20-pound line on it. Captain King uses mono line when bait-fishing due to the cost.
"If the lines get tangled and some cutting is involved, the cost of replacing and respooling your reel will be a whole lot less than if you use braided line," he commented.
He uses medium to medium-heavy rods 6 1/2 to 7 feet in length to play in the trophy fish. Circle hooks of the appropriate size are often employed on his boat. He chooses the size of hook depending on the size of the bait he is using. For larger baits such as croaker, he advises that anglers use an 8/0 or 9/0 hook.
Fishing with live bait in the lower part of the bay during the spring is good, but the window of opportunity is short with a two-week season. If the weather is very warm, the fish will leave before the season really gets going. However, if the spring is cooler than normal, the fishing may remain quite good for the entire time.
One of his favorite ways to fish for striped bass is to use eels. Eels are a favorite food of striped bass and Captain King has perfected his method of using eels to entice monster striped bass. He uses up to eight rods, rigged a variety of ways so that at any given time he has baits at a variety of depths in the water column. Their rigging varies from a slip-bobber and free-lining an eel out to fishing the bottom with a heavy sinker. These rods are set around the boat graduated by the depth they are covering. The ingenious system takes fish even when other boats nearby are coming up empty-handed.
Captain King marks fish on the finder near an ambush site and then sets out his baits as he drifts through the area. He noted that a pair of anglers could use six to eight rods effectively without too much difficulty while drifting.
When asked what constitutes a good ambush site for striped bass, he listed the criteria as simply a place where the fish can hold near cover and whack a meal as it passes by. Any structure that allows a striper to hide and inhale a baitfish easily will work.
Some good locations include the CBBT tunnels, the bridge pilings there on the downtide side, the deep water off Cape Charles and even structure at the mouths of rivers, such as rock ledges or boulders. Our captain also noted that the closer one gets to the Eastern Shore, the better the fishing tends to be in the spring. Live baiting can be done with eels, spot or croaker with good results.
If live bait is not an option or the desired method, Captain King recommends the standby trolling tactic to take fish. A planer board is essential to getting lines out far apart to work the upper 10 feet of the water column. Captain King pointed out that while trolling, the ever-popular Penn 330 reels work very well.
Anglers can spool them with 50-pound mono or braided line to get the job done. A heavy-action or medium-heavy rod is standard fare. Tandem parachute rigs or umbrellas in a variety of sizes and colors are recommended.
"Anglers should pay attention to the bait they are seeing. If possible, rig the umbrellas and parachutes with sassy shads of the same size as the available bait. Even a 6-inch shad will take a 50-pound fish," the pro pointed out.
"An east to west trolling pattern has been proven over the years to be the most productive," he added.
Anglers may want to fish up to six rods out of their boat. Fewer rods are recommended while trolling than while live baiting because during a trolling run things can quickly become hectic with other boats around and planer boards with the outrigger lines. Fish only what you feel comfortable handling and then work up as you gain confidence and experience.
Striped bass like a moving tide. A moving tide stirs up bait and when baitfish are moving, the striped bass are eating. A slack tide is a good time to change locations, get a bite to eat, take a break or regroup.
This spring, be sure to have your boat and gear ready for the striper season. There are not many days in the trophy season, which normally runs the first two weeks of May. Some of the largest rockfish of the year are passing through nearby waters on their way to New England.
Having just spawned, they are hungry, and with the correct presentation, they can give your rod and arms a good workout. Be sure to send us a picture for the "Camera Corner" of your big striper this season!
Captain King can be reached for a charter at (757) 650-3176. He is not only knowledgeable but also very willing to teach anglers what he knows. If you are interested in learning more about live baiting with eels, you can contact him at email@example.com and ask about purchasing his DVD on the subject. Many bait shops in the Virginia Beach area carry it.