September 30, 2010
The Commonwealth's flounder anglers enjoyed another banner year in 2006, with impressive catches in both size and numbers. Here's where and how to get in on the action yourself this summer. (July 2007)
By Charlie Coates
The islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel give up huge flounder to anglers who work live bait over the rocks.
Photo by Charlie Coates.
Virginia's trophy flounder hunters probably thought fishing couldn't get any better than it was in 2005. Anglers that year earned citation awards for 902 flounder weighing 7 pounds or more, and another 35 awards for releases measuring a minimum of 26 inches. This was by far the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament's best year for flounder citations since the minimum qualifying weight was raised from 6 pounds in 2002. The bar had been set pretty high.
The Commonwealth's flounder aficionados responded to the challenge with one of their best years ever in 2006, posting outstanding results for both numbers and size of fish throughout the summer. Although "only" 889 flounder citations were recorded, 78 of them weighed in at 10 pounds or more, compared with 65 double-digit fish the year before. Perhaps more importantly, the overall fishery was greatly improved. In 2005, fishing flourished at specific structures, notably the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT), but declined at most other locations. In 2006, more anglers got a piece of the flounder pie.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which connects the Norfolk/Virginia Beach region to Virginia's Eastern Shore, has been a major hotspot for flounder and other game fish species for decades. Its 17 1/2 miles of bait-holding structure and deep dropoffs provide habitat preferred by the bay's true trophies that lie in wait to ambush a meal.
Only in recent years, however, have anglers perfected the specialized live-bait methods of catching the largest of flounder over the complex's rock-covered tunnel tubes and along its islands and bridge pilings. Here, the traditional practice of drifting cut bait has been replaced by working large live baits over specific structure. This method and this structure accounted for the lion's share of the state's double-digit flounder in 2005, and they only got larger in 2006.
"The same pattern held last year, with live bait at the CBBT producing a disproportionate share of those truly giant-sized fish," said Claude Bain, director of the state-run tournament. "The difference in 2006 from 2005 was that overall flounder fishing was very good, whereas 2005 had been a pretty mediocre year for fishing in general, with a very good specialized fishery for big fish. In 2006, the specialized fishery continued -- improved even -- but overall flounder fishing also was very good.
Having become spoiled by so many large flounder in 2005, most big-game hunters of the lower bay had little interest in the 5- to 7-pounders that were once considered trophies. Their fixation on double-digit fish may have contributed to the decline in the total number of citations in 2006. Their mantra of "bigger is better" was revved up a notch, as larger bait became available.
"We didn't catch as many flounder this year as last," said Captain Steve Wray, a Virginia Beach native who has been running charters out of the area for more than 20 years. "We were able to get bigger spots last year, and that might have weeded out some of the smaller fish. If you caught one, though, you had a good chance that it would go 10 pounds."
Larger spots translates to even more substantial offerings than the 5- to 7-inch specimens employed in 2005, which in turn dwarfed the 2- to 3-inch menhaden and minnows that were formerly the standard when live-lining for flounder.
Other than using larger live baits, Wray's game plan for putting doormats in the boat remained the same. While the entire CBBT complex holds big fish, Wray's favorite location is the northernmost tunnel tube between the third and fourth islands, where huge flounder stack up on the rocks along the tube.
Wray rigs his live bait on a 3/0 Kahle hook, employing a three-way swivel with a dropper to a bank sinker that is just heavy enough to hold bottom. Then comes the hard part.
Wray drifts over the side of the tube, deftly maneuvering his boat to bounce baits along the ledge in the 50- to 60-foot depths, where thousands of rocks compete with giant flounder to grab the offerings. The sensitivity of 50-pound braided line helps to distinguish between the two. Wray keeps baits in the sweet spot as long as possible by kicking his engine in and out of gear, relying on his party to keep taut lines and to avoid snags.
This drill requires some experience to master, and many anglers choose other avenues to get their trophies. Fortunately, there are viable choices nearby that favor those in smaller boats.
The CBBT's bridge pilings, especially the large ones in the deep water along the High Rise section of the complex, always seem to hold a generous supply of large flounder. In years past, anglers would simply drift their baits under the bridge, but starting in 2005, trophy hunters began dropping live bait right down to the base of the pilings. For security reasons, it is now illegal to tie up to the pilings, but boaters can anchor around the structure or use the motor to hold their boat against the current. That way, they can at least slow their drift to keep baits in the strike zone for a longer period of time.
The rocks around the four islands also hold good-sized flounder, and can be fished the same way. Wray has enjoyed especially good results at the fourth island.
For those who have trouble finding or keeping live bait, there are other workable options. Bucktails trolled slowly on wire line continues to account for a big share of the super-sized flatties, especially along the CBBT complex. And the old time-proven strip baits of fish or squid will still work on trophy-sized fish, as well as smaller ones. Anglers should bear in mind, however, that bigger baits will produce bigger flounder. Serious doormat seekers will use strips from 8 to 12 inches long. Strips should be cut to a tapered point in order to impart a fluttering action. Adding a minnow to the hook is likely to make it more appealing.
"Bluefish make good strip baits, but they're soft and don't last too long," Wray said. "Squid will last much longer, and so will flounder belly. Six-inch tube squid works well, and is easy to use."
A hair- or rubber-skirted leadhead jig is often used instead of a plain hook. Flounder rigs can be bought or made in a number of configurations, with either single or double hooks, hair teasers, spinners and beads.
Wray recommends drifting these rigs along the edges of the Baltimore Channel, Thimble Shoals and the Small Boat Channel. A moving tide is needed, preferably outgoing.
"All the inshore wrecks are good, and will hold flounder right through the fall," Wray said. "Some are right off the beach, easy to get to. I anchor over the Cape Henry Wreck when I'm targeting big fish with live bait, but for numbers of fish, you can drift the outside edges."
For small-boat anglers desiring to avoid the often choppy seas of the bay and ocean, there are plenty of calm-water flounder to be found inside Lynnhaven Inlet, where Wray keeps his boat.
"Drift the marshes in 4 feet of water with minnows or peanut bunker," he advised. "Bounce your baits along the bottom of the creek channel. Lots of these flounder will be undersized, but there are some big ones in there, too. The drift from the bridge over Long Creek to the inlet can take you into some nice fish."
To the south, Rudee Inlet provides similar opportunities but is smaller and can be crowded on a summer weekend. Both inlets give up citation-sized flounder every year, and offer productive alternatives on windy days. If it's not too rough or crowded, the mouths of both inlets are worthy of attention.
Although the CBBT complex is without equal when it comes to giving up big flounder, there are numerous viable alternatives for taking home a trophy or two. The eastern side of the bay from the Concrete Ships off Kiptopeke up to buoy 47 and the Cut Channel boasts a number of perennial hotspots, including buoy 36A off Cape Charles and the Cherrystone Reef at buoy 38A.
While the ocean inlets of the Eastern Shore are best known for their spring fishing, Wachapreague's Green and Drawing channels and Chincoteague's Queen's Sound continue to give up good-sized flounder during the summer. Nearshore wrecks in the area also produce large fish.
On the bay's western side, the Hampton area offers excellent opportunities for flounder anglers, much of it easily accessible to small-boat anglers. Hampton Bar will usually hold flounder, some in the 8-pound class, along the ledge on the channel side of the James River. The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel offers much the same type of structure as the larger CBBT, only in shallower water. Most of the region's biggest flounder, however, usually come from Back River Reef, where a good number of citations are landed each year, including the bay's largest flounder in 2005, which weighed in at a whopping 17 pounds, 2 ounces.
All the way up Virginia's western side of the bay, anglers can find flounder on the deeper north side of Smith Point Bar between the lighthouse and buoy 1 of the Potomac River. The dropoff between buoy 62 and the Northern Neck Reef to the north can also be productive.
This summer, more anglers in the area are likely to take a ride across the mouth of the Potomac to Maryland's Cornfield Harbor, where a few serious trophy hunters took some double-digit flounder last year. They were drifting with extra-large live spots, big hooks and heavy sinkers -- a practice known in these parts as the "Virginia big-rig technique."
Anglers using standard baits and techniques in this region enjoyed one of their best seasons in years on smaller but keeper-sized fish. Virginia and Maryland recognize fishing licenses from either state, but anglers must be sure to know and heed the laws and regulations of the jurisdiction in which they are fishing.
If there is any location in Chesapeake Bay that can rival the CBBT for tailor-made doormat structure, it's the Cell, located 2 1/2 miles west of Mattawoman Creek north of Cape Charles. This fish haven is a manmade circular reef boasting a 2,000-foot radius of prime habitat that cranks out citation-sized flounder each summer.
Trophy fishing is at its peak here during July, and it can get very crowded, especially on weekends. This can make for difficult fishing anywhere close to the reef.
"The only thing that makes it possible is that all the boats are drifting," said Captain Tom Narron, who runs charters out of Deltaville. "As long as all the fishermen cooperate and work together, it's like a choreographed dance. If not, it can be quite aggravating. You also have to keep a constant eye on the shipping traffic there. The big container ships move faster and quieter than most people realize."
Narron doesn't get too close to the Cell structure itself because of snags.
Besides, he finds the channel edges that loop around the Cell and north to buoy 42 to be more productive. He starts looking for fish around buoy 42, about a 12-mile run from Deltaville, and can usually find action within a few miles north or south.
"Don't be afraid to move away from the big parking lot of boats," he advised. "There are miles and miles of steep channel edges in the area that hold big flounder. The water depth on the flat area varies from 35 to 45 feet, and the channel around it drops off to around 70 feet. I catch most of my flounder on the flat area within a few yards of the channel edge."
Narron also fishes an area about two miles south of the Cell near buoy 40 that locals call "the Hump." This is an area about one-half mile wide and three miles long, where the water depth is 10 to 15 feet shallower than the surrounding water.
"A lot of monster flounder come from there every year," Narron said. "It is usually not as crowded because it is a little harder to find until you get it marked on your GPS."
Narron also has some tips for anglers with small boats who would prefer a more laid-back day of fishing.
"Plenty of keeper-sized flounder can be found right in the Rappahannock River," he said. "Some of my favorite areas are Butler's Hole at Windmill Point, Mosquito Point, the Pickle Factory near the Whitestone Bridge, and buoy 8 across the river from Urbanna."
Narron uses 5- to 6-inch spot when fishing for doormats around the Cell, but in the river, he relies on an assortment of standard flounder rigs in various colors, having found that flounder tend to have different favorites on any given day.
"I've had my best luck with a bucktail skirt topped by a spinner blade," Narron said. "Add some live or cut bait, and drift with the tide or wind over your targeted area. The bait needs to be just barely touching the bottom, so you'll need to try several different sinker weights to get it just right. When you can't get a good natural drift, you can change to very slow trolling with the same rigs."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Tackle shops in the area you intend to fish are the best source of information on the latest fishing conditions and best baits, rigs and methods for catching flounder. They also carry maps and charts to help you locate the deep-water structur
e that holds the largest trophies.
More restrictive flounder regulations this year will likely include a higher minimum size and a lower creel limit. For current regulations, details of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, boat ramp locations and weekly fishing reports, visit the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's Web site at www.mrc.state.va.us.
For fishing information or charters out of the Virginia Beach area, contact Captain Steve Wray at (757) 481-7517 or www.vbsf.net/captainsteve.
For fishing information or charters out of the Deltaville area, call Captain Tom Narron at (804) 370-7394 or at www.missellacharters.com.