From red drum to cobia to striped bass, most inshore game fish provide hot action in Virginia through the fall season. (September 2007)
Trophy cobia like this one can be taken by chumming with ground menhaden just off the shoals of the lower bay in the fall.
Photo by Charlie Coates.
Although Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer fun for many people, you won't find many of Virginia's hard-core saltwater anglers among them. For this savvy brotherhood, September's falling temperatures signal the beginning of a "second season," one that can often be more rewarding than the first.
From early September through the fall, anglers can get in on some of the year's best action for nearly all of the Commonwealth's inshore game-fish species. As days get progressively shorter and nights get longer and cooler, game fish that have been nearly dormant through the heat of summer become active and hungry. Much to the delight of anglers, the effect is even greater on larger fish that will need to store up more calories for winter.
This is also a special time for boatless anglers to get in on the action as migrating fish, including many trophy-sized specimens, come within range of the shoreline on their way to winter homes in the Atlantic Ocean. And, as an added bonus, pier- and beach-anglers, as well as those fishing from boats, are liable to find a few surprises on the end of their lines, as numerous species share the same travel routes and appetites.
Just about any species that swims in Chesapeake Bay is likely to show up for dinner at any time or place during the fall, but the ones noted here have earned the loyal attention of Virginia's fall anglers over the years.
After being absent from the Chesapeake Bay for many years, large red drum have made a remarkable comeback over the past decade. A prohibition against keeping fish exceeding 26 inches has been embraced by anglers who delight in catching and releasing these hard-running warriors, and the big reds have returned the favor by making themselves more accessible each year.
The "traditional" season for big drum is May and June when they first enter the bay before disappearing to unknown upper-bay sanctuaries for the summer. But late-summer and fall anglers have discovered that the drum's return trip down the bay's Eastern Shore to the ocean can be just as good, if not better. In 2005, fishing success during the fall exodus far exceeded that of a rather lackluster spring season. Last year, anglers were treated to seasons that blended together, as many large fish remained in their spring quarters throughout the summer.
The fall migration usually begins in late August, with action increasing along the edges of the shipping channel throughout September. The best fishing is usually concentrated between Nassawadox Creek and Kiptopeke. Perennially productive hotspots along the way include Grayson's Hole at buoy 42A and the deep waters off Cape Charles around buoy 36A.
When these migrating red drum reach the lower bay, they will linger awhile around Fisherman's Island and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) complex. Others will hold along the lower Eastern Shore's barrier island beaches, where they will be available to anglers fishing the surf.
Big red drum, most in the 30- to 50-pound class, can also be found along the lower western side of the bay from Hampton to Virginia Beach. By late September, they will move closer to the beaches, where surf and pier action can be spectacular, especially following a strong northeast blow. Red drum made a strong showing in the Virginia Beach area last fall, although that showing failed to match the previous year's run when pier-anglers hauled in more than 200 trophy fish measuring between 46 and 53 inches during a three-week period.
These fall drum are big and strong, requiring sturdy equipment and line in the 20- to 30-pound-test range. Cut bait and peeler crabs should be impaled on 7/0 circle hooks attached to a fishfinder rig. The best fishing is during a moving tide, preferably between late afternoon and dark, over a jagged bottom that features troughs, sloughs and points. Be sure to carry a large net to facilitate release.
Cobia and red drum share many of the same traits, habitat and bait preferences. They are often caught together on the same baits and gear in June, when their traditional fishing seasons along the bay's Eastern Shore shoals overlap.
While cobia can still be found just off the shoals during September, some of the best early-fall fishing in recent years has been on the western side of the bay. Summer hotspots, such as Bluefish Rock, York Spit and the Back River Reef, can remain productive through most of September. Good catches also come along the CBBT complex.
Most anglers will fish these areas by chumming with ground menhaden from an anchored boat. Fresh cut menhaden is a favorite bait throughout the season, but live eels are effective as well. Live offerings of menhaden, spot, croaker or mullet can also draw attention. A 5/0 to 8/0 hook is best for cut bait, but a slightly smaller short-shank hook should be used when fishing with live bait.
As water temperatures drop during late August and early September, cobia will begin to stage at the mouth of the bay in preparation for their exodus to the ocean. This is a time eagerly awaited by veteran cobia anglers each fall. While still susceptible to cut and live baits, cobia can now be seen swimming near the surface, providing some of the year's most exhilarating sight-casting opportunities. Large fish can usually be found crowding around the CBBT's bridge pilings and lower-bay buoys, where they will readily attack a bucktail adorned with a soft-plastic grub. Spoons can also be effective.
Many anglers practice the drill of "buoy hopping" -- running along a line of buoys and casting to visible fish. The Chesapeake Bay Buoy Line at the mouth of the bay can be especially productive for this style of fishing. Anglers usually get one or two casts to each buoy before spooking the fish, then move on to the next one. Strikes can often be enticed at previously fished buoys on the return run. Some of the best fishing will be along the oceanfront beaches, where anglers can score on artificials or live bait.
By late September, action will slow as cobia begin moving out to winter homes, but die-hard anglers will continue to intercept singles and small pods of fish as they move south.
Anglers are limited to one cobia per day measuring at least 37 inches.
Virginia's saltwater anglers have enjoyed a strong resurgence in their flounder fishery over the last decade, with the pa
st two years having been especially good for trophy hunters. In 2005, 937 citations were awarded for flounder weighing at least 7 pounds or measuring a minimum of 26 inches. While the number of trophy fish dropped to 895 in 2006, flounder fishing in general was even better than it was the year before.
Fishing was so good, in fact, that anglers greatly exceeded the state's targeted allotment, and are facing the strictest flounder regulations in the state's history this year in order to meet a federally mandated cap of 867,000 flounder -- less than half the number caught in 2006. After being allowed to keep six fish measuring a minimum of 16 1/2 inches in 2006, anglers are now limited to five fish measuring at least 18 1/2 inches.
That's a big flounder in many parts of the bay, but Commonwealth anglers will undoubtedly rise to the challenge. While most trophy-sized flounder are caught during the summer, there are plenty of prizes left for the fall months, especially in the lower bay. Reliable fall hotspots on the western side of the bay include Back River Reef, Hampton Bar and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT). Across the bay, trophies are found around buoy 36A off Cape Charles and farther south at the Cabbage Patch and the Concrete Ships off Kiptopeke. The pier at Kiptopeke State Park offers boatless anglers a chance to join the party.
As at other times of the year, the CBBT complex can be counted on to give up its share of trophy flounder, along with other species. Last September, a surprising number of flounder fishermen found that large migrating red drum took a liking to their live and cut baits.
The deep waters of the Baltimore Channel, on both the bay and ocean sides of the CBBT, will harbor large fish throughout the fall as they migrate south. Some remain available at the Cape Henry Wreck through the end of the year.
Battling large flounder in the deep and often turbulent waters of the bay requires sturdy tackle, heavy sinkers and 20- to 30-pound-test line. A baitcasting or level-wind reel provides better line control than spinning gear, and allows the angler to "drop back" on the fish, giving it time to work its way up to the hook. Live spot or croaker are effective baits around the structure of the CBBT, but strip baits of squid or cut fish, often in combination with minnows, are more commonly used when drifting the channels.
Although Virginia's striped bass season is closed from June 16 through Oct. 3, many striper aficionados will find a way to get their fix earlier. By mid-September, school-sized stripers will be swarming around lower-bay structure, presenting catch-and-release opportunities for anglers casting lures on light tackle. Any of the area's bridge-tunnels are a good bet. Other productive locations include the Little Creek jetties and Lynnhaven Inlet. Night-fishing around shadow lines is especially effective.
Anglers fishing out of Virginia's upper-bay ports can take advantage of the state's reciprocal license agreement with Maryland, allowing anyone with a license from either state to fish anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland's striper season is open through Dec. 15, with anglers allowed to keep two fish between 18 and 28 inches, one of which can be over 28 inches. As luck would have it, the state line is a short run from some of the bay's best striper fishing during September and October.
In fact, anglers fishing out of Smith Point and other Northern Neck ports can find themselves in fertile waters as soon as they cross the state line. The "Triangle," an area just off the mouth of the Potomac River, is covered with structure and feeding grounds that are usually generous to both chummers and trollers this time of year. The Southwest Middle Grounds and the entire channel edge between buoys 68 and 72 will give up 18- to 25-inch stripers, along with feisty bluefish in the 2- to 5-pound range. Last year, anglers trolling spoons in this area were pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to hook and release large red drum staging to migrate down the bay.
Many anglers find breaking schools of feeding stripers and bluefish hard to resist, despite the fact that these are usually smaller fish. Casting topwater lures to the edges of the schools will produce plenty of action, but jigging deeper with spoons down under the surface fracas will generally yield bigger fish awaiting an easy meal of scraps.
Live-lining with spots produced some of the best action for both stripers and bluefish in this area last year. Three- to 5-inch spots were plentiful and effective, but larger ones often accounted for the biggest stripers. Anglers working depths of 15 to 30 feet around the northern end of the Southwest Middle Grounds did particularly well.
As temperatures drop during October, more stripers will move into Virginia waters, where they can be taken at the Northern Neck Bar, Windmill Point Bar and around the marsh grass on Poquoson Flats. When larger fish become more plentiful, most anglers will concentrate on trolling big spoons, parachutes, bucktails and shad imitations, often behind an umbrella rig, along the bay's main channel edges.
By December, large striped bass will begin congregating around deep-water structure in the lower bay, notably the CBBT. Here, big stripers following menhaden and other bait down the bay are met by still more 30- to 60-pounders migrating south from New England. When they all converge at this huge buffet table and their final feeding orgy before moving on to ocean waters produces spectacular angling opportunities through the end of the year.
Trophy striper fishing in 2006 was about as good as it gets. In December alone, the state's tournament program awarded more than 700 citations for lunkers weighing at least 40 pounds or released fish measuring at least 44 inches. For the year, 74 stripers weighing 50 pounds or more were registered, the highest number in the program's history.
Many of the December trophies were taken off Cape Charles and along the CBBT. The Concrete Ships off Kiptopeke and the High Level Bridge section of the CBBT were particularly productive, with the lion's share of fish from these locations being taken on live eels fished around structure. In open water, trolling large plugs, spoons and heavy ball jigs is a more effective tactic.
From Oct. 4 through Dec. 31, anglers are allowed to keep two striped bass measuring between 18 and 28 inches, or one fish in that range and one 34 inches or longer. All stripers between 28 and 34 inches must be released.
Anglers thinking about putting away their fishing gear for the season may want to reconsider. If the above-mentioned species aren't enough to keep you occupied this fall, there's more.
Trophy-sized speckled trout are just now becoming active, and are available right through the winter. Try casting shiny lures, small bucktails and soft plastics to grassy areas near shore. Productive locations last fall included the Eastern Shore creeks, Dameron Marsh, the Rappahannock, Piankatank and Elizabeth rivers, Mobjack Bay, Poquosan Flats, Lynnhaven Inlet, the CBBT and the HRBT.
Then there's the run of big yellow-bellied spots that pounce on b
loodworms as they head toward the ocean each fall, offering easily accessible light-tackle fishing from small boats, inlets and piers. By late September, they begin moving out of the tidal rivers and down the bay, finishing the season at the lower-bay bridge tunnels, Lynnhaven and Rudee inlets and along the Virginia Beach oceanfront.
In addition, "horse" croaker to 4 pounds can be taken on cut bait in the Back and James rivers, the bridge-tunnels and inside the Virginia Beach inlets. Double-digit sheepshead and tautog will welcome crab offerings around the CBBT's islands, and puppy drum strike jigs and soft plastics along shallow bay and inlet shorelines and from oceanfront piers. If you missed out on Spanish mackerel in August, they'll still attack a small trolled spoon in September.
There's plenty of time and many quality angling opportunities left this year. Unless you've already enjoyed enough good fishing to last until spring, you should get out there and experience the "second season."