Sunny days and warm nights are the backdrop to some of the year's best surf-fishing on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Here's where and how to get in on the action.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Charlie Petrocci
Usually the first signs of summer on the Eastern Shore of Virginia are warm sunny days, steady southwest breezes and the guttural calls of laughing gulls. For sportfishermen though, summer usually begins with reports of anglers catching those first red drum, as they continue to migrate north up the coast. And for many local surf-fishermen, the beginning of summer means beach-fishing action that will only get better as the days get longer.
Some of the finest surf-fishing on the mid-Atlantic coast can be found along the Eastern Shore. This isolated region of Virginia is blessed with a long string of barrier beach islands, stretching almost 70 miles from the Maryland state line south to Fisherman's Island, located at the gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. Between these islands are twisting inlets that feed into back bays and endless marshes. Along this coastal corridor, migrating fish move along the beach feeding on an assortment of baitfish, crabs and shellfish. With island names such as Hog, Cobb, Parramore, Cedar and Metompkin, among others, they offer the intrepid angler great surf-fishing action during the balmy days of summer. I say intrepid, because not all the islands are easily accessible. In fact, to reach any of Virginia's barrier islands, with the exception of Assateague, you'll have to have a boat. So for sheer convenience Assateague Island is not only easy to reach by vehicle, but offers great surf-fishing action as well.
ANGLING ACCESS TO THE ISLANDS
Assateague, managed by the National Park Service, is an island 37 miles long that traverses both Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia portion offers beautiful beaches complete with public parking areas that allow anglers to choose from several different locations from which to surf-fish. Parking lots 1 and 4 are popular with many anglers, though all have seen their fair share of caught fish.
Surf-fishing is allowed on the island from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. during the summer months. Overnight fishing is permitted, but you'll need to get a free overnight fishing permit from a local park ranger first. Assateague also has a four-wheel drive access area. To get to drive on the beach, you'll need an over-sand vehicle permit, currently costing $70 dollars per year. You can pick these up at the National Park Service visitor center located near the beach. Besides the over-sand permit, you'll also need to have in your vehicle a jack, tow rope and shovel to dig yourself out if you get stuck. Rangers don't want to be in the towing business, so you'll need to get yourself out should you get stuck.
There are about six miles of over-sand area on the Virginia side, but keep in mind that there are closures for bird-nesting that kick in by mid- May, so the over-sand fishing access area then shrinks to less than a mile until September 1st. For most anglers though, the general parking areas offer more than enough room to fish the beach and you don't have to shell out any extra money to fish them.
Assateague and the other Eastern Shore islands have all the classic characteristics of any barrier beach island, with dropoffs, sloughs and sandbars. Beach characteristics change seasonally, sometimes even weekly, depending on storms, wind and tides. The most productive area to fish on a beach is along a deep dropoff, just off the shoreline, preferably facing a cut in the outer sandbar. This is where bait will tumble in and out of the wash and where predator fish wait in ambush. The best time to "read" a beach is at extreme low tide. Very low tides will allow you to locate the outer bars, sloughs, and cuts in the bar. This can save a lot of effort blind casting in otherwise non-productive stretches of beach.
Though Assateague is easy to get to, it is by no means the only island that holds fish. There are 17 islands south of Assateague that are managed by the Nature Conservancy and the state of Virginia. Those islands, accessible only by boat, are open to recreational fishing, but do not allow pets or overnight fishing. Though it may be an inconvenience to boat over to them, it is worth it, since these islands offer unsurpassed surf-fishing experiences.
Some of these isolated barrier islands, such as Cobb and Hog, have had a long history of sportfishing that spans well over 100 years. At one time they hosted hunting and fishing lodges that catered to the leisure elite.
Late spring and early summer are ideal times to get in on some great surf-fishing action for big red drum, black drum, striped bass and bluefish that roam these secluded shorelines. It's not uncommon for anglers to tangle with red drum in the 20- to 40-pound range on a regular basis when conditions are right. More than likely you'll find yourself on a virtually deserted beach, surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Most of these islands are easily reached from an assortment of state-operated boat ramps located along the eastern side of the peninsula. Good public boat ramps allowing easy access to the islands can be found in towns such as Willis Wharf (Parramore/Hog), Oyster (Cobb), Quinby (Parramore), and Wachapreague (Cedar/Parramore), along with a half-dozen other state ramps located in between. VGIF boat ramp signs can be found along the seaside road (Rt. 600), guiding you to island-accessible ramps. Most maps of the Eastern Shore provide information on seaside boat ramp locations, or you can check with area tackle shops for additional information.
During the early summer months, Virginia's barrier islands host an assortment of great game fish such as striped bass (rockfish), red drum (channel bass), weakfish (gray trout), sharks, black drum, flounder, and voracious bluefish. Like some primeval vacuum, fish of all shapes and sizes feed along the shoreline and move into the coastal inlets, following food and warm water. It's an ideal time for anglers to cash in on some great surf-fishing.
Red drum, a primary target species for many hard-core summer surf-fishermen, can be found along island beaches in good numbers through late June. Like many migratory fish, they feed along the surf line as they move up the mid-Atlantic coast. Hot spots for red drum include Hog, Cobb and Parramore islands. As summer moves on and water temperatures rise, the larger fish move into inlets and smaller puppy drum, in the 5- to 10-pound range, fill in behind them along the beach.
Assateague is a good location for puppy drum, especially on a falling tide during the early morning or evening hours. The best baits for red drum include peeler crab, clam chunks, mole crabs, fresh-cut mullet or bunker and lures such as swimming plugs, gold spoons, or leadhead jigs. Quite often you need to cast as far as the outer bar to f
ind these fish, while at other times they can be caught just inside the breakers.
Also making an early summer appearance are sandbar and dusky sharks. These fish are actively feeding before they spawn, and can be caught on fresh-cut baits such as bunker or mullet fished inside the beach slough. Averaging between 10 and 20 pounds, they are good fighters, but they must be handled carefully, since they have a mouthful of teeth that will shred your hand in a heartbeat.
There is the opportunity to catch some big striped bass, weakfish, and bluefish as well during the summer months. These fish become summer residents along the beach as long as weather and bait resources hold together.
Stripers are active feeders during the early morning and nighttime hours, and can be found feeding along the slough between the beach and the outer bar. These summer fish usually average around 6 to 12 pounds, with a few larger ones occasionally mixed in. Effective baits include finger mullet, peeler crabs, clam, live eels and fresh bunker. Lures such as big swimming plugs, hammered spoons and bucktails all will take fish cast from the beach. These same baits are also effective on bluefish.
Weakfish can be found in the surf throughout the summer, though last season they were scarce. Good surf baits for weakfish include squid, bloodworms, cut peeler crabs and fresh baits such as bunker and mullet. They will also take lures such as leadhead jigs laced with a squid strip, small metal jigs, and swimming plugs.
Other local summer surf residents include spot, croaker, flounder and kingfish. Spot and croaker can be caught on bloodworms, squid, or clam pieces, fished just off the beach. You don't need to cast a mile to find these little fighters. Flounder will feed right in the sloughs of the beach and can be caught on squid strips or live minnows. It's best to cast out and slowly reel in your line, giving the flounder time to find it.
Last summer was one of the best years for catching kingfish along the beach.
"I've never seen so many kingfish in the surf before as I have this past summer," said surf-casting champion J.T. Bolding of Melfa. "They were here from June through October in big numbers. There were days when you could catch all you wanted, it seemed."
Kingfish, though small, are great little fighters and are excellent table fare. They can be caught on small pieces of squid or bloodworms, fished close to the beach. These scrappy little fighters made many a surf-fisherman's day last summer.
Everyone has theories on when the best time is to fish the surf. Obviously the most productive times are early in the morning and just before dusk, as well as into the night hours, since this is when many gamefish are actively feeding along the surf line. But most veteran surf-casters will tell you much more depends on wind and tides. Many anglers prefer to fish the top of the tide rise through the beginning of the ebb, no matter what time of day it is.
Some anglers also prefer a southeast or east wind, which will theoretically hold bait along the beach area longer, attracting predator fish. During the summer, most fish are feeding heavily, taking advantage of all the food available in the wash, so quite often fish can be caught most any time of the day. If you have the time, put in the hours and most likely your persistence will pay off.
When surf-fishing, most of us like to haul off and cast beyond the breakers, since it's here that you'll have a shot at stripers, drum, trout, bluefish and sharks. But quite often fish will feed right in the breakers and in the slough very close to the beach. Mole crabs and other food will be tumbling out of the beach straight to waiting gamefish. Because of various fishing conditions along the beach, it is wise to bring two rods, using one for long-distance casting and the other to probe the surf inside the breakers. Quite often the beach slough will produce some nice fish only yards from the beach.
Due to the wide variety of fish available through the summer, it's also wise to bring at least two types of bait to fish on a couple of different rods. One rod should be a medium-heavy action outfit, spooled with 10- to 15-pound-test line. This rod can be used to fish a small float-type rig or a high/low rig with long shank hooks in the No. 4 or No. 6 hook range. Or try just a basic top-and-bottom rig, which is great for most small species of fish. These simple rigs work well to catch weakfish, flounder, kingfish, croaker, spot and puppy drum that can be found right inside the breakers.
The second rod should be a heavier outfit such as a 10- to 12-foot spinning or bait caster that can be used to cast farther, targeting larger gamefish such as redfish, striped bass, bluefish or small sharks. Spinning outfits are the easiest to handle, though conventional reels will allow you to toss a rig further, especially important when you need to reach the outer bar area. There are plenty of surf rod/reel "matched" outfits on the market for anglers to choose from. This takes a lot of the guessing out, especially if you are a novice to surf-fishing. Also use good-quality lines since sand can be unforgiving on them. I like to use a high-quality mono in 20- to 30-pound-test. This gives me good leverage in casting and my leader lines should take out any doubt in handling a big fish.
The favorite and usually most effective rig for surf-fishing is the "fish finder" rig, which allows the baited line to slide up past the weight and free float in the current. Use at least 40-pound-test fluorocarbon line tied off to a barrel swivel that connects to the main line. The leader line slips through the plastic sleeve and clip that holds the weight. This rig has probably caught more big fish in the surf than any other type. A simple 3-way brass swivel rig can also be very effective. Tie the leader line to one swivel and then a short 1-foot line off another swivel to connect the weight. On the third swivel eye, tie off a 3-foot section of 40-pound fluorocarbon line that will hold the hook. Use short-shanked hooks, between 2/0 and 7/0, depending on what species you are targeting and what type of bait you are fishing. Circle hooks have become popular and allow for easy sets, as the fish are usually hooked just inside the lip - and fish hooked this way are easier to release.
Always carry an assortment of lead weights, such as the pyramid type or those made specifically for the surf to deal with ever-challenging current and wind conditions. Bank sinkers will roll and cause your rig to twist. Surf weights should be in the 4- to 10-ounce range for long casting, while smaller weights will work for close-in fishing. In any surf-fishing situation, though, you'll need to hold bottom at all times.
Summer baits for surf-fishing include bloodworms, clams, soft/peeler crabs, mole crabs, squid, and fresh-cut baits such as mullet or menhaden. Clams and squid are fairly inexpensive and do the job, but the preferred baits for many veteran surf anglers are peeler crabs, mole crabs and fresh-cut baits.
You can dig your own mole crabs and search the docks for peelers or cut baits from commercial fishermen. Otherwise the
best place to find bait is of course your local tackle shops. There are a number of excellent tackle shops located up and down the Eastern Shore that not only have bait and good tackle for surf-fishing, but will also give you tips and let you know what's happening out on the islands.
Other surf gear should include pliers, a good knife, flashlight, cutting board, sand spikes, and something to sit on (such as a bucket), which can also double to carry all your tackle. If you are fishing one of the boat-access islands, it may be a good idea to bring some type of rolling cart to haul your stuff across the beach, since on some islands it can be a bit of a walk from the boat to the beach. Also don't forget to bring swimming plugs, metal spoons or leadhead jigs. These, besides natural baits, will give you a little more depth in your arsenal.
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Surf-fishing is pure fishing. It's you against the fish, without all the gear needed when fishing from a boat. Writer John Buchan may have had surf-fishermen in mind when he wrote, "The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope." These words may be the mantra for many surf-anglers while they watch a morning sunrise or a moon slip above a tranquil ocean as they heave out a rig to unseen giants.
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