Virginia Beach may be mostly known for its vacationers, but saltwater anglers can enjoy a triple play for flounder, spadefish and puppy drum in July.
By Marc N. McGlade
Like the American troops who stormed the Normandy beachhead in June 1944, the Atlantic's shoreline residents invade Rudee and Lynnhaven inlets and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) complex each summer. For anglers, there are three important reasons to join the invasion: flounder, puppy drum and spadefish. Chasing these species is the thing to do - leave the sun worshipping on the oceanfront to tourists.
Rudee Inlet, also known as Lake Rudee and Owl's Creek, lies approximately 13 nautical miles south of Lynnhaven Inlet on the Atlantic. It's a fraction of Lynnhaven's size; however, from small things can come big rewards, and Rudee Inlet fits that bill. Lynnhaven Inlet rests in the southern tip of Chesapeake Bay.
An engineering marvel, the CBBT spans 17.6 miles connecting Virginia's Eastern Shore to Tidewater and Virginia Beach. This series of bridges, tunnels (known locally as tubes), causeways and artificial islands is one of the greatest manmade fishing structures the world over. Striper, gray trout, cobia, flounder, red drum, black drum, croaker, bluefish and spadefish all visit this immense structure throughout the year. Anglers catch many other species here, too.
Aaron Horning and Ted Lindsey from On the Fly Sportfishing Charters, and Jim Clark from Back Bay Ventures Guide Service have been honing their skills in this area, and have had enormous success in the region.
This 8-pound, 7-ounce trophy spadefish caught by Aaron Horning came from the Chesapeake Light Tower. Photo by Marc N. McGlade
PUPPY MANIA Both inlets are full of puppy (or red) drum in the 18- to 27-inch range. Fighting such a powerful fish on light- or medium-action spinning gear, medium-action baitcasting or fly-fishing gear is nothing short of a party.
Red drum are primarily an inshore fish until they attain roughly 30 inches - achieved usually by 4 years of age - then they migrate out of the estuaries and join the spawning population nearshore and offshore. Their diet mostly consists of crustaceans, fish and mollusks. For dessert in Virginia Beach, they love to dine on gudgeons, a local name for saltwater minnows. Reds can live 20 years or more.
"Puppies," said Lindsey, the Creeds, Virginia native, "are a schooling-type fish, which makes them fairly easy to catch. Most competent anglers should expect to catch their limits in either inlet during July and throughout the summer."
Lindsey said puppy drum react best during the first two hours of the outgoing tide in these inlets.
Horning added, "They start feeding heavily as the water pulls bait out from the marsh grass."
Wind - the nemesis of saltwater anglers - can play games in the inlets, but both are well enough protected that small boats can fish them. However, if you desire to fish both, it's best to trailer a small boat rather than trying to run the 13 nautical miles of extremely rough sea between them.
Most of us are at the mercy of our schedules as to when we can fish, but Clark's favorite days are when light west winds are present, as they tend to clear the water and make sight-fishing easier.
Horning spools 12-pound-test monofilament line on spinning reels and pairs them with medium-heavy rods measuring 6 1/2 feet. He also uses baitcasting gear, opting again for 12-pound-test mono with rods of medium action in lengths of 6 1/2 feet. He uses both outfits for puppy drum and flounder in the inlets.
Lindsey, on the other hand, reaches for much lighter gear than Horning. Lindsey fishes 6- and 8-pound-test line on lighter rods. This former freshwater bass angler loves to sight-fish for the finning reds in the marsh grass and chases them like he used to stalk shallow-water largemouths.
Clark, Lindsey and Horning all key on shallow areas for puppy drum. They focus their efforts from 1 foot down to roughly 10 feet deep.
"The breaklines are key spots to look for," said Lindsey, "particularly on outgoing tides. The puppies will work the flats and marshes big time on high tide."
Lindsey indicated his top baits for puppies are white, chartreuse or yellow curly-tailed grubs.
"I impale them on 1/4- or 1/2-ounce leadhead jigs. Sometimes I'll use black grubs, too," he said.
Because the puppies are normally shallow, he'll cast right up to the grass lines. Both he and Horning vary their retrieves between a slow, steady retrieve and a lift-and-drop retrieve, depending on the preferences of the fish that particular day.
Clark prefers sunny days when fishing for puppy drum because it allows him to visually inspect the sand bars and ledges. Puppy drum are easily spooked, so use stealth when stalking these shallow fish.
These captains point out that the inlets are capable of coughing up redfish to about 25 pounds. They contend Rudee Inlet has more puppy drum, but the fish run larger in Lynnhaven Inlet.
FLOUNDERING AROUND Six-pound-plus flounder are possible in both inlets, and Horning, Lindsey and Clark have each boated their share of flatfish this size. These experts employ a basic fluke rig to catch these fish. A Kahle hook is paired with either a bucktail or rubber skirt covering the hook. Three- to 6-inch strips of squid are attached to the Kahle hooks, and sometimes a saltwater minnow is added, too. It's paramount to success that the strip of bait flutters; successful flounder anglers taper the strip to a point, adding considerable action to this morsel. Anglers also place two or three beads above the skirt, with a spinner in between for added flash. A leader of approximately 3 feet runs to a three-way swivel. A 1-foot drop leader also runs from the swivel to a sinker.
Sinker sizes vary from 1/2 to 1 1/2 ounces, depending on the strength of the tidal flow, which, incidentally, is almost nonexistent in Rudee Inlet. In Lynnhaven, however, there is more water to dump out of the area, and therefore a stronger tide is present.
Horning, Lindsey and Clark recommend drifting for flounder. They'll float through one of the bays or creeks in these inlets and let the wind or tide drift their boat and drag the fluke rig along the bottom. For visitors to these inlets, this is an excellent way to maximize your fishing time in unfamiliar waters. These captains recommend the drift from Lo
ng Bay Pointe to Bubba's Marina in Long Creek, within Lynnhaven Inlet, on an outgoing tide. A good drift in Rudee Inlet stretches from the bridge near the mouth of the inlet, extending to the marsh in the center of Lake Rudee.
Because flounder are a bottom-dwelling species, these experts are maintaining bottom contact by alternating between a dragging retrieve and a lift-and-drop retrieve. They target depths of 2 to 12 feet.
"I like dock pilings or any type of structure," said Lindsey. "Even something as simple as a ditch or cove that drains into the inlet is a choice spot."
Horning advised, "When fishing for flounder, allow the fish to really bite on the strip of bait before setting up. There's a lot of the bait strip dangling from the hook, so it takes a little time for the fish to get the hook in its mouth, especially if you're using a strip up to 6 inches long. Setting the hook too early will often result in a missed fish."
Additionally, flounder bites can be extremely subtle, so keep a watchful eye on the line and rod tip. These captains say anglers can expect 20 flounder per boat from either inlet on a typical outing during the summer months.
"You never know what you're going to catch in either inlet," said Clark. "Whether you're fishing a fluke rig for flounder or a grub for puppies, you can catch gray trout, speckled trout, puppy drum, flounder and occasionally bluefish."
HEARTS AND SPADES The spadefish is one of the most underrated angling targets that swims in the Atlantic and Chesapeake. But they fight hard; some anglers jokingly refer to them as 'bluegills on steroids.' Some folks mistakenly call them angelfish. Whatever you call them, know this: if you hook one, you're in for a street fight. Spadefish are not for the faint- or weak-hearted.
Although they are angelic-looking fish, 'spades' have a big heart and fight like the devil. The Atlantic spadefish is silvery in color and has four to six black vertical bands on each side (Though these bands can become obscured on larger fish). They have a deep, flattened body and the first and second dorsal fins are separated. The caudal fin, or tail fin, is concave. Its anterior rays of the second dorsal fin and anal fin are elongated.
Spadefish inhabit inshore and nearshore areas, particularly around natural and artificial reefs. They also spend time near navigation markers in 15 to 20 feet of water.
Spadefish spawn in spring and summer and are known to travel in large schools. Small juveniles are almost totally black. A keen eye can spot them drifting on their sides mimicking floating debris. They generally feed upon crustaceans, small encrusting invertebrates and jellyfish.
Virginia Beach is perhaps the spadefish hotspot. Not only did the International Game Fish Association's world-record spadefish (a 14-pounder) come from Virginia but also schools of 5- to 9-pounders are commonplace in Tidewater.
According to Claude Bain, Director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament (VSFT), "Typically, the spades arrive by Memorial Day and are thick by the first of June."
Bain likes to target the Cell (where the world record was caught), the Chesapeake Light Tower, coastal wrecks and the CBBT for spadefish.
"At the CBBT, look for cruising fish," said Horning. "Always wear your polarized sunglasses."
Four artificial islands separate tunnels from bridges at the CBBT. These islands contain giant boulders, providing excellent structure for the spades. Look for the fish near the rocks and along the concrete columns that serve as the bridge's trestles.
"The CBBT area's spades are fat. Most of them average 5 to 7 pounds, sometimes bigger," Clark said.
"Throughout the summer," said Lindsey, "spades take up residence at the CBBT, the Chesapeake Light Tower and many artificial reefs and wrecks. Some wrecks and reefs that we like are Tiger Wreck, Cape Henry Wreck and the State Reef."
Because spadefish are so structure-oriented, it's common to find schools of them mixed in with other species with similar habits.
"They'll even hang around buoys like cobia do," Lindsey said.
Fishing for spadefish is usually quite easy, although this species can be finicky. Essentially, there are two ways to rig for spades: the first is similar to bream fishing - a float, a split shot and a live-bait hook. Total length of the rig depends upon how the fish are behaving, but generally, the float is 6 to 8 feet from the hook. The second rig is for bottom fishing, and the standard fare is the fish-finder rig.
Bain uses pieces of chowder clams with a relatively small hook. Additionally, he recommends anglers chum with clams to attract spades.
"I started using a No. 4 and 6 hook, but now I use a 1/0, short-shank hook," Bain said. "They work well, and some other anglers are now using circle hooks and appear to be doing well with them, too."
The current dictates how much weight to add to your line.
"They usually swim 6 to 8 feet under the surface. If it's slack tide, I use a bobber. With current, though, I'll use a 1/4- to 1-ounce sinker to get the bait down. I think it's important to get the bait away from the boat. They can see and hear the boat, therefore, use the lightest weight possible and get the bait away from the boat," said Bain.
"In late summer I usually like to fish around the third and fourth island of the CBBT," he added, "but sometimes boat traffic is heavy there, which hurts."
Horning, an expert spadefish angler, believes these fish layer in schools. If you crimp a piece of split shot onto the line, about 4 feet below the float, you can often drop your bait through the layer of smaller fish near the surface and target the bigger fish that are laying underneath the schoolies.
"If that's not enough weight, we'll use a fish-finder rig and drop through the smaller fish in the upper water column. Sometimes you just have to get that bait down quickly before the smaller fish engulf it," Horning said.
These experts use 12- to 15-pound-test monofilament line mostly. Bain prefers spinning tackle, whereas Horning and Lindsey lean towards baitcasting reels matched to medium-action rods, ranging from 6 1/2 to 7 feet in length.
Most anglers can expect on an average half-day trip to hook 20 spades. There's a big difference between hooking and boating when it comes to spadefish, however.
"You probably won't boat that many, especially if you're in or near the heavy structure that they like," said Horning. "For instance, the Chesapeake Light Tower can present inherent problems due to its structure. The legs serve as a brea
k-off point where spades can wrap or slice the line against the legs. Here we bump up our mono and use 15- to 20-pound-test.
"We like to use small pieces of chowder clams primarily, and we impale them on a live-bait hook in the No. 1 or 2 size. It's very important," said Horning, "that the point of the hook be buried in the clam. Sometimes it's vital to have the entire hook covered so that nothing is visible. Each day is different."
Lindsey, Horning and Clark believe wholeheartedly in the use of chum bags.
"Sometimes if we're in an area with spades, but are having trouble getting them to bite, we'll get on the radio and invite other boats to our area to help call up the spades by getting more clams in the water," said Horning.
I don't know about you, but the thought of catching 5- to 9-pound 'bluegills' - or even bigger - makes my hair stand on end. Puppies, flounder and spades; this triple play should be great this summer. With that in mind, crowds can be fierce. If possible, pick weekdays to visit these locales. During the heat of July, and throughout the summer, you can be rest assured of catching some quality fish species while hordes of other visitors to Virginia Beach are searing in the sun.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), phone (757) 247-2200, Web site www.state.va.us/mrc; Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, phone (757) 491-5160, e-mail email@example.com; Virginia Beach Visitor Information Center, phone (800) VA-BEACH.
The size and possession limits of all saltwater species in Virginia are subject to change monthly; therefore, it's suggested that anglers check current regulations frequently either by calling VMRC or by visiting their Web site.
ADC's Waterproof Chartbook of the Chesapeake Bay is available by phoning (888) 420-6277.
On the Fly Sportfishing Charters, phone (757) 426-3912, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim Clark's Back Bay Ventures Guide Service, phone (757) 426-5393, e-mail email@example.com, Web site www.backbayventures.net. Launch sites include: Owl's Creek in Rudee Inlet, Seashore State Park at the end of 64th Street and the new Lynnhaven Boat Ramp and Beach Facility in Lynnhaven Inlet, phone (757) 460-7590.
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