September 30, 2010
A rebound in the rockfish population and size structure is paying off for anglers who know how to catch these big fish. This guide will tell you how its done.
Photo by Steve Walburn
By Charlie Petrocci
Many regions around the country have a favorite game fish species, one that they call their own. In New England it's the codfish, the Gulf Coast region it's the tarpon, and for Southern states, the red drum takes top billing. But here along the mid-Atlantic region, especially around Virginia, without a doubt, the darling species is the striped bass, locally known as the rockfish.
Pretty much everyone, from the most dedicated boat fisherman to the family fishing off a dock, enjoy the striped bass. These fish are the most esteemed coastal species of the Chesapeake Bay region and can be caught under a variety of angling conditions and waters, including bays, beaches and nearshore areas. So popular is the rockfish around the Virginia coastal region that its figure or name can be found on everything from advertising signs, posters, billboards, lapel pins, and it even serves as the name for a local rock band.
NATURE OF THE BEAST Stripers live comfortably in saltwater and freshwater, so their distribution in the Commonwealth is broad. The "classic" saltwater striped bass migratory population ranges from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to as far north as Nova Scotia. But the major spawning ground for mid-Atlantic migratory striper stocks is the Chesapeake Bay.
Identification is usually not difficult for striped bass, as they have seven to nine pronounced black stripes that run along silvery sides. The belly is white or off-white, and the back can range in color from steel blue and black or sometimes with a hint of green for river run fish. Migratory fish usually have a purplish hue on the back that is more evident in mature, larger fish. And fish that have recently come in from the ocean or areas of high salinity show off a nice bright silver hue.
Striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay have also been monitored by several fishery agencies since the mid-1950s. For the past 10 consecutive years around the Chesapeake region, young-of-year indexes for striped bass have been rising steadily. Although annual fluctuations have occurred due to weather variables and salinity changes, the index reflects a solid population growth and juvenile fish recruitment.
Fisheries biologists have concluded, though, that coastal stocks of striped bass are "fully exploited," meaning the fishery has reached a point where yield is at a maximum sustainable level. In straightforward lingo, this means that regional stocks are healthy, but continued management is necessary for the species. And so far, those fishery management efforts put in place over a decade ago have been very successful. And this is good news for rockfish anglers.
LINESIDER LOCATIONS The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America, is a virtual fish factory for numerous species of fish. It's also the place that rockfish call home. But the bay is an ever-changing environment. The giant estuary is influenced as much by river flows as it is by the daily tidal flush of the Atlantic Ocean. Salinity patterns change constantly, and this, in turn, causes significant movement of fish throughout the bay.
Rockfish are remarkably adaptable to different salinity levels, especially as juveniles. They tend to spread out all over the bay, while following loose patterns of migration and feeding. Large females, for example, tend to migrate out of the bay after they spawn, seeking cooler, deep water temperatures along the coast, while younger fish in the 10- to 30-inch range tend to feed in rivers and some open parts of the bay. It's during this fall migration of big fish when most anglers focus their energies, since it's a good opportunity to tangle with a true trophy.
Usually the sport-fishing season for stripers in the Chesapeake opens in the spring, with anglers using deep trolling methods to cash in on some big fish. Rockfish haunts include sun-warmed, open areas of the bay and the edges of deep-water channels. These are the migration corridors of big fish this time of year. By summer, most fish have scattered and won't be seen in large concentrations until the first cool nights of fall begin to put them back into school feeding patterns.
And stripers do begin to school up as the water temperatures drop. They are getting ready to migrate out of the Chesapeake Bay, and they're hungry. As they move down the bay, they can be found out in open water near deep-water holes, sloughs, dropoffs, channels, and especially over ridges, oyster bars and other rough bottom structures.
One of the best ways to locate open-water stripers is by looking for birds. Stripers love to feed in big schools, and chewed-up baitfish floating to the top will attract diving gulls and terns. When locating a school of feeding fish with birds, approach slowly and try to drift with the school. Don't try to get in the middle of a school, as this will drive fish away. Casting bucktails, plugs or spoons will work well in this situation. But for many anglers, jigging is the best method to work a school of feeding fish. Use big leadhead jigs or bucktails in white or yellow and laced with a white or chartreuse plastic bait. As an alternative, some anglers rely on heavier metal jigs.
"This is perhaps the most exciting striper fishing to experience, especially if there's bluefish or sea trout mixed in with them," says charter captain Will Laaksonen of Onancock. Preferred jigging or casting rods should be medium-heavy, 6- or 7-foot sticks and with reels spooled with at least 20-pound-test. Many anglers prefer spinning outfits for casting and conventional reels for jigging. It's wise to have several pre-rigged rods on board allowing you to adjust, should fishing conditions suddenly change.
Chumming for rockfish is also very effective during the fall out on open bay water. Using ground-up menhaden (bunker), anglers ladle out gobs of chum, creating a wide slick, which in turn attracts stripers to the back of the boat. With this method, a boat can either anchor up or even drift if the conditions are right.
Chumming for rockfish won't bring in the biggest fish, but the action can be non-stop. Most of these fish will be school size (in the 2- to 10-pound range) and are great fun on light tackle outfits.
The typical terminal rig has a barrel swivel above an 18-inch leader of at least 30-pound-test. The hook is baited with a cut piece of bunker and eased back into the chum slick without a weight for a natural presentation. Circle hooks work well in this situation, since they cut down on mortality for any released fish.
"The best places to fis
h using chum are ridges that rise up next to channels. Here rockfish will congregate taking advantage of abundant baitfish, which are also getting ready to migrate out of the bay," said veteran captain Keith Ward of the charter boat Prime Time.
Trolling, of course, is still the old stand-by tactic for catching big fall stripers. Trolling has produced more big rockfish than any other method of fishing. The best areas to target for trolling are along dropoffs and deep-water channels. Preferred trolling lures include parachute rigs, large bucktails or deep-swimming plugs.
Some anglers like to fish umbrella rigs, and they are very effective. But if you want to feel the fight of the fish, use soft-plastic lures and bucktails on a single line. Surgical tubes are also getting popular again, as more anglers are using them as part of their trolling spread.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is perhaps the premier rockfish area, especially in late fall, as fish are moving out of the bay to their winter haunts. Here is where a variety of fishing methods will produce fish. These include trolling, jigging, and casting bucktails around the massive pilings and along the tunnel rock shorelines. Bait-fishing is also very effective here with peeler crabs, cut spots and live eels taking the largest fish. By late November through December, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel area produces more big rockfish than anywhere else in the bay.
Fish are also feeding near river mouths in the fall, especially around sub-surface structures such as old docks, boat hulks and oyster rocks. On outgoing tide mornings and evenings, fish will move into the shallows to feed on crabs and silversides. And you don't always need a boat to catch rockfish, as piers, docks and bridge pilings, especially those with night lights, are great places to cast bucktails, plugs or hammered spoons during the morning or evening hours. Some anglers prefer to fish baits, using fresh cut spot or peeler crab.
The bayside has a number of good access points to some great fall striper fishing. These include the boat ramps at Saxis, Onancock, Harborton, Kiptopeake State Park and Cape Charles among others. There are also some excellent charter boat captains who run boats out of Onancock and Cape Charles, and they specialize in fall striper fishing.
THE SEASIDE Virginia is blessed with a long line of barrier beach islands that stretch from the Maryland state line to Cape Charles, some 60-plus miles to the south. Among these 18 islands are names such as Cedar, Hog, Cobbs, Parramore and Assateague. With the exception of Assateague, all of these are accessible only by boat. Assateague Island National Seashore is the most angler-friendly, with plenty of parking, lots of open beach to fish from and an over-sand vehicle access area as well. One of the greatest angling challenges is hooking into a large rockfish, while surf-fishing just as dusk is settling in and the moon is on the rise. Battling a fat striper along the surf line is truly a memorable experience.
Though stripers can be caught from the shoreline along the seaside, including around bridges and docks, the bulk of the angling action comes from surf fishing. Bait-fishing in the surf is probably the most consistent way to hook into feeding coastal fish. A fish finder rig on the end of a 10-foot rod with fresh-cut spot, menhaden or peeler crab is the way to go. Watch for sloughs along the beach. You don't have to cast a country mile to find fish either. Many times they're feeding right in the break line. And using artificial lures can be killer on stripers in the surf as well. Spoons, metal and plugs work well, especially in the evenings.
"We've been seeing some nice fish come off the barrier islands each fall and there have been some nice stripers caught by boats fishing the island inlets as well," said Randy Lewis of Zed's Tackle Shop in Wachapreague.
Long popular up in northern states, live eel fishing has gotten deserved attention along the seaside inlets in the past few years. One technique is to drift through the inlets dragging a live eel along the bottom. Experienced eelers will work rips and any bottom structures or features.
If you decide to anchor your boat, do as veteran angler John Minter does.
"Work your bait with some action, casting the eel and then slowly retrieving the bait. When a linesider takes the eel, open the bail, lean forward and let the fish run. Count to three and then set the hook," Minter said.
Stripers love to stun their prey with a body slam, so fishermen must keep this in mind when first getting a hit.
Popular boat launching sites to fish the inlets include Chincoteague, Wachapreague, Quinby and Oyster. There are also lots of great charter boats in this region that will get you onto fish.
FUTURE OUTLOOK The striped bass management program in Virginia, and for that matter all along the East Coast, has been nothing short of remarkable. The Chesapeake Bay effort has become a model for future fisheries management plans. Fishing restrictions, along with restocking efforts, have been the driving forces behind striped bass recovery. The joint efforts and comprehensive conservation programs applied by Atlantic states have helped restore this economically and culturally important species for generations of Virginians to enjoy.
With the striped bass resurgence has come a new socio-economic boom. Charter boats have also gotten a second wind in many areas, offering alternative fishing possibilities.
"Striped bass have given many charter boats the chance to take up the slack in the late season and also offer fishermen an alternative species along with the old stand-by trout, spot and croaker fishing. The rockfish return has been great for my business these last two years," said charter Capt. Nat Atkinson of Wachapreague. This year the rockfish limit remains at two fish per angler with a minimum of 18 inches in length.
Striped bass fishing should be excellent this fall. It's been a hot summer and there's lots of bait in the water. First-time anglers to the region should talk to local fishermen and tackle shops or patronize area charter boats for fishing information and technique. Dress for cool mornings and for sunny days.
THE BAITS There are a number of fresh baits available locally that are traditionally used when rockfishing either on the bayside or seaside of the Eastern Shore. Quite often recreational anglers spend plenty of money on artificial lures with which to catch stripers, and rightly so. There's not much that beats casting a white bucktail or shallow swimming plug around pilings and rocks. But many fishermen, in their eagerness to mimic live baits, forget using natural baits. Here's a list of the most effective natural baits that striper anglers should use:
Menhaden - A favorite prey of migrating rockfish, it also goes by the name of bunker. Its sides are silvery with a large dark spot near the gill plate. An oily fish, bunker imparts a strong attractant
scent. This bait is harvested in huge numbers by purse seine boats. Bunker is an excellent cut bait in surfcasting or as the prime offering for anglers soaking baits around bridges or pilings. Many striper fishermen also increase their catches by using these fish as part of a chum slick.
Spot - These little fish are a forage prey of rockfish. Spot live throughout the Chesapeake and in coastal surf areas all summer long and into the fall. Live spot are deadly on bass, especially in the evenings.
Grass shrimp - Actually, there are three separate species of grass shrimp in Chesapeake Bay that rarely reach beyond 2 inches in length. They primarily inhabit grassy estuaries and bay shallows. The best method for catching them involves using a seine or tight mesh cast net. They are a high-energy food that stripers love, and anglers use them for chumming or put on a few to cover a hook for school-sized stripers.
Peeler crabs - Possibly one of the best all-around baits for striped bass. Unfortunately a lot of other species also like it, including "panfish." A peeler is a local name for a hard blue crab that is about to shed. They give off an attractant odor in this state of metamorphosis. Peelers can be found at bait shops or from the crab shanties where watermen shed them. Several baits can be had from a single cut-up crab. They work great when fished on the bottom near grass shorelines and creek drainages and also in the surf on a fish finder rig.
Clams - There's not many fish out there who won't eat a piece of fresh clam, and that includes rockfish. Inexpensive large cherrystone or chowder clams are the best for bait (eat the smaller ones yourself). Put the whole clam on unless it's too big (and then cut into two baits). Change frequently. Good from an anchored boat or in the surf.
Bloodworms - Like clams, there's not much out there that won't eat a bloodworm. Unfortunately these little critters are expensive. Sold by the dozen or in flats, they should be fished alive and threaded on the hook.
Eels - If you want to catch big rockfish, then this is the bait of choice. Fished live, eels in the 6- to 12-inch range are great for drifting through coastal inlets, casting in the surf, or fishing while anchored up near a dropoff. Some anglers hook them through the tail to keep the eel from twisting up the line. Use a wire leader and an in-line sinker to keep them on the bottom. There are several eel rigs out there on the market. Most eel fishing success occurs at night or at dawn.
Whenever you choose to fish this fall, consider spending at least part of your time targeting stripers. Once you feel the power of a trophy-class fish stripping drag, you'll be glad that you did.
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