Saltwater anglers start fishing the inshore reaches of Virginia's coastline in April for mammoth rockfish that are headed up the bay and into the rivers to spawn. As the water warms, many different species begin following bait into the bay. One of the better conservation comeback stories over the past few years has been the red drum fishery. Conservation efforts have brought these fish back from a time where they were an accidental catch. Now anglers and charter captains are able to actually target these fish and enjoy some great fishing.
One of my favorite charter boat captains, and favorite fishermen to fish with, for that matter, is Captain Ryan Rogers. He lives and breathes the bay and is on the water constantly. He began his professional career by doing time as a mate on the boat he ended up buying and running as his own, The Midnight Sun. Captain Rogers, or Captain Ryan as he prefers to be called, really enjoys seeing his clients fight a trophy red drum. Captain Ryan explained that the fish fight hard and make for a memorable trip on the bay.
"They are one of the hardest-fighting fish in the bay and one of the most fun to catch. We really take care to preserve this fishery by getting a quick photo and releasing the large fish immediately to fight another day," he said.
The captain points out that once the calendar turns to May, the red drum begin entering the bay down around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and start following the bait up the bay. Some of the fish go as far as Annapolis, Maryland.
The interesting thing is that while the fish are often found along the edge of the channel in their travels, they can ultimately be found anywhere, in any depth, at any time. Captain Rogers has a few techniques that he was willing to share with us in targeting red drum.
First, he uses his fish finder to locate the trophy fish. Because he knows that the fish are following bait, he watches his finder for distinctive marks, usually quite large arcs. Each fish finder marks each fish species differently and with enough practice anglers can determine what they are seeing. Captain Rogers watches his fish finder as he approaches bait along the channel edge or over or near structure. Sometimes the birds mark where red drum are feeding and sometimes he reports that you can actually see the fish near the surface as they are feeding or swimming along.
Structure is often the key to finding the fish, though. The CBBT is often a popular spot to look for these fish. The 17-mile-long bridge/tunnel complex has plenty of concrete tubes, rock and boulder islands that create swirls and channels. These channels are turbulent places to boat, but the same turbulence forces bait to go through certain areas. These areas can be incredibly good places to fish as they concentrate the fish.
Other top places to fish include the Northern Neck Reef and the Stone Piles. However, any reef or structure can attract and hold fish. A good mapping fish finder or chart book will have these locations. To pattern fish for future outings, mark areas that produce fish for you and jot down the time of year when you encounter the fish and any conditions that are noticeable.
Captain Ryan noted that although no certain time of day or tide is really better than any other, but he likes to fish the early morning or late evening bite when the tide is moving.
"A lazy tide tends to make the fish lazy," he noted.
Another tidbit he shared with me was that in years when the water is saltier (generally a result of a dry year) the fishing for red drum is better. On wetter years, anglers may see better fishing in the lower bay where the brinier water exists.
TROLLING SET UPS
When trolling for the big reds, Captain Ryan stresses that quality gear is a must.
"You can find out really fast how powerful these fish are if you don't use a quality rod and reel. Even your lures should be well made," he advised.
Captain Rogers and Wes Seigler have teamed up to create their own line of reels which we have mentioned in previous articles. Red drum were actually one of the game fish that they tested the reels on. Therefore it was no surprise to me that he uses his own Release Reels (www.releasereels.com) mated to an Ugly Stik to do the job.
"I am a big fan of Ugly Stiks. They have a soft tip but plenty of backbone for fighting the fish," he said.
When rigging trolling rods for red drum, our expert explained that he uses both inline sinkers and planers, depending on the depth of the marked fish. He has three favorite spoons that he uses for big red drum. The first is a Hopkins Hammered Spoon that is 4-to 6-inches long. He also will tie on a silver Tony Accetta or a big Drone spoon of the same size. These big spoons are dynamite lures for schooling reds. Use a 50-pound leader and a quality swivel to get the job done.
Big reds can also be caught using live bait and perhaps this is the more fun way to tangle with these big fish. Once the fish are marked with a fish finder or spotted tailing in the shallows near structure, anglers can cast live spot to them. A good rig our expert uses for them is an 8/0-10/0 Gamakusu live bait hook with a 50-pound leader. Again he uses his Release Reel and an Ugly Stik in medium action at 6 to 6 1/2 feet. This rod gives the angler some backbone to fight the fish but provides a soft tip to feel the fish take the bait. Keep in mind that the fish are in structure and each time you haul your line up or fight a fish, inspect your leader for nicks. A break off in the middle of a good fight can put a dent in your fishing.
My father and I were fishing around the fourth island of the CBBT when we spotted some big fish cruising around. I knew instantly what was going on and had my father hook up a live spot, which he freelined out into the stout current under the bridge. Unfortunately we had a 20-pound leader and had not checked it after using it around the pilings and several rock piles while jigging for big flounder. The dark, submarine-like fish came calling and one inhaled his bait. The fight was on and I even chased the fish a bit with the boat since it was so big. Most of the fish in that school were over 36 inches long and some looked to be pushing 48 inches! The fish headed away from the rocks but soon turned and went for the piling and broke my father off, leaving us speechless with a limp line flapping in the current. The lesson we learned was to use a quality reel, a fresh leader of the appropriate test and fight the fish away from the structure.
PUPPY DRUM AND CROAKER
Puppy drum are actually just a juvenile redfish or red drum. These fish are the ones many shorebound anglers target because they tend to be found in shallower water. However, anglers with boats will also chase them enthusiastically. Typically Virginia allows anglers three fish between 18 and 26 inches. However, this is subject to change. Check the VMRC website before heading out to fish.
Anglers will find puppy drum in salt marshes near grass where they can readily feed on crabs and minnows or grass shrimp. Live bait, peeler crabs, and jumbo bull minnows work very well for bait anglers. However, Berkley Gulp baits are hot too.
Lynnhaven Inlet and Poquoson and Plum Tree Island are just a few of the places I have fished for them. Jetties are great places to fish and oyster beds hold fish, too. Look for fish tailing or feeding and splashing in backwaters, inlets and sloughs.
Anglers also enjoy success casting Bass Assassin jerkbaits and Sassy Shads to them. Use a medium-action spinning setup and twitch your bait around to get their attention. Don't use any more weight than you have to use to keep your bait in play. The less resistance, the more natural the presentation. Be prepared for a fight. Despite their smaller size they will surprise you with their brute strength.
I would be totally remiss if I did not mention the great croaker bite that can be had in the lower reaches of our tidal rivers and the bay. May is the time when the croaker or "hardhead" fishing really picks up steam. These bottom dwellers are related to red drum and feed on much of the same foods. Although not red in color, these silvery fish fight just as hard for their size, are great fun to catch and yet not as tough to find as red drum.
Croaker also like structure, but they can be found in greater numbers than reds and are a bit less picky about what they will strike. Bloodworms are a sure bet, but Fishbites in any of the flavors offered work well. Peeler crab, shrimp, clams and even cutbait will take these scrappy fish. Most of the croaker run a pound or two, but some fish push 3 pounds.
Try the inlets and secondary channels near structure where you would fish for puppy drum. Jetties and rock piles are great places to cast a line.
While fishing the bay this past summer, I ran into Captain Ryan on his boat and we began talking about the windy weather, which hampered me getting out where I wanted to go. He suggested that I wait until near dark and then try some rocks and a jetty nearby. His advice was perfect.
As the sun dropped Dad and I were tossing bull minnows and squid strips into some rocks with a drop sinker rig. Within minutes we were hauling in croaker over a pound and some were over 2 pounds. The fishing was so good we had to stop so we did not get too greedy. We hit it again the following evening and repeated the adventure. Fishing like this is easy to do with a family and the eating is fine too!
As with the red drum, the flatfish are also heading into the bay in large numbers once the waters warm up. They first tend to show up near the CBBT, as do the reds, and in Lynnhaven Inlet. Then they move up the bay, rapidly fanning out to structure such as The Cell, Bluefish Rock near Poquoson, Northern Neck Reef and near Tangier Island and shipwrecks around that location. Our captain suggested the San Marcos wreck south of Tangier for nice flatfish.
The key in all cases is to find structure. Jetties, wrecks, reefs and rock piles all hold flounder, particularly near current.
Put your boat up-tide/upwind of the structure and let the baited rig (see sidebar for details) go to the bottom. If the wind is light but steady you can let the wind and/or tide allow you to drift while you "hop" your bait through the structure. Lift your bait as you "feel" the structure to cut down on hang-ups, but allow it to go to the bottom regularly. When you feel a hit, allow the fish to take the bait fully before lifting the rod to set the hook. This can take some practice, as many anglers want to immediately set the hook upon a solid hit.
Now that May is here and June is on the way the fishing action is heating up. We offered a primer for readers to get their appetites whetted and their coolers heavy. All of the fish species we featured can be found at the same types of structure and locations, and the fishing techniques are very similar. When June arrives the fishing for these same species only gets better. Take a camera along and get some pictures before your turn your catch back into the water or into a great dinner!
Captain Ryan Rogers of The Midnight Sun is a great charter to use for redfish and other game species in the Chesapeake Bay. Call him at 804-580-0245 and see his website at http://www.fishmidnightsun.com/default.asp