THE CHESAPEAKE CHRONICLES – Part 2
The Chesapeake Chronicles - Part 2
by Rich Troxler aka richtrox
In my previous edition I mentioned something that I’d like to elaborate on a little more as it keeps going around in my head. I claimed you guys up north have a much better striped bass season that we have down here. The rationale being that the striped bass runs are far more predictable up north, and they are. Here’s some of the things I learned about striped bass in this area, as pertains to fishing them from the shore (and somewhat from a boat also).
First, the season down here is actually broken up into several smaller seasons, not unlike your Hudson River and coastal seasons. It’s also broken up into sections, so you have to be aware of where you are actually fishing. Aside from the Chesapeake Bay, there are a lot of rivers and tributaries, all of which can hold bass at certain parts of the year.
Coastal regs are pretty much the same as up north, that being one fish @ 28” but the timing is kind of weird. The season runs Jan. 1st - Mar. 31st and then closes until May 16th and then stays open until the end of the year. Then you have the spring season in the Chesapeake Bay proper and it’s tributaries, excluding the Potomac (which has a whole set of rules of it’s own). This season runs May 16th to June 15th and has a 2 fish slot limit between 20” – 28” except that one fish can be over trophy size (exceed 36”) but not in “spawning reaches” of the tributaries (wherever that is).
Then there’s the Virginia Trophy-Size Season, which runs from May 1st - June 15th in the Chesapeake Bay and it’s tributaries and May 1st – May 15th in the coastal waters off Virginia. And again, the Potomac has it’s own set of regs. The fall season opens up again on Oct. 4th and runs to the end of the year but is listed as “Chesapeake area” so it’s not even clear if you’re even allowed to fish for them on the coastal beaches, not that anybody does down here anyway. The regs are a two fish limit between 20” – 28” with one fish allowed to exceed the 28” limit.
Pretty confusing right? And I didn’t list the regs for the “spawning reaches of the tributaries” because I doubt I’ll be up there in the next year or so unless I plan on going after some trophy blue catfish. Same for the Potomac. So just getting the regs straight gets your head to spinning lol. A couple other things. The 3 mile coastal limit is in effect down here but I’m not sure how it is measured from the mouth of the bay. Also, gaffing ANY striped bass that you catch is illegal. It’s all nets or nothing.
So as confusing as the regs are, they basically mirror the migration patterns of the striped bass down here to some extent, which is to say confusing. After doing a lot of investigation I’ve come to learn a few things but there are a lot of generalities and uncertainties as to what bass will do and when they’ll do it. Like I said, up north the bass will run the beaches one way in the spring and the other in the fall. Not so down here.
One of the first things I learned is why they have the Chesapeake Bay slot limit of 20” - 28” Apparently the majority of striped bass never leave the bay, or tributaries for the first 4 years of their life. They are like puppy drum (small redfish) in that regard, who do the exact same thing for about the same amount of time. Both grow to about 28” by 4 years of age and then they leave the bay to join their bigger cousins.
So you basically have a year around fishery for small fish (28” or less), something I’ve already discovered. You might catch them deep in fresh water tributaries, or right near the mouth of the bay. They are VERY widespread and tend to move with the bait, which also moves around a lot down here, particularly in the rivers. So the bass don’t tend to bunch up down here, you have to go find them. Yeah, there are some places they tend to congregate, like the bridges of which there are many down here, but they still move a lot.
As far as bigger fish go, this is where it gets really confusing. Aside from Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel system, which spans 17 miles across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, there isn’t really anything that draws big fish into the bay and its river except spawning in the spring. So starting in reverse (fall first) this is what I understand the big fish fishery to be like down here.
When the big fish leave the northern reaches they come down the coast and there is usually a pretty good shot at big fish along the CBBT during December. This is strictly a boat gig. Once here they typically bounce off the CBBT straight to their wintering grounds off the coast of North Carolina. There is really nothing that brings them into the bay en masse, although the “eastern” shore, which is actually the northern side of the bay usually gets a shot of big fish as they wrap around the point.
That said, some big fish do filter into the bay and some go up the rivers and even winter over in them, but it’s not a focused fishery. The big fish caught in the rivers are usually a by-catch of the blue catfish fishery, which is really tremendous down here (another story for another time). And again, is pretty much a boat gig. Big cats and striped bass like to hang in the deeper water holes and both love fresh chunks of gizzard shad. The only shore caught 50 I heard of this fall was just caught a couple weeks back and I think it came from the base of the CBBT, known locally as Chick’s Beach.
So trying to pin down any kind of fall run from the shore down here is basically futile. Some will come in but there is a tremendous amount of area they can move to without any rhyme or reason. Redfish are a different story. Redfish down here are your striped bass up north meaning they have a fairly defined run and while you don’t get “blitzes” like bass, when you catch one, you know it. So during the fall, there are small bass to catch (pretty year around) but big bass from shore are hard to come by.
Now we jump to spring and the spawn. Although there have been what appears to be a few successful spawns in recent years (lots of 12” fish around) it’s my understanding that the years of bad spawns are not necessarily from YOY being predated, or dying from some other means, so much as lack of effort from the spawning stock that wintered over off NC.
Apparently, the Chesapeake stock can be pretty particular about the conditions they spawn in, with pollution being part of the story, but many other factors contributing also. Things like too fast a change in water temperature, salinity, bait, also seem to have an effect on whether the bass re-enter the bay to spawn in the spring. Nobody seems to be too sure about when they’ll make their spawning run, typically late April through May, but when they do, they spread out far and wide. When they’re done, there’s typically a short feeding spurt in the bay to put on some pounds and then it’s off the races heading your way.
So while I find plenty of bass to catch down here, their size is nothing to write home about. It’s going to take some time and experimentation in order to dial in some bigger bass. In the meantime I will actually be focusing on two species that interest me greatly, that being redfish and sheepshead (8-10 lb porgies on steroids). I’ve been unfortunate in the timing of my move because the last two winters down here were some of the worst on record. The tail end of last winter saw huge fish die-offs of puppy drum and speckled trout, not only here but throughout North Carolina also, so hopefully we will have a couple mild winters to get those fisheries back on track.
Until next time, I wish you all a productive and healthy New Year and lot’s o fish.