Chesapeake Bay angling is ruled by the seasons, as is the case with many bodies of water on the East Coast. Sure, the Bay has its share of native species, but it’s the comings and goings of piscatorial targets such as striped bass, red and black drum, speckled trout, croakers and others that make it one of the most interesting places in the country to dip a line. And there’s no more exciting time than late spring and early summer, when things heat up and get truly interesting on this scenic piece of water.
Until a few years ago, the Chesapeake’s fisheries weren’t so diverse. In fact, summer anglers often got bored with the one reliably available species: striped bass, or rockfish as they are locally known.
Thankfully, after years of conservation moves and stricter regulations, early summer anglers can now break away from that one-species game and target such prime fish as red drum (redfish) and speckled trout (specks). If the frying pan or grill is where your catch is headed, I’ll tell you about a drum of the silver variety. All in all, the months of May and June are a great time to fish the Chesapeake, whether you’re landing natives or visitors.
By the time late May rolls around, the majority of spring-run migrant stripers that came to the Bay to spawn have high-tailed it back out to the Atlantic, where they’ll swim north to feed in New England waters. This is the time of year when striper anglers all over the Chesapeake switch from targeting big, migrant spawners to resident stripers up to about 28 inches.
Favorite methods for tricking stripers onto a hook include light-tackle jigging; casting crank baits, spoons or poppers; live-lining with spot; chumming; or fly-casting with a Lefty’s Deceiver, Clouser minnow or popper. You can find stripers up and down the length of the Bay in late spring and early summer, but you can save yourself a lot of time by fishing only during a moving tide, and looking for edges and structure. Striped bass simply do not feed when the water isn’t moving. Many anglers also like edging up into skinny water, where stripers are targeted on small surface baits.
Beat of the black drum
One incredibly cool species that I encourage all anglers to tangle with at least once in their lives is the black drum, which spawns in Chesapeake Bay from late May through late June and early July. You can find black drum most everywhere near the main stem of the Bay below the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but Tangier Sound, the Stone Rocks off the Choptank River, Gooses Reef and the waters surrounding Poplar Island are hot spots.
If you’ve got a decent fishfinder setup and know where to start looking, finding a pod of black drum is relatively easy. (They look like big Volkswagen Beetles on the bottom, which is where they feed on crabs, clams and other invertebrates.) Getting them on a hook after you’ve found them is another matter, which is why, in addition to their sometimes Goliath size — upward of 80 to 90 pounds — they’re fun to go after.
Although black drum aren’t entirely finicky, the truly big ones have a taste for an expensive bait many believe belongs on a potato roll, not on a hook: soft crabs. You can find soft crabs at most bait shops, which is a good place to solicit information on tying up a black drum bottom rig.
Fish the bait on the bottom in the middle of one of these pods, and delicately but deliberately set the hook when you feel as if the fish has swum off with it a bit. A hard set will almost always lose a fish, which is why flounder anglers are such accomplished black drum fishermen. Most anglers release black drum because their flesh is often worm-infested, so it’s primarily a sport fishery.
Reds and specks
An entire generation of Bay anglers had almost forgotten what a red drum or speckled trout was until 2010, when both species started showing up in the Middle and Lower Bay in great numbers. Most surprising, however, was that some of the speckled trout that returned to Tangier Sound — a speck hot spot — were trophy-size. The red drum caught as far north as the Chester River were smaller than their speckled brethren, but these fast-growers should be pushing well past the 18- to 20-inch range when they arrive in late May and early June.
You can catch red drum and speckled trout in many places on the Bay, but Tangier Sound, the Honga River and many of the backwaters between the Pocomoke River and Hoopers Island are your best bet for scoring big catches. And it’s the shallowest parts of these places where you’ll find some of the most epic fishing. Both of these tough-fighting species are popular with light-tackle anglers because they respond so well to light-tackle jigs, spoons and bucktails. Fly anglers can fool specks and red drum with the usual Clouser minnow (crab-colored), Lefty’s Deceiver or half-and-half patterns.
You can catch and keep both species, according to state regulations in Maryland and Virginia, but groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association have urged members in recent years to practice catch-and-release so that populations of these great game fish can continue to grow.
A silver lining
One of the best-tasting and most fun-to-catch fish that swims the Chesapeake is the croaker, or silver drum. Like all members of the drum family, it has the ability to flex special muscles around its swim bladder, which makes a drumming or croaking sound. They can put up an incredible fight for their size, and they’re easy to catch with a standard bottom rig. But it’s their firm, savory flesh and frying-pan size that lands them in coolers.
Croakers are bottom dwellers, and shoals, sandbars and oyster reefs are where you’ll find them in the greatest numbers. Look for them to appear, starting in mid-to-late May, around Tangier Island and Smith Island. By mid-June you can find them all the way up near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and beyond. They’ll dine on such bait as bloodworms or squid and more, but peeler or softs crabs are your best bet.
Lenny Rudow, author of Rudow’s Guide to Fishing the Chesapeake, has some helpful tips for Croaker newbies. “First, focus on fishing at dusk and at night; croaker feed best in very low light conditions,” he says. “Next, make sure your baits are set right at the bottom because it’s rare to hook croaker more than a foot or two away from it. Also, croaker feed as much by smell as by sight, so stick with bait. My best advice? Remember that croaker school by size.”
No matter what tactic you use, there’s nothing more fun than a relaxing day filling the cooler with tasty croakers.
If the doldrums, dog days and dreary humidity of late-summer fishing on the Chesapeake make you turn up your nose and walk in the other direction, consider switching up your fishing calendar to the months of May and June. Your reward will be a variety of great species that make spring fishing a blast.
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June 2014 issue