By the time you read this, many folks’ weekends will be revolving around Sunday pro football games or indoor projects, not fishing or boating. Here on Chesapeake Bay, the majority of anglers hang up their rods and reels well before the end of the catch-and-keep striped bass season in December. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of being out on the water when there’s a biting chill to the air.
Despite the cold, plenty of anglers will fish through the season for big wintering striped bass on the Chesapeake. The most successful of them target warm-water discharges near electrical power plants, water treatment facilities and other industrial sites where the Bay is 8 to 12 degrees warmer. One such place that’s a huge draw for winter anglers is the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, about 10 nautical miles out and around Cove Point from the mouth of the Patuxent River. Known locally as “The Rips,” this place has an outflow of water — 1 million to 2 million gallons per minute — that is a haven for wintering stripers. Big ones.
Striped bass don’t relish really cold water. During the coldest parts of winter, in fact, stripers often seek out the deepest holes in the Bay, where temperatures are generally higher than they are at the middle and upper levels of the water column. The bad news? Finding fish in these holes and then getting them to hit a lure or fly can be an aggravating challenge, especially when you’re up on the surface freezing your digits off. Luckily, striped bass holding in warm-water discharges are often much more cooperative — and aggressive.
Though the water released from the Calvert Cliffs plant is no more than 10 to 12 degrees warmer than the Bay waters around it, stripers — and the forage fish they eat — are attracted to it. A plus is that the water is discharged at such a rate as to create a ripping current. Those who have done any striped bass fishing know that moving water is an essential ingredient to success. Warmer water temps plus current … you do the math.
Fishing The Rips is challenging for several reasons. First, as I mentioned, as much as 2 million gallons of water rushes from the pipe every minute, a flow that can create an exhilarating boat ride, especially if the wind is from the east. Standing waves can occur, so an alert and focused skipper is a must. Second, you’ll almost never be alone at The Rips, which means you’ll need to politely shimmy your way into a conga line of boats waiting for the two- to three-minute ride in the current. Third, the bottom is littered with large rocks — and probably thousands of lures that have been lost here. It’s not a matter of whether you’ll get snagged and lose gear, but how often.
Before you go to the trouble of launching or getting your boat ready for a trip to The Rips, make sure at least one of the reactors at Calvert Cliffs is active, as they are occasionally taken offline for maintenance. No active reactor means no warm-water discharge. You can check at TidalFish.com or another online fishing forum in the area to find out what’s up at the plant.
Also, keep in mind that falling overboard in water that could be in the 30s can be deadly. I never fish The Rips without wearing my inflatable PFD. You’ll obviously want to dress appropriately (in layers) for the air temperature. Because The Rips is in fairly open water, keep an eye on the wind forecast. Southwest to northwest winds are often shielded by the lee of the Western Shore, while northeast to southeast winds can make getting there and being able to fish difficult. And remember, fishing The Rips in winter is off-season for stripers, so you’ll need to release, carefully, any that you catch.
Once you arrive at Calvert Cliffs, you’ll almost always have to get into the daisy chain of boats that take turns riding the discharge current from its outflow to about 500 or 600 feet downstream toward the open Bay. Once you’ve finished the ride, get back into line and wait your turn — angry skippers will swiftly chastise folks who cut in line. The most successful anglers, however, seem to work just outside the current plume and cast into it. More seasoned fishermen, such as Chesapeake Light Tackle author Shawn Kimbro, take a stealth approach: They shut down their engines, keep voices at a whisper and never slam or shut locker doors, any of which can put fish off a feed in a heartbeat.
Tips and Tactics
Stripers hold almost anywhere in the outflow, and it will usually take a few runs and some prospecting to find out where they are. Gurus such as Kimbro recommend a 1½- to 2-ounce jig head tipped with a 10-inch Bass Kandy Delight or 7-inch soft plastic lure. Kimbro also endorses trying various colors of jig heads and plastics. I can attest that switching colors can make a difference with fussy fish. Kimbro’s advice is to use dark colors on low-light days and brighter ones on sunny days. I’ve taken this advice and found that it works.
Light-tackle tactics here involve casting in and around the outflow, giving your lure quick, sharp, upward twitches just as you sense the jig head hitting the rocks or bottom. Most folks cast upstream to give the lure some time to sink. If you get snagged, your best bet is to cut your losses and move on. You’ll mess up the drift of the boat upstream if you try to motor up and untangle your lure. Jigging here can be an exercise in frustration, but practice makes perfect. The more you fish The Rips and are able to “feel” where your lure is and what it’s doing, the better your chances of catching a trophy striper.
Go Deep, Fly Casters
Fly fishermen will find The Rips extremely challenging, even more so than the light-tackle jig anglers. That being said, tenacious and skilled fly fishermen can be rewarded with the catch of a lifetime here. The toughest part isn’t just making a good presentation; it’s getting the fly down to the feeding zone in the swift current. That means sinking fly lines are in order — heavy ones. You’ll want to spool up with 600- to 750-grain sink-tip fly lines and an 8- to 9-foot 20-pound tippet. Rio makes a good sink-tip fly line called Leviathan, which I’ve used at The Rips. You’ll want a 9-weight, 9-foot rod at a minimum, though some take their chances with an 8-weight.
To further increase the odds of getting your offering into the feeding zone, tie on the biggest, heaviest flies you have in your fly box. My favorite for Calvert Cliffs is a white Half and Half (half Clouser minnow, half Lefty’s Deceiver) tied on a 2/0 hook with a heavy set of 1/24-ounce nickel-plated dumbbell eyes. Folks may scoff at lead eyes that heavy, but my goal is to enhance the chances of getting that fly down in that rip-roaring current — and in front of a striper’s face. I always fish the fly across current and make short strips as the line bellies out in the rip.
There are few better ways to shake off the winter blues than getting out for a day of fishing when the weather is right. Here on Chesapeake Bay, that means packing up for a trip to The Rips and a chance to tangle with the striped bass of a lifetime.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.