At 17.6 miles from shore to shore, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel takes vehicular traffic on U.S. Route 13 across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. A pleasant side effect of this engineering marvel is that it creates a massive chunk of underwater structure that attracts a dizzying array of marine life. For anglers, that means a bevy of fish species can be caught here, including cobia, redfish, flounder, striped bass, sheepshead and everything in between.
Fish attracted to the bridge and tunnel structures can be caught year-round, but the summer months are when the action comes alive. Armed with the right tackle and tactics, anglers can catch as many as a half-dozen species from the emerald-green waters around the CBBT structures in a single day. The best part is that some of the fish lurking here can put a serious bend in your fishing rod.
Near the Virginia waterfront towns of Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the CBBT is easy to reach by boat or kayak. The Lynnhaven Boat Ramp and Beach Facility is a popular put-in/launch spot at the southern end of the bridge-tunnel complex. At 3576 Piedmont Circle in Virginia Beach, the ramp is only a couple of miles from the CBBT.
At the northern end of the span is the Eastern Shore of the Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, where kayakers and boaters can put in at the launch facility at the end of Ramp Road. It is a bit farther (nearly three miles) from the CBBT proper, but excellent fishing grounds lie between it and the bridge.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission and its game officers regulate the fisheries around the CBBT, and you’d be surprised how often creel limits and catch sizes change. You’ll obviously need a fishing license, but you’ll also want to do some homework to learn what the current regulations are for the species you’ll target.
The easiest way to figure this stuff out is by using the VMRC’s Web app. Point your smartphone browser to webapps.mrc.virginia.gov/mobile. There you’ll get the skinny on what you can keep, how long it must be and how many you can take home in the cooler.
Getting back to putting a bend in your fishing rod, bull redfish are abundant and a popular target. Though prime time for catching big bull redfish around the CBBT is generally late April and early May — when large schools can be spotted in the oceanside surf — these behemoths can still be caught throughout the summer months. Many of these reds can top 50 pounds, presenting a sensational opportunity for anglers who want to tangle with one of these big-shouldered brutes.
Tactics in the summer generally change from the springtime approach of finding and casting to schools on the surface or in the surf to prospecting the bridge structure with a fishfinder and flounder rigs. Soft and peeler crabs are the preferred bait for catching big redfish, but fishermen also tip their hooks with cut mullet, clams and squid. Some anglers rig bucktails with squid and jig them around the bridge pilings, as well. The key is to work as much structure as you can, though the most productive areas seem to be the CBBT sections nearest to Fisherman’s Island on the ocean side.
The most successful fishermen keep spinning outfits armed with twister- or paddletail-tipped bucktails at the ready for the large schools of redfish that maraud baitfish around the CBBT during the summer. Another tactic is to cruise oceanside waters with your fishfinder until a “mountain” of feeding redfish appears on the bottom.
Spinner sharks can indicate the location of these bottom-feeders, too. If you see a spinner shark doing pirouettes, check out the area; redfish are often feeding nearby. When you do find a school, drop a bucktail into the mêlée and start jigging. An instant hookup is almost guaranteed.
The Man in the Brown Suit
Migratory visitors from Southern waters, cobia arrive at the CBBT in late June and stay through late September. These tough fighters are insanely fun to target — and excellent on the dinner table.
Summer fishing for cobia in and around the CBBT is primarily a sight-casting game. Cobia often hang between bridge pilings with their heads into the current, waiting for prey to unwittingly swim by. Elevation is often the key to spotting them — you’ll see center consoles with cobia towers surveying the pilings — though some cobia will hover fairly high in the water column, making them easy to spot from the deck of most boats.
A good tactic is to slowly work your boat around the pilings until you spot one, then cast to it. Spin casters can hook up by lobbing a large bucktail tipped with a paddletail toward the fish; fly fishermen will want to chuck large Lefty’s Deceivers, red and yellow Clouser’s Deep Minnows, or red and yellow cobia flies at them. Want an almost guaranteed hookup? Lob a circle hook laced with a live eel toward the unsuspecting cobia — they’re suckers for live eels — then hold on. Big cobia are brutes and might take 20 or 30 minutes to bring to the side of the boat.
Another tactic is to run the shipping-lane buoys for cobia, as you can often find several big ones huddling beneath a single marker. Use the bridge piling techniques to fool one. Cobia can also be found swimming along with loggerhead turtles, cownose rays and sharks. If you see any of these critters cruising the surface, do some prospecting by tossing a lure or fly toward them. You’d be surprised how often this results in a hookup.
For those not into fly-fishing or spin casting, cobia are generally responsive to a well-placed chum slick. Most folks anchor up-current from the bridge, deploy a chum bag and wait for the slick to establish. Once you’ve got interested parties swimming around, toss weighted and unweighted chunks of bunker into the slick to cover the entire water column. Cobia aren’t shy; you’ll know when you’ve hooked one.
Spadefish, Sheepshead and Triggerfish
Spadefish, sheepshead and triggers love to hang around a jagged piece of structure, so the CBBT is loaded with these mollusk-munching creatures. Attracted by the abundance of shellfish that live here, these fish spend much of their time cruising the pilings and rock piles, chipping away at barnacles, oysters and clams with their huge horse-like teeth.
A couple of approaches stand out for catching spadefish, sheepshead and triggerfish around the CBBT. Sometimes these fish are eager enough to bite that you can simply send an unweighted hook with a chunk of clam or squid down between the bridge pilings to entice strikes. Another way to target them is by using a fishfinder or a dropper rig with the same baits to get on the bottom among the bridge pilings or rocky structures.
These crafty fish are masters at picking away at a baited hook, so a delicate touch is necessary to catch one. Newbies often spend much of their time yanking the hook away from the fish; seasoned anglers wait until just the right moment to strike. The water is often clear enough around the CBBT that you can watch the action as it’s happening. This is a great way to learn when you should set the hook.
Other species that anglers don’t necessarily target but will likely encounter at the CBBT during the summer months include bluefish, sea bass, striped bass, black drum, croaker, speckled trout, Spanish mackerel and flounder. You can go after any of these fish with success, but it’s more likely that you’ll catch these outlying species while going for something different. It’s this variety that makes the CBBT such an enjoyable spot to fish — you never know what you’re going to get, much like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates.
When summer fishing slows around the beaches and farther up Chesapeake Bay, the CBBT is an oasis that provides an opportunity for anglers to catch more species in a day than most catch all year. Some folks say variety is the spice of life. If that’s true, the CBBT is the perfect way to season your summer fishing.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.