Fishing for rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay
Fall is a great time to fish for rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay. With the cold weather approaching, the fish are feeding heavily this time of year and the fishing action can be hot. Whether you are using light spin tackle or fly fishing, rockfish, also called striped bass or stripers, are hungry and they can be very aggressive, attacking lures and flies with a vengeance.
Such was my experience recently while fly fishing for stripers in early November. I am not an expert on fishing tidal waters by any means but I was fortunate to be invited to fish with a fellow Potomac Valley Fly Fishers member and friend, Bill Kulp from Union Bridge. Kulp owns a 22-foot Proline Bay boat and it is a fishing machine that is small enough to navigate shallow water and has more than enough room for a pair of fly casters.
Early one morning, we launched out of Kent Narrows and motored several miles south to a location where Kulp has had success earlier this year. The plan was to find fish feeding in the shallow areas along break walls and rocky points in the morning. As the day went on we would look for breaking fish, a term referring to the noticeable surface disturbance that occurs as stripers attack schools of baitfish. Often groups of seagulls will signal the location of breaking fish as they follow the schools of baitfish looking for an easy meal.
The first area we fished averaged in depth from 3 to 5 feet. The shallower water is usually warmer and stripers move into these shallow water areas to feed. I was rigged with a 9-foot, 8-weight fly rod with a clear sink tip fly line. I fished exclusively that day with small Clouser Minnow streamers attached to a 6-foot leader and a 12-pound tippet.
It was a beautiful fall day with light wind and the water was remarkably clear, most likely due to the lack of rain and the low water from the bay’s tributaries this season. Boats tend to spook the fish easily so stealth is important, especially in clear, skinny water. Kulp’s boat was equipped with a remote control electric motor that was quiet and kept us in casting distance to the shore. With a fly rod it is essential to make long casts and retrieve the fly quickly with long, fast strokes.
Being relatively new to fishing saltwater for rockfish, I was hoping I would be lucky enough to catch one or maybe a few fish that day. It didn’t take long at all to catch the first striper, a small but beautiful young fish that smacked the fly and fought hard despite his small size. That was the beginning of the most fishing action I have experienced in quite a while. I landed one fish after another, sometimes catching several fish on a series of consecutive casts!
Kulp was also into the fish and we had multiple double hook-ups throughout the morning. We were not catching large fish but many of the fish were in the 12- to 16-inch range. The bay is the spawning grounds for millions of rockfish each spring. The young stripers spend their first three to five years in the bay before migrating out to the Atlantic.
With the minimum size limit of 20 inches, we were not filling a cooler but the fishing action was truly amazing. We landed dozens of fish each. I did land a fish that measured 19.5, just under the legal limit before we headed to a new location to try our luck at another rocky point with similar shallow water features.
We took a short break for lunch and relaxed for a few minutes while we ate a sandwich. The sun, although low in the sky, was warm and temperatures quickly climbed into the 60s in the afternoon. We caught a few fish at each of next two locations we fished but the fishing action had slowed down considerably. We did not experience the breaking fish action where boats follow a school of feeding fish but rather looked for shallow water areas to work our streamers.
Kulp landed a nice 19-inch fish, again, not quite big enough to put in the cooler. We were content to call it a day but decided to try the section where we had the best luck in the morning. For a period of time the water became very calm as the wind became almost nonexistent. It may have been in between tides as there was very little if any water movement.
As I cast my streamers toward the shore I could watch my fly from the second it hit water. As I retrieved the fly, I often could see rockfish chasing the streamer sometimes in groups of four or five fish until one would grab the fly and the fight was on. It was exciting fishing, not unlike fishing in the clear water of the Florida Keys.
This last stop produced two of our largest fish of the day, one 21-inch and one 23-inch fish that both went into our cooler. It was an awesome day of fishing and we each had a fish for the next day’s dinner. I know it sounds clichéd, but this experience truly has me hooked on fishing the bay!