Gerald Almy: Tactics for Virginia’s saltwater striped bass

Fishing for giant saltwater striped bass is mostly concentrated inside the Chesapeake Bay until December 31. After that, action moves off into the Atlantic Ocean along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts when the bay waters are closed to fishing for this species.

Whether you’re fishing in the Chesapeake Bay waters before they close or offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, however, the same technique is employed. And for these big stripers that routinely weigh 15-60 pounds that means one method: trolling.

Start with 30-80 pound line and tie on big diving minnow plugs such as the Mann’s Stretch series or Rapalas. Alternately, use umbrella rigs that consist of groups of jigs or jig heads with soft plastic shad lures attached to leaders and a metal spreader. This rigging allows you to imitate a whole school of baitfish swimming through the water.

Captain Chuck O’Bier (804/529-6450) is a master at this fishing and moves his boat down from the mid-bay area near the mouth of the Potomac to Virginia Beach around Thanksgiving to take advantage of the concentration of giant stripers in that area. He’ll base out of that location until the ocean fishing slows in late winter or early spring. Then he’ll move back to the “Northern Neck” part of the Chesapeake Bay.

“We use nine jigs on each umbrella rig,” says O’Bier, “but seven of them are dummies. Only two have hooks. It looks like a school of baitfish moving through the water.”

“Troll the edges of the channels and areas where you find bait on the sonar. But also watch for breaking fish and gulls swooping down and work around the edges of that surface activity.”

Using only two jigs with hooks on the umbrella rig reduces tangles. But it also prevents breakoffs. If you had a hook on each jig and five or six 30- to 40- pound stripers nailed each jig, it would be impossible to land them. Even when just two 30-pound fish are hooked on one umbrella rig it’s a challenge to land them because of their strength and size.

O’Bier staggers the depths of his spreader rigs so they run from just under the surface to 35 feet deep, using anywhere from no weight up to 28 ounces.

While trolling is the main method used, bait fishing also accounts for some of the big fish, particularly around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland waters. Use a sharp 5/0-7/0 hook and a three-way bottom rig with about 3-6 feet of leader.

How much weight you use varies with the type of line you use. Generally 30-50 pound braided line is best, and 2 to 8 ounces of lead will work with that. If you use monofilament you’ll need more weight.

Top live baits are spot, croakers and eels. Some of the best live bait fishing takes place at night. You can catch the fish on any tide, but often the outgoing is best because it’s strongest. Rough weather doesn’t hurt the fishing, but you need to keep safety in mind. These waters can get extremely dangerous in storms.
If you’re more of a fair-weather fisherman, the best advice is to wait a month or two before you plan a trip. The striper action in both Maryland and Virginia portions of the Chesapeake Bay from spring through early fall is excellent. You just have to settle for slightly smaller fish, around 3-15 pounds being a typical catch.
Some trolling is done for these fish, but casting plugs and jigs towards bridge pilings and near breaking birds is also productive. You can even use streamers on a fly rod, like the Clouser Minnow, and take stripers during this warm weather period. Get the fly close to rocks or bridge pilings with a sink-tip line and maybe a split shot for weight. You’ll likely catch not only stripers but also stray bluefish as well.

While all these tactics work, the most popular method of all for spring through early fall is chumming. That’s the tactic almost all of the charter captains use most.

They grind up menhaden, ladle it out into the tide in small batches and the scent and food particles draw in schools of hungry stripers. Anglers then drift cut chunks of bait back on light or ultralight tackle and usually catch bass until their arms get tired with this technique.

If you want to make it more challenging, you can tie a “chum fly” which is basically a pink or maroon-colored pipe cleaner or piece of chenille wound around a hook. Drift it back on a fly outfit with a sink tip line and soon you’ll feel the weight of a scrappy striper throbbing against your graphite rod.

For more information on this tremendous striper fishery, contact the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, 757/491-5160. For guided trips, get in touch with Chuck O’Bier, 804/529-6450, or David Rowe, 804/529-6725.