Cape Charles, VA sits at the southernmost end of the Delmarva Peninsula and has good fishing year-round, but the most exciting action comes in late fall and early winter when big striped bass – known locally as rockfish – stage along the York Spit Channel. The number of fish that hold in this location is not large, but their overall size is quite impressive. Most range from 40 to 50 pounds, and they have a particular preference for eels.
There was a time when Cape Charles was a railroad town. The railroad would run as a far down the line as here, and then ferries would carry the rail cars across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk and Portsmouth. Cars and trucks would also use ferries to get across the Bay. When I was stationed on the USS Saratoga at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard that was actually in Portsmouth, VA, I rode the ferry every weekend on my way home to Delaware. This was in 1962, and I would watch them build the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel that I would fish many years later.
Finding the Cape Charles Boat Ramp will require your ever handy GPS. It is located on the opposite side of the harbor from town in what was once the train yard. There is plenty of parking, and even on a busy weekend, there is not a long wait to get your boat in the water. When you exit the harbor, it looks like you can run straight to the fishing grounds. Don’t do that! Follow the channel that runs south along the shoreline.
If you check your chart, yes, I still rely on my Captain Seagull Chart, you will notice a very deep hole between the end on the channel leading out of Cape Charles Harbor and the York Spit Channel. The depth falls off from 46 to 102 feet, and this is where you may find the big stripers. At other times they may be closer to the channel where the depth drops down from 48 to 94 feet.
Some anglers pick a location and stay there waiting for the fish to either show up or get in a mood to feed. Others will give one location a try, then go somewhere else and keep moving all day. I fall into the latter category. I just can’t stand being in one place and not catching or marking fish. As I said before, eels are the only bait these fish seem to eat. I expect someone who has been catching these big rock for years on dry flies will write to the editor and tell him I don’t know what I am talking about. First, the editor already knows me, and second, good for you.
The general setup is three eels behind the boat. One unweighted, one set to stay about halfway down, and one on the bottom. Circle hooks must be used at all times when targeting striped bass. This requires using weights and floats to present the baits at the correct depths. It also requires keeping track of the depth and changing the location of the baits as the water depth changes.
I find conventional outfits work best for this style of fishing. They are easier than a spinning outfit to crank up and drop back as the water depth changes, and with the star drag, you can easily adjust the drag to suit the situation. The majority of anglers who fish here drift or power drift. There are a few who troll with big plugs. It pays to keep a good watch to know what the boats near you are doing to prevent line tangles or collisions.
I have searched for these big striped bass in other parts of the bay without success. Save yourself fuel and time and stick to the plan. Just remember you will need a Virginia Tidewater Fishing License and FIN number to fish the Chesapeake Bay. Visit the Virginia Marine Resources Commission website to purchase yours online at dwr.virginia.gov/licenses.