A bit of a disclaimer here – this article is written with the knowledge that the ocean migratory stock of striped bass – known as rockfish in Virginia – has not passed within three miles of the coast for a couple of years. Prior to this, we had excellent fishing through February as the big bass staged from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on down to Oregon Inlet in North Carolina. The huge schools of bait that held the fish here also attracted pods of whales and thousands of gannets. It was an exciting time.
Now, I do not have a crystal ball so I don’t know if the fish, bait, birds and whales will show up anytime from now until February, but it seems the “rockfish” were holding closer to shore in 2017 than in recent years. If this carries on to Virginia we will be in for some very good action.
The striped bass season in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay closes as of December 31; of course it remains open in the ocean all year with a 28-inch minimum size and a one fish per day bag limit.
It is possible to fish for stripers in the bay, but only on a catch and release basis. The line of demarcation runs from Cape Charles Light to Cape Henry Light. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is in the bay and is not the line that separates the bay from the ocean.
Launch & Load
There are two ports with access to the ocean from Virginia Beach. The Owl’s Creek ramp off of General Both Blvd. at Lynnhaven Inlet empties into the bay, but is a short run to the ocean. It would be a good choice if you plan to fish anywhere from Cape Henry north. There is a $5 fee to launch from Owl’s Creek.
The ramp at Rudee Inlet empties into Lake Rudee and out to the ocean through Rudee Inlet. Fishing anywhere from Rudee Inlet south into North Carolina or north to Cape Henry is easy to access from here. The Rudee Inlet ramp is free.
Trolling is the number one technique for catching striped bass during the winter. You will find a wide variety of lures pulled behind boats working in the ocean including Rapala X-Rap Magnums, and Bomber Certified Depth (CD) series; my personal favorite is a deep diving Mann’s Stretch 25 or 30. These lures have a certain vibration that seems to attract rockfish like bears to honey.
I have also had good luck with Drone and Crippled Alewife spoons. Other folks swear by big mojos, umbrella rigs and double bucktails or parachute rigs. I feel that lure selection has more to do with the rig you have the most confidence with. However, no matter how much I may love my Stretches, if a friend is catching one fish after another on spoons or mojos those plugs will be back on deck before you can say, “Do you think we should change to spoons?”
The Ramada to Sandbridge
Moving down the coast from Cape Henry you will see a green can about a mile from shore. On shore you will see a block building radar installation used by the pilots to contact ships entering the Chesapeake Bay. This is an area where the bay meets the ocean and it often holds stripers. Run a course between the green can and the block building moving in and out of the rip.
This is where I caught my largest striped bass to date. (I always expect to catch a larger one.) Herb Gordon and I were fun fishing on my 24 Albemarle. I was trolling a #16 green and yellow Crippled Alewife on a wire line outfit when the fish hit. She put up quite a struggle, but I was finally able to bring her to the net and Herb lifted her into the boat. I measured the fish at 48 inches then released her. That release citation looks just as good on my wall as a kill citation.
Sometimes the rip will be further north or south. You have to keep your eyes open and be prepared to move with the change. If the rockfish are feeding, there will be bird activity, but generally not as much as when the fish and whales have bait cornered and schooled up.
Continuing south you will see the Ramada Inn on the beach. This is another hot spot where stripers will set up to feed. Quite often there will be a tide line here. Not exactly a rip like at the mouth of the bay, but more change of color and temperature. A trolling pattern that moves from 100 yards off the beach on out a mile or two then back in towards the fishing pier is often productive.
From the Ramada on down to Sandbridge you will see a radar dome located at Dam Neck Navel Station. Troll the same sort of pattern here moving from shore on out and then back in shore again. If you see an orange patrol boat do not go past Dam Neck. The Navy does live fire exercises and rocket launches here, and the patrol boat keeps the down range water clear of boats. If you have never had a great big rocket pass a few hundred feet over your head I will say it is an unforgettable experience.
Down at Sandbridge you can troll either side of the fishing pier on out a mile or two. After that work on down to False Cape and then on into North Carolina.
Look for the Birds
On another fun trip my friend Pete and I had to break through skim ice at Lynnhaven Dry Storage on a very cold January day. We were excited because the stripers had been holding in the rip between the green can and the blockhouse, a short run from the marina. When we cleared Cape Henry there was not a bird or boat in sight. The reports I received on my VHF indicated the action had moved down to Sandbridge so that’s where we headed.
Before we arrived I could see the birds and the whales and I knew rockfish were on a feeding spree. As we approached the fishing pier I noticed a large flock of birds working very close to the beach. Another boat working inshore of us saw them too and started trolling in that direction. It looked like he was right next to the action when a huge whale breached and came down very close to the boat. At that point the captain made an executive decision and got the heck back out to deeper water.
I set up a trolling pattern parallel to shore and made two back and forth passes. We picked a nice striper on each pass, giving us a quick limit, and it seemed as soon as we got there it was time to leave.
I have only run into North Carolina one time. There used to be a device along the shoreline that measured beach erosion. I am sure it is long gone, but that’s where the fish were on that day. Once again we boxed a quick limit and headed home.
If you head north from Cape Henry you will see the 4A Buoy to the east. There is a small shoal there, and stripers will feed along the drop-off. I work this area with a 3-1/2 or 4-1/2 Drone spoon on a wire line outfit.
The idea is to run parallel to the edge of the shoal and allow the current to wash the spoon from the shallow to the deep side. To add more action I jig the rod in a sweeping motion that causes the spoon to flutter back and then quickly swim up for the shallow top of the shoal.
I have had some success with fly fishing clients here. Since the water is on the shallow side the fly can get down and swim along the edge. I would hold the boat as close to the top of the shoal as possible to help this technique work.
There are a couple of wrecks back inshore towards the end of Smith Island, but still east of the line of demarcation. If I don’t find my quarry at the 4A buoy I troll back towards those wrecks. Former Fisherman editor Keith Kauffman and I caught our four fish limit doing just that with no sign that any fish were in the area.
Only once have I had to fish north of the bay along Smith Island. There were birds and whales in the area and one simply does not ignore those sings even if one has to run pretty far to get there.
Virginia Beach is the largest resort city in the country and has every type of accommodation and restaurant known to man. Off season rates are very reasonable.
Let’s hope the stripers cooperate and we get some great fishing this winter.
|NEED TO KNOW: LICENSE & REGISTRATION
|There will be some expense involved in fishing down here. In addition to the fuel bill you must have a Virginia Tidewater fishing license. These are available on line at Virginia Tidewater Fishing License on Google. There is a pretty expensive toll to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, of course if you are used to paying the tolls on the bridges around Philly or Manhattan, this will seem like a bargain.
– E. Burnley
VIRGINIA BEACH CHARTER BOATS
Knot Tell’n Charters
Virginia Beach Fishing Center
Additional tourism info can be found at www.visitvirginiabeach.com.