2017 Fearless Fishing Forecast

by John Page Williams
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The 2016 Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament produced an uptick in citations for big fish in only four of the fifteen species normally caught within the Chesapeake, while the rest declined or stayed the same at low levels. Up the Bay, anglers caught plenty of 24- to 32-inch rockfish in the waters between Poplar Island and Baltimore, but anglers in the lower part of the state’s main stem and the lower Potomac struggled for keepers, and there weren’t many other species to fill the void. The news isn’t all bad. We have some strong year classes of rockfish coming along, especially from 2011 and 2015. Amazingly, there are some young gray trout turning up from the Southwest Middlegrounds at the mouth of the Potomac all the way north to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Despite tighter length and bag limits, cobia made a stronger showing in Virginia and Southern Maryland.

So did large red drum, which are on the increase coastwide. The 2017 season will bring us some excellent angling opportunities, but as has been true in recent years, imagination, flexibility and attention to detail will be necessary to achieve a good season. That said, here’s what some of Chesapeake Bay Magazine’s top captains have to say about our prospects.


 

Captain Ed Darwin, the dean of Upper Bay charter skippers, will have his 40-foot Becky D ready for their 50th season together around the Bay Bridge. Darwin depends on a combination of deep experience, well-honed skills such as his ability to line up ranges (“take marks” as he calls it), and a talent for interpreting sonar to find fish on lumps of hard bottom, wrecks, channel edges and mud troughs. His consistent supply of soft crabs for bait doesn’t hurt either. He finds rockfish limits for his clients most days, but he also has a keen sense of other fish in his neighborhood, starting with big white perch but extending to black drum and even occasional visitors like gray trout and black sea bass. 

Gray Trout

Gray Trout

Captain Bill Williams took a break from sanding the interior of his 35-foot Megabite to talk about last year and the coming season. In the spring, Williams trolls large lures for trophy rockfish, but by June, he downsizes his lures to three- to five-inch spoons, jigs and soft-plastic swimbaits, staggering them at different depths and distances behind Megabite to cover the water column. Like Darwin, Williams has a ready source of peelers and soft crabs that he likes uses for bottom fishing and chumming. His bottom-fishing techniques are as meticulous as his trolling spreads, concentrating on hard bottom lumps between Thomas Point Light and the mouth of the West River, as well as the eastern side of the main Bay channel. Occasionally, he’ll see white perch suspended partway between the bottom and surface, a sign that deep-water dissolved oxygen is low. On those days, he’ll have his parties drop their baited lines only enough to reach them. He was glad to see several small black and red drum and a few small gray trout mixed in with the white perch he sought on those trips. 

Red Drum

Red Drum

Like many captains, he was frustrated by the number of rockfish his parties caught that were just under the 20-inch limit, and while he and his mates practice fish-friendly release techniques, he worries that many charter and private skippers treat their fish roughly. We will have more small fish this year, especially from the 2015 year class, so good release technique will be very important again this year. Look for Chesapeake Bay Magazine to offer some useful information on this topic in a future issue.

Rockfish

Rockfish

Chesapeake Light Tackle author Shawn Kimbro fished through the winter, catching and releasing big rockfish at the warm water discharge from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and on bait schools under diving gannets in the Bay’s main stem. All the while, he loves to fish Eastern Shore streams for yellow perch, white perch and high-jumping hickory shad on their spring spawning runs. He’ll also make some early-morning trips to the Potomac to cast tiny darts and spoons from the shore between Fletcher’s Boathouse and Chain Bridge on his way to work in Washington. Those runs will keep him busy from late March into early May. 

On the Bay in May, he’ll work jigs where he marks fish on the sharp channel edges of the east side across from Baltimore as rockfish filter back down from spawning grounds at the head of the Bay and in the Chester River. He’ll also begin checking hard bottom lumps in Eastern Bay. “June is for breakers,” he said, “with fish corralling bait against secondary ledges when the tide is low.” For these angling opportunities, Kimbro’s key advantage is a solid network of friends with whom to share information. You’ll find general information on his Facebook page, but his real secrets are getting out there to look around and communicating quietly with others who do the same. He encourages us all to do the same.

As a kayak outfitter, Captain C.D. Dollar paddles to a different rhythm with his clients. They are casting lures and flies with light tackle while sitting close to the water, and they don’t necessarily expect a limit of rockfish. For them, catching and gently releasing multiple just-undersized rockfish and big white perch is just fine. 

White Perch

White Perch

From May 2016 into the summer, Dollar and his anglers fished the shallows of Eastern Bay. Then, from late August through October, they found a good topwater bite from the Corsica and the lower Chester Rivers to Eastern Bay’s Prospect Bay, the mouths of the Miles and Wye Rivers, and the Little Choptank. “They were pretty fish,” he reported, “solid, clear-eyed, with bright flanks—probably male members of the strong 2011 year class. Some small gray trout (“spikes”) came to hand as well, but only a few spotted sea trout (“specks”) in Tangier Sound and no croakers. We enjoyed lots of interesting sights, like pelicans at the Bay Bridge until Thanksgiving.” Dollar is optimistic about 2017, tempered with a dose of reality. “One personal 2017 goal is to find a friend with a big boat who will watch out for me down at Cape Charles,” he said. “I want to take a kayak sleigh ride with a big cobia or a bull red drum.”

Like Bill Williams, Captain Danny Crabbe is concerned about the number of 16- to 19-inch rockfish he saw killed by rough handling in the charter and recreational fleets around his home waters between Smith Point, Point Lookout, and Smith and Tangier islands. Running his 43-foot Kit II out of the Great Wicomico with trolling gear during the spring trophy season, he and his parties fish in the middle of the migration route the large rockfish travel as they head out of the Bay to spend the summer in New England. After this early season, he normally looks for a range of species like spot and croakers over the hard-bottom ballast stone piles in his area and especially the Northern Neck Reef, but “nobody was home” last year. He turned to trolling small jigs and spoons for the resident rockfish but had to sort through many shorts for a keeper or two. His parties caught numbers of undersized gray trout jigging in 38- to 40-feet of water off Point Lookout, but no keepers. He did find a few cobia by trolling large jigs and spoons in the summer, and several big red drum that thrilled his people. They were released, and the anglers received citations for them. The season’s high point was not fishing but watching a school of 30- to 50-pound red drum drive a school of menhaden to the surface and gorge on them. What’s up for 2017 in that area? More drum? More cobia? More gray trout? More legal rockfish? Croakers? Spanish mackerel? Hard to say, but there is so much fish habitat there that it will certainly produce some surprises, even if charter and recreational skippers have to work hard for them.  

Croaker

Croaker

Captain Ed Lawrence runs light tackle and fly trips out of out of Gloucester, Va., on his custom-built Intruder skiff built by Glenn Rose in Beaufort, N.C. When asked to predict the 2017 season he said, “My crystal ball has been broken for some years, and I can’t find anyone to fix it.” Nonetheless, he reports that the speckled trout fishery is still in recovery from devastating cold-weather kills over previous winters. “I’m cautiously optimistic based on the better numbers of fish we caught last fall,” he says. “The fish were small, one- and two-year-old fish, but there were more of them than before.” His clients caught plenty of 15- to 17-inch redfish last year, and some of the fish held over in the upper reaches of the creeks this winter, which bodes well for drum fishing this year. The unusually mild winter is also fuel for optimism. As for the local striper fishery Williams says, “2016 basically sucked.” His anglers caught plenty of small fish, but hardly any keepers. He doesn’t expect much improvement in 2017.

Speckled Trout

Speckled Trout

Captain Chris Newsome was sitting at his fly-tying bench in Gloucester, Va., as we talked. He runs his Triton 240 LTS bay boat mostly out of Queens Creek on the Piankatank, though he will tow it elsewhere to put his fly- and light-tackle clients on a hot bite. “We had an average year for puppy drum (small red drum)” he said, “which is encouraging since the cold winters of 2013 and 2014 killed many of them. There are some small speckled trout around, which is also encouraging, since they took the biggest hit from the winter kills. I’m hopeful that we’ll see the most recent year classes growing up a little this season.” Newsome likes to catch menhaden and thread herring in a cast net and “live chum” with them. He’ll give an inexperienced client a live bait on a spinning rod, but his fly-anglers get Half-and-Half streamers or Gurgler topwater flies when predators start attacking the chum. One tip he offers for both flies and jigs with soft plastic tails: “Don’t worry too much about color. If you’re not catching, experiment with retrieve depth, speed and action before changing your lure.” 

In Richmond, Captain Mike Ostrander of DiscovertheJames.com had a decent winter fishing blue catfish with his clients, including an 85-pound fish that set his boat’s record. “The catch rate has slowed for fish of all sizes, from “eaters” of two- to four-pounds and 30-pound plus trophies that earned Virginia citations” he said, “But the fishing is still good enough to keep us happy. It should hold well into the spring. The stock of gizzard shad on which the big cats feed seems to be holding its own.” 

Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish

In February, Ostrander pulled out his 24-foot Sweetwater pontoon boat, Discovery Barge II, named for Captain John Smith’s shallop, to rebuild it. When we talked, he had just finished cleaning and repairing its aluminum tubes and was working on her deck. “She’ll be so pretty, the river’s eagles won’t recognize her,” he chuckled. He’ll use her to guide clients for blue cats and also the strong James River runs of white perch, crappie, hickory shad and American shad. “There are probably ten different species we can fish for here in the spring and early summer,” he said.

Cobia

Cobia

Captain Mike Avery of Seaduction Charters in Hampton is looking forward to another strong cobia season in the lower Bay. Early (late May) and late (August–September) in that fishery, he’ll run his 29-foot Hydra-Sports and spot the fish from a tower he installed two years ago, so that his anglers can sight-fish for them, casting jigs, eels, and even flies. In July, when the fish are spawning in the lower rivers, he’ll “bump-troll” eels set at various depths under bobbers and off planer boards, kicking his twin outboards in and out of gear to cover the water slowly. Last year was a good season for Virginia’s cobia, with new length and bag limits designed to conserve the stock. As president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association (VSSA), Mike found himself in the middle of the controversy over cobia management issues, and he hopes that this year, he and his VSSA’s members will be able to concentrate more on fishing than attending meetings. 

Outside of cobia, Avery will fish for “whatever the customer wants.” He’ll be running from Hampton’s Back River to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for spadefish, sheepshead, flounder, red drum and croakers, especially in the evenings. 

Black Sea Bass

Black Sea Bass

Down in Norfolk, Kendall Osborne of the Virginia Coastal Fly Anglers will pole around the flats of the Eastern Shore’s Fisherman’s Island in May and early June, hunting for big rockfish that are stopping to feed on their way out of the Chesapeake, and for big red drum on the way in. Those powerful fish can provide heart-stopping shallow-water action, but timing is everything. Osborne also fishes the Bridge-Tunnel for rockfish, puppy drum and big black drum. “We saw some interesting other species last year,” he revealed, “including ‘black wills’ (small black sea bass) and even a couple of small gag groupers.” He also noted that the restoration oyster reefs near his home on Norfolk’s Lafayette River aren’t as reliable as they used to be for rockfish and croakers. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have targeted the Lafayette for major restoration of its reefs.

Summer Flounder

Summer Flounder

Captains Kevin Josenhans and Tyler Nonn keep their Jones Brothers boats ready to roll on trailers, which means that they will travel starting with Fisherman’s Island in May and early June to sight-fish for big rockfish and red drum. Josenhans specializes in fly-fishing but offers his clients light spinning tackle opportunities as well out of a 20-foot skiff. Nonn’s new 26-foot boat has a mini-tower that allows him to spot fish more easily, especially cobia out of Cape Charles in the summer. In warmer months, Josenhans takes his clients to Tangier Sound and the lower Choptank for rockfish, specks, puppy drum, flounder, and other species of opportunity, adjusting his location accordingly.

Will the fishing be easy in 2017? Sure, sometimes. Other times, it’ll present a challenge. But that’s what our sport is all about, isn’t it? That’s why it’s not called catching. 

 
 

2017 Tournament Calendar


april

April14–16
Colonial Beach Spring Rockfish Tournament
Colonial Beach, Va.
www.colonialbeach.org

April 28–May 6
Captain Zed’s Flounder Tournament
Wachapreague, Va. 
Heaviest doormat (flounder) taken from ocean waters wins. 
www.theislandhouserestaurant.com

April 15
Boatyard Bar and Grill Opening Day Rockfish Fishing Tournament
Annapolis, Md. 
Catch and release—multiple prizes for the three longest rockfish photographed against official tournament ruler. Youth and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland awards.
boatyardbarandgrill.com

 

 

May

May 5–7
Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association Championship on the Chesapeake
Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay
Multiple cash prizes for top rockfish tallied at tournament-certified weigh stations. 
mssa.net/thechampionship

 

May 26–28
Sixth Annual Memorial Day Bluefish Tournament
Sunset Marina, Ocean City, Md. 
Benefits the Catherine and Charles Kratz Memorial Foundation and Scholarship Fund. Heaviest bluefish takes the cash. 
www.ocmarlinclub.com/tournaments.php

May 2017
Marines Helping Marines Fishing Tournament
North East, Md. 
Wounded Marines take to the water for a friendly fishing competition. 
www.woundedmarinefishing.com

 

May 5–7
Rod ‘N’ Reel Captain’s Association Pro-Am Rockfish Tournament
Chesapeake Beach, Md. 
Multiple cash prizes for top rockfish tallied at tournament-certified weigh stations. 
www.rodnreeltournament.com

 

 

June

June 16–18
Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association Tuna-ment
Sunset Marina, Ocean City, Md. 
Ply the waters off Ocean City for the biggest tunas for big cash prizes. Divisions for 31-foot and under; over 31-feet.
mssa.net/tunament

 

June 2017
Virginia Beach Anglers Club Cobia Classic Long Bay Pointe Marina, Virginia Beach
www.virginiabeachanglersclub.org

June 2
Casey Cares Rockfish Tournament
Chesapeake Bay Beach Club; Stevensville, Md.&
Benefits Casey Cares Foundation, which helps critically ill kids and their families. Captain’s Challenge, First and Second place prizes. Post-tournament dinner chefs will cook your catch.
caseycares.org/events/annual-casey-cares-rockfish-tournament

 

June 3
Coastal Conservation Association Maryland 
Kent Narrows Fly and Light Tackle Catch and Release Tournament, Kent Narrows. 

Bragging rights for photo evidence of the longest striped bass photographed against an official ruler in three categories: fly, light-tackle and kayak.
ccamd.org

June 17–18
Small-Boat Tournament
Sunset Marina, Ocean City, Md. 
Target coastal and bluewater species in boats 34 feet and smaller for cash prizes.
ocmarlinclub.com/tournaments.php

 

June 21–24
Virginia Beach Tuna Tournament
Rudee Inlet, Va. Beach
Hook big tuna, win big money.
http://vbtuna.com/

 

 

July

July 22–23
Kids’ Classic
Ocean City, Md. 
Anglers 19 and under target coastal fish from both land and sea. Proceeds benefit the Wish-A-Fish Foundation. 
ocmarlinclub.com/tournaments.php

 

June 30–July 2
Canyon Kickoff Tournament
Sunset Marina, Ocean City, Md. 
Billfish, tuna and mahi-mahi are the name of the game. 
ocmarlinclub.com/tournaments.php

July 8
High School Fishing Student Angler Federation Maryland State Championship
Elk Neck State Park, North East, Md. 
High school students hit the water for big bass on the upper Chesapeake Bay. 
highschoolfishing.org

 

 

July 14–16
Ocean City Tuna Tournament
Ocean City, Md. 
Big tuna, big money, big fun
octunatournament.com

July 22
Wish-A-Fish Foundation Fishing Day
Bahia Marina, Ocean City, Md.
Volunteer captains take special needs kids and their families out for a day of fishing. Other days at Sandy Point in Annapolis and Sunset Creek Marina in Hampton, Va., tbd.
wish-a-fish.org

 

July 26–29
Virginia Beach Invitational Marlin Tournament
Rudee Inlet, Va. Beach
www.facebook.com/VirginiaBeachInvitationalMarlinTournament

 

 

August

August 19–20
Wine, Women and Fishing Tournament
Southside Marina, Virginia Beach
Ladies take fish for bluewater species to raise money for breast cancer research. 
cbwc.org/chesapeake-bay-wine-classic-events/wine-women-fishing

 

August 20–25
Mid-Atlantic $500,000
Sunset Marina, Ocean City, Md. 
Offshore canyons fishing for billfish, tuna, mahi-mahi for serious cash. 
www.themidatlantic.com

 

August 23–26
Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament
Rudee Inlet, Va. Beach
Catch and release blue and white marlin, sailfish and spearfish, all for big bucks, and a big party.
vbbt.com

 

August 3–5
Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open
James River; Osborne Park, Henrico, Va. 
A stop for the massive Bassmaster Open circuit. 
www.bassmaster.com

 

August 5–6
Ladies’ Heels & Reels Fishing Tournament
Ocean City, Md. 
Ladies head to the canyons for a cause. 
www.ocmarlinclub.com

 

August 7–11
White Marlin Open
Ocean City, Md. 
The world’s largest billfish tournament. Huge cash prizes for white marlin, blue marlin, mahi-mahi, tuna species, wahoo and shark. 
www.whitemarlinopen.com

 

August 17–19
Capt. Steve Harman’s Poor Girls Open
Ocean City, Md. 
Ladies only billfish release tournament to benefit breast cancer research. 
www.bahiamarina.com/tournament/poor-girls-open.cfm

 

September

September 16–17
MSSA Mid-Atlantic Flounder Tournament
Ocean City, Md. 
Hook up some flounder for a chance at cash prizes. 
mssa.net

 

September 30–October 1
Coastal Conservation Association Maryland Red Trout Catch and Release Tournament
Crisfield, Md. 
Catch-and-release red drum and speckled trout
ccamd.org

 

September 2017
Tidewater Kayak Anglers Association Tournament
www.tkaa.org/tournament

 

September 2017
Chesapeake Bay Kayak Anglers Tournament
Camp Wright, Kent Island
Benefits CCA Maryland and Make-A-Wish Foundation. 
chesapeakebaykayakanglers.com

 

September 2–4
Labor Day White Marlin Tournament
Sunset Marina, Ocean City, Md. 
Catch white marlin and other offshore species for big money. 
ocmarlinclub.com/tournaments.php

 

October

October 5–7
Mid-Atlantic Surf Fishing Tournament
Ocean City, Md. 
Surf’s Up at this popular surfcasting tournament. 
oceancitysurfanglersmd.com

October 2017
Legends of the Fly Fly Fishing Tournament
Virginia Beach, Va. 
legendsoftheflyvb.com

 

November

November 11
Rocksgiving Tournament
Annapolis, Md.
Sponsored by Devils Backbone Brewing Company, ensuring great post-fishing drinks and fun. 
www.rocksgiving.com

 

November 17–19
Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association Fall Classic
Maryland waters
Heaviest striper takes the cash—lots of it.
mssa.net/mssa-tournament-series

November 4
Fish For a Cure
Eastport Yacht Club, Annapolis
Anglers bring in big rocks and raise big bucks to fund cancer programs at Anne Arundel Medical Center.
fishforacure.org

 

November 10–12
Colonial Beach Rockfish Tournament
Colonial Beach, Va.
Seeking Striper on the Potomac
www.rockfishtournament.org

 

December

December 7–9
Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shoot Out
Rudee Inlet, Virginia Beach, Va. 
Largest rockfish tournament in the country.
www.midatlanticrockfishshootout.com

 
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