Fishing on the Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay fishing is world-renowned for its quality, diversity, and scenic qualities, whether you’re plugging for striped bass in the Upper Bay or trolling for blues and Spanish mackerel in the Lower Bay. The Chesapeake is North America’s largest estuary, where salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean mix with the freshwater flow of rivers like the Susquehanna, the Potomac, and the Rappahannock. The resulting brackish stew is idea for species like striped bass, bluefish, speckled sea trout, red drum, and many, many more. We’ll discuss how to catch these fish in detail, but first, let’s get a glimpse of what some red-hot Chesapeake Bay fishing action looks like. This video was taken during one afternoon of fishing in March, in the middle Chesapeake, near Calvert Cliffs.

How do most people fish on the Chesapeake Bay? The basic techniques include:

Fishing with cut bait
Fishing with live bait
Chumming with ground fish or clams
Trolling with lures
Casting and retrieving lures
Jigging with spoons and soft plastics

The fishing we saw in that video could be categorized as either casting and retrieving lures, or as jigging with soft plastics. There’s some overlap between these and many other types of Chesapeake Bay fishing– which take place for literally dozens of different species of fish (the Chesapeake Bay Program has an excellent field guide to the different fish found in the Bay). Let’s examine these forms of fishing on the bay in their most basic terms.

Fishing in the Chesapeake Bay with cut bait can mean many things. It might be slicing bloodworms into little tidbits and threading them onto a top-and-bottom rig to catch panfish like spot, croaker, and white perch. It could mean cutting bunker (also known as menhaden) into chunks used to attract species like striped bass and bluefish. In the southern reaches of the Bay, where the water is saltier and more like the open ocean, it could refer to using cut strips of squid to catch fish like flounder and croaker. And at certain times of the year, cut bait may even be used to attract the attention of giant gamefish. Many anglers use cut soft crab, for example, to target black drum– which can grow in excess of 100 pounds.

The one thing all forms of fishing with cut bait have in common? The angler is using pieces of a naturally-occurring food to get a predator fish on his or her line. Fishing with cut bait may be done while casting from the shoreline, while on a boat at anchor or adrift, and is also commonly used in conjunction with chumming (more on this later). Cut baits normally used on the Chesapeake Bay include:

Bloodworms– used for panfish including spot, croaker, and perch, and on occasion, used for larger species such as striped bass or weakfish
Bunker (also called alwife or menhaden)– used for larger predators including striped bass, bluefish, red drum, blue and channel catfish, sharks, and cobia
Grass shrimp– used to catch most panfish species
Herring– used for larger predators, often the same species as bunker
Mullet– also used for these same larger predators
Night crawlers– used in fresher areas of the Bay and its tributaries, for species like largemouth bass, sunfish, perch, and catfish
Razor, surf, and manninos clams– used for fish that commonly feed on bottom, including black drum and in some cases, striped bass
Soft crab and peeler crab– used for virtually any fish in the Chesapeake; just about everything that swims in the Bay likes to eat crab
Squid– used for species common to the saltier portions of the Chesapeake such as flounder or sea bass, as well as croaker, weakfish, and sometimes striped bass

In many cases, such as when attempting to catch monster blue catfish, cut bait is simply cast out or dropped to the bottom and allowed to rest there until a fish finds it. In some other cases, such as when fishing for flounder, the bait is drifted or possibly even trolled at a very slow speed, to attract a fish’s attention. And on occasion (fishing for triggerfish is one example) the cut bait may even be sight-cast right in front of a fish that the angler has spotted.

Since cut bait is very effective and is quite simple to use, many beginners start out by using it. Most of these baits are also readily available at the local tackle shops lining the Chesapeake’s shores. On the other hand, some people shy away from using cut bait because it can be very messy.

Many of the live baits used by anglers who enjoy Chesapeake Bay fishing are the same as ones listed above– the anglers simply gather or buy them live, and keep them alive until they go on the hook. The list of commonly used live baits includes:

Bullhead minnow– used for relatively small predator species such as yellow perch, small stripers, and especially flounder; in tributaries and relatively freshwater areas, bullhead minnow are used for pickerel, crappie, and bass
Eels– used for striped bass and cobia
Grass shrimp– used for panfish like perch, spot, and croaker
Green crab– used specifically for tautog
Mullet– used for virtually all predator species, depending on the mullet’s size (small mullet, called “finger mullet,” are often used for smaller species).
Silverside minnow– used mostly for flounder, often in conjunction with a strip of squid (called a “minnow ‘n squid sandwich,” which is considered a classic flounder bait).
Spot– used for large predators including striped bass, cobia, weakfish, bluefish, and very large flounder.

Live baits may be used with a number of fishing tactics, including casting from shore, drifting over large areas, fishing while at anchor over structure, or even when sight-fishing (most commonly in the Bay’s southern reaches, for cobia). At times, live bait will dominate the action. In the Middle and Upper Bay regions, for example, during the summer season the vast majority of anglers often will put a spot on the hook to try live bait fishing for stripers.

Fishing with live bait is commonly considered one of the most effective techniques used on the Chesapeake, and is employed at one time or another by recreational anglers, charter boat captains, and just about anyone trying to get a big fish on the end of their line. Since it’s so effective, relatively simple to use, and in some cases (such as bullhead minnow and grass shrimp) is available at most tackle shops, many beginners start out by using live bait. The down-side to using live bait? Once you acquire it, either by purchasing it at the store or catching it yourself, you have to take pains to keep it alive.

Chumming is the tactic of grinding or mincing a bait, most often fish like bunker or herring but occasionally razor clams or grass shrimp, and then releasing it into the water to attract fish. Most anglers chum from a boat while at anchor, since you want to remain stationary and bring the fish close to you with the scent and free food provided by the chum. Some anglers also chum from shore, however, by broadcasting their chum as far as possible out into the water. In any case a current is necessary for chumming to be effective, or the chum just sinks and doesn’t disburse through the water to bring in fish from afar. You can learn a number of tricks and tips about chumming by reading this article about Chum Tricks.

Chumming is extremely effective when fishing for striped bass, bluefish, sharks, and sometimes also cobia. Some anglers grind their chum on the spot, but more commonly they will buy pre-ground frozen blocks or buckets of chum. The frozen chum can then be hung from the side of the boat in a net or a bucket with holes, and will disburse slowly as it melts. This can be particularly advantageous as the consistency of a chum slick is even more important for attracting fish than its size or volume. A little bit of chum going into the water slowly but steadily works far better than large amounts that are released haphazardly.

Chumming is a tactic all its own, it’s used in conjunction with fishing cut bait. In a chum slick of menhaden, for example, the anglers will usually bait their hooks with cut menhaden. If the chum consists of razor clams, the anglers would be baiting with razor clam. Those baits will then be set at differing depths with the use of added weight, until the angler determines the most effective depth to fish at.

Some anglers will also try fishing live baits in their chum, and on occasion, casting lures. As a rule of thumb, the chum and the baits are matched because the fish you’re trying to catch can become quite focused on that particular type of food.

Once again, the main down-side to chumming is the mess it can make on a boat. It also forces the angler to buy additional supplies– the chum or lots of fish for grinding– and it requires constant attention to make sure the flow of chum is constant and sufficient.

Trolling is when lures are set out behind a boat, and the forward motion of the boat pulls them through the water to give them a life-like appearance. Depending on the size and speed of the species being targeted, trollers may set their throttles to move the boat anywhere between two and eight miles per hour. Specific types of lures which can provide their own “action” when moving through the water at these speeds, such as lipped plugs that swim because of water resistance, spoons that wobble as they move through the water, or lures with paddle-tails that wiggle back and forth, are most effective for trolling.

Trolling can be highly effective on just about any open-water fish and in some cases, such as Spanish mackerel, regularly works better than any other technique. Many professional charter boats favor trolling since it allows the captain and mate to regulate the appearance of the lures and how they travel through the water with no additional effort or expertise on the part of their customers. In effect, once the lures are set out behind the boat by the mate, all the angler has to do is reel the fish in after it strikes a lure. Tension already on the line, thanks to the boat’s forward motion, will “set the hook” all by itself.

In some areas of the Bay, particularly during the spring trophy rockfish season in Maryland, trolling is by far the most common– and effective– method of fishing. Many anglers also employ “planer boards” which are tied or cleated to a line, and utilize water-resistance to move out 100′ or more to the side of the boat. The angler puts fishing lines on the planer board line, to spread them out and away from the boat. Using this method, some captains may troll two dozen or even more lines at the same time, while trolling for spring trophy striped bass.