How-To

So You Want to Fish in the Chesapeake? Getting Started

 

When I moved to Annapolis in 2014, something I was looking forward to was the opportunity to learn a new fishery – the Chesapeake Bay. As a trout and bass angler from Pennsylvania, I was accustomed to very different scenery and style when fishing. Though Maryland and Virginia have many opportunities to fish for both trout and bass, the Bay and its tributaries offer a fantastic fishery, right in my backyard, and hopefully yours, too. I can think of no better meal than fresh fish that’s been caught, cleaned, cooked, or cured in lime juice all in the same day. The Chesapeake Bay has  many different types of fish, so one is bound to fit your personal tastes.

Here are some of the most popular fish to target in the Chesapeake:

     • Striped Bass
     • Red Drum
     • Spotted Sea Trout
     • White Perch
     • Summer Flounder (Fluke)

Illustration courtesy the Maryland Department of Natural Resources

While all of these fish make for great table fare, arguably, the best tasting and most popular fish in the Chesapeake Bay is the striped bass, known locally as rockfish. This distinct-looking fish, with its large, gaping bucket of a mouth and brilliant stripes, is the official state fish of Maryland and the state saltwater fish of Virginia. Not only does it fight hard on a hook and line, it boasts the flakiness of mild fishes, with a slightly stronger flavor, though not so strong as to be considered "fishy."

Now that I've got your mouth watering, let's say you have never fished before and want to try and catch your own dinner. Where to begin? Your local tackle shop should have everything you need to get started. Fishing can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. You do not need every bit of fancy gear in the shop. Here is a quick list of the basics you will need for a day of fishing:

     • Fishing license, if you are older than 16 years old*
     • Rod, reel, and line
     • Sinkers
     • Hooks
     • Bait
     • Needle nose pliers with cutters to cut line and help unhook fish
     • Sunblock and other protective clothing
     • Sunglasses (almost as important as a rod and reel)

      * available online or at any tackle shop    

Fishing Rod, Reel, and Line

There are rods out there for every type of fishing and every type of fish. Many long-time anglers (myself included) have a rod for nearly every application – some would argue, too many. The best rod to get you started fishing the Chesapeake is a spinning rod and reel. These are the easiest to cast and retrieve your bait, especially for beginners. In the U.S., most spinning reels allow the user to switch the crank to whichever side feels more comfortable, whether you are left-handed or right-handed. The length of the rod should be around 7 feet, which is a nice, medium length that will help with longer casting, but not be too heavy like some surf rods, which can run from 8 to 14 feet. It should be rated as having a medium action. This way you get to have some fun when the fish puts up a fight. On most fishing rods, the information will be listed along the side of the rod, just above the handle for easy reference.

Fishing line also presents many different choices. Light line in the 6 to 8-pound test breaking strength is great for catching perch. However, if you hook into something bigger, like a catfish, you might break the line. For bigger fish, you can use line up to 50-pound test, but smaller fish will not be as much fun to catch. In general, 12 to 15-pound test is a great compromise, as it is light enough for a good fight, but will stand up to some bigger fish. The best type of line for a beginner is monofilament, because you can tie your hook rigs directly to it and not have to worry about swivels and leaders (just yet).

Here is one thing to keep in mind while you are fishing; excess line hanging off of trees or sitting on the ground or in the water can hurt animals – especially birds. They think it is a nice soft nesting material and grab it, only to get tangled. If they are lucky they can shake it free, but unfortunately, many times they become more and more tangled, and can even die from the predicament. If your line becomes stuck in a tree or snagged underwater, do not cut the line. Try to break it as close to your hook as possible, so it has less chance of tangling up a living creature. You might need some help with this task. If you wrap the line around a strong stick, or even the handles of your pliers and then pull, you will not hurt your hand and have a stronger grip on the line. Also, if you see stray bits of line, please pick them up and put them in a proper receptacle. 

Sinkers

As a beginner, you will want to buy split-shot or rubber-grip sinkers. These are easy to attach to the line and can be removed without having to cut any knots. They come in various sizes. Bigger weights will allow you to cast farther and get your bait down deep quicker. However, the more weight you put on, the less sensitivity you will have to feeling a fish strike. Try to use as little weight as you can get away with.

In shallower water you can put a float on your line, generally between 1 and 4 feet from the hook, which will give you a better indication of when a fish is taking the bait. However, fish frequently swim close to the bottom and might not see the bait if it is up too high in the water column. When you fish without a float, let the rig sink to the bottom, then reel up the slack until the line becomes taut. Depending on what kind of fish is taking the bait, you will feel a slight tap from smaller fish on up to a large jolt from larger fish. The more you fish, the better you will become at discerning a bite. When you feel a strike, make sure you do not have any slack in the line and lift the rod tip until you have a bend in the rod. This sets the hook in the fish's mouth and helps keep the pressure on it as you reel it in.

Hooks

The best hook size to start out with is a #4 or #6 (hook sizes get larger as the size number goes down). As you get the hang of fishing and you decide you want to use bigger bait, you can move up to larger hooks, ranging from #2 to #1/0, and on up to a #6/0 for big stripers out in deep water.

You will need to learn and practice one of the many fishing knots to properly attach your hook to your line. One of the best knots is the improved clinch knot seen in the accompanying picture. To tie this knot, pass the end of the line through the hook eye, then wrap it back around the line six times. You will create a small loop with the line, then pass the tag end of the line through that loop, then back up through the second loop. Wet with a little bit of saliva and pull it tight to the hook.

Improved Clinch Knot - Wikimedia Creative Commons

Bait

Talk to anyone fishing on a pier and they’ll tell you that the go-to baits for fishing in the Chesapeake are earthworms/nightcrawlers, blood worms, and grass shrimp. Every fish in the area will gladly chomp down on these little morsels. You can dig up earthworms in your backyard, or get them at a bait shop. Use these when the water is fresher in places like Mallows Bay. Grass shrimp are scooped from rocks with a dip net that has a fine mesh. Blood worms come in packs of 6 or 12, depending on the size you want. These nasty things have a mouth that can bite, so be careful when handling them. Cut a length of one-quarter to one-half of an inch and feed the hook through the cut end. If you are squeamish and don't like hooking live things, there are bait strips you can cut up and hook. They come in a wide variety of different flavors, but they do not work as well as the real thing.

Where to go?

If you live anywhere near the Bay or one of its tributaries, chances are good that there is a local pier or beach near you, or you may have a friend with a dock (it might be time to cozy up to some people). If you are just starting out, one of the best things you can do is visit a large public pier, like the ones found at Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park, Rocky Point Beach and Park, or King's Landing Park, and beaches, such as Sandy Point State Park, Chapel Point State Park, or Fort Smallwood Park are also great for getting started.

Virginia offers many great places to fish in tidal rivers, including the James River, the York River, and along the Potomac in places like Westmoreland State Park and Caledon State Park. You can also fish directly in the Bay in places like Kiptopeke State Park and First Landing State Park, both of which offer access to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, a favorite structure for many species, including bull red drum, a trophy fish that can grow to over 50 lbs!

These are popular spots, visited by many anglers throughout the year. As you learn more about fishing and your skills improve, you will want to go to less populated spots. However, as a beginner, you can ask the locals what bait works at the spot, how and where to fish, and any other questions you might have. Most people are more than happy to give advice and lend a hand to first-timers.

Before You Go

Be sure to check the regulations in your state before you hit the water.

So now you should be ready to go out and cast a line or show the kids how to catch their own dinner. Don’t forget to enjoy the incredible scenery and delicious bounty of the Chesapeake!

Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park

Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The piers are lighted and quite popular because of the variety of fish that can be caught including perch, striped bass, croakers, sea trout, and catfish.

Rocky Point Beach and Park

Located at the mouth of Back and Middle Rivers, Rocky Point Park features a 300' beach, a 20' x 30' beach front tent, a large and small pavilion, seven shaded picnic groves, fishing pier, two boat ramps, and a bathhouse with first aid station.

King’s Landing Park

King's Landing Park - 260 acres of hardwood bottom forest, river shoreline and wetlands - sits along the Patuxent River and Cocktown Creek. A 200-foot fishing pier and canoe and kayak launch provide access to the beauty of the Patuxent.

Chapel Point State Park

Chapel Point State Park is an undeveloped multi-use park that boasts a waterfront on the beautiful Port Tobacco River, a tributary of the Potomac River.

Fort Smallwood Park

Fort Smallwood Park became the newest regional park in the Anne Arundel County Park System, located on the Patapsco River, the park offers experiences for fisherman, boaters, swimmers, birdwatchers, and admirers of local scenery.

First Landing State Park

First Landing State Park is located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay close to the spot where Captain John Smith landed in 1607. First Landing is Virginia's most popular state park with over a million visitors each year.

Kiptopeke State Park

Kiptopeke State Park's location near the tip of the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore makes the park a prime location for bird-watching. Migrating birds congregate at this point on the Delmarva before moving on to breeding or wintering grounds.

Mallows Bay Park

Mallows Bay Park offers excellent outdoor recreation opportunities. Tremendous wildlife viewing areas, small boating access to the Potomac River, kayak launch, fishing and hiking trail. Paddle through the WWI Ghost Fleet, the largest ship graveyard in the Northern Hemisphere.

Caledon State Park

A designated National Natural Landmark, Caledon State Park provides visitors a unique opportunity to view bald eagles in their natural habitat.

Westmoreland State Park

The park extends about one and a half miles along the Potomac River and offers hiking, camping, cabins, fishing, boating and swimming. Visitors can enjoy the park's vacation cabins as well as spectacular views of the Potomac.

Sandy Point State Park

Sandy Point State Park is located in Anne Arundel county just before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The 786 acre park provides a variety of recreational opportunities such as swimming, fishing, crabbing, boating, and windsurfing.

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

August 30, 2019

Main image: Photo by Peter Turcik
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