Carroll County Times

Outdoors commentary: Virginia Beach winter bonanza

Breeching whales, like this humpback, add to the offshore experience. Note how close to shore this is.

Jeff Frischkorn was jubilant when mate, Cheryl Johnson, slipped the net under the first fish of the day, a bright 22-pound striped bass.

I tried to break the news gently.

"Uh, Jeff, that's a nice fish. But this is Virginia Beach; that's not a big fish. Big stripers begin at 40 pounds."

Noting the nonchalance of Cheryl and Captain Steve Wray he realized I wasn't kidding. Jeff quickly decided he didn't care. He wanted more of these fish, and he got his wish.

Every serious salt water fisherman on the east coast knows Virginia Beach is the place to be in the winter, often described as the CBBT (Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel) or Kiptopeke/Cape Charles, the northern end of CBBT, or Virginia Beach, the southern end.

It is also no secret that this fishery often continues for one or two months into the new year. The Virginia and Maryland striper seasons in Chesapeake Bay end Dec. 31, but catch-and-release striper fishing is allowed. The striper season in Virginia continues until March 31 in Virginia up to a 3-mile limit offshore, with a daily limit of two stripers per person for stripers over 28 inches.

But no one remembers a winter like this one with big stripers being taken including a new Virginia record 74-pound striper taken offshore Jan. 20, plus schools of bluefin tuna ranging from 100 to 300-pounds plus. At times these fish are mixed together, along with humpback and other whales all pushing menhaden to the surface where gannets dive on them from above.

Why is this year different? The most popular explanations are:

1. The waters are loaded with menhaden right now. It's common for depth finders to show solid schools 20-30 feet deep one-quarter mile or more.

2. Water temperatures are unusually high, often from the mid-40s to 50 degrees.

3. A combination of the above two factors.

4. Who knows? Enjoy!

Ken Neil of the Peninsula Salt Water Sport Fisherman's Association (PSWSFA) tortured me all winter with reports of how the bite would just not quit and including pictures of multiple stripers in the 40 and 50-plus-pound range along with bluefin tuna over 160 pounds.

These fish were so frequently mixed that fishermen targeting stripers were getting spooled and having tackle destroyed when tuna hit their striper lures. So a number switched to using heavy tuna tackle even when they were trying for stripers; others targeted tuna with traditional tuna lures, baits and tackle.

After several futile attempts to get to Virginia Beach this winter and grinding my teeth in frustration reading Ken Neill's reports, an invitation arrived from Lauren Wicks of BCF working with the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau for "Rock Out, Winter Fishing FAM" (shorthand for familiarization tour). I accepted with the note that I'd come to Virginia Beach for bluegills, let alone bluefin and stripers, since Virginia Beach has provided our family so many wonderful experiences in the last 43 years.

Our group consisted of Jeff Frischhkorn of the News Herald of Willoughby, Ohio, John Shtogren, editor of The Virginia Sportsman, Reed Hellman, editor of Outdoor News among other publications and me.

We fished on Feb. 8 aboard Captain Steve Wray's 38-foot, full cabin, "Ocean Pearl" (built in Crisfield). Cheryl set out a spread of nine lines running at varying depths, trolling the usual nylon-skirted leadheads trailing 9 to 12-inch, double hooked "shads," a typical Chesapeake array used in areas such as Solomons, but without any planer boards. The spread also included two skirted 48-ounce Mojo jigs trailing 12-inch shads and trolled on wire line.

Fishing was steady, and we came in early with nine stripers between 18 and 23 pounds, having lost several at the boat and missed a few knockdowns.

A cold front blew in that night, scattering stripers up the bay and as far out as 18 miles where tuna trollers reported massive schools of off-limit stripers. We trolled in vain within the 3-mile limit, but fortunately Captain Steve Richardson's 53-foot, closed-cabin "Backlash" provided warmth and comfort in low 40s temperatures, 20-knot winds and rolling, white-capped seas. We were Richardson's only strikeout of the winter.

So where is the fishery now? Reports from a number of sources indicate the CBBT and Chesapeake Bay waters are "loaded with stripers." Offshore the tuna bite and the striper bite within the 3-mile limit keep getting iffier, but bottom fishing is producing tautog, sea bass, wreckfish and other species.

Perhaps the best strategy for those interested in fishing this area by private boat or charter is to explore the resources listed in the sidebar and monitor the critical factor of weather. Plan for trying at least two days. For charters, Reed Hellman suggests booking two half-day trips to increase your chances of success at only marginally greater cost.

Virginia Beach is a year-round fishery, and many feel the best times are May and June for bluefish, flounder and for red drum (redfish) and cobia both over 60 pounds, black drum over 100 pounds, Spanish mackerel and other species inshore, plus amberjack, dolphin, tuna, sharks, billfish and a variety of bottom fish offshore, and the fishery just rolls on.

But Virginia Beach and the greater Tidewater area offer much more than fishing, including good restaurants, the boardwalk, beach, bay and numerous other attractions. Winter is a quieter time, and fine hotels are available at very reasonable off-season rates.