The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the lower 48 states, and as you might expect, has many miles of rivers and creeks that feed it. As a result, it is a phenomenal nursery for immature gamefish, with a stunning variety of targets for the local fisherman.
I grew up fishing these waters, and continue to fish them today. These waters, like much of the Bay, offer a variety of seasonal opportunities, and it pays to know what different regions offer. This post will focus on an overview of the geography of the Bay, and where to target particular species.
Upper Bay (North of Annapolis)
This portion of the bay has (generally) very low salinity levels. Depending on rainfall, time of year, and water temperature, many portions of this region will be mostly fresh water (as opposed to brackish water). As a result, many typical freshwater species are available here. Largemouth Bass, Channel Catfish, Sunfish, White Perch, Yellow Perch, Carp, Pickerel, Shad – most are available in the upper reaches of creeks in this area. On the Susquehanna Flats (the upper most portion of the Bay) these fish may range into the Chesapeake Bay itself. On occasion, and usually during the heat of summer, salinity may increase significantly in the southern portion of the Upper Bay, bringing with it small Bluefish, Croaker, and Spot. Upper Bay Creeks are great areas to work ultra-light spinning tackle and a small spinner bait (beetle spin) for perch, small bass, and pickerel. These areas are best fished by boat, and focus should be paid to downed timber, old docks and piers, and grass flats. Wading opportunities do exist, but you have to find hard (not muddy) bottom to stand on, or cast from shore. A kayak is a great way to do both.
The largemouth bass fishing on some of the Upper Bay Rivers and Creeks is quite good, and using spinning or casting tackle with spinner baits and crank baits is a good bet. In addition, these creeks see an influx of adult Striped Bass in the spring (end of March through April). These fish are arriving in this area to spawn, and are not legal to target in most area creeks.
Middle Bay (Annapolis to MD/VA Line)
The Middle Bay has a more moderate salinity level, and with it fewer freshwater species and more saltwater species. The creeks in this area will contain juvenile Striped Bass, Bluefish, Weakfish, Speckled Trout, Croaker, Spot, and Needlefish for most of the year except the dead of winter, when these fish relocate to deeper water. In addition, White Perch are abundant throughout this region, and any tidal grassy shoreline in this portion of the bay will have a number of resident White Perch.
The creeks in this portion of the Bay are similar to the Upper Bay, and are best fished by boat. Wading requires a hard bottom, but you can find these areas using Google Maps and a kayak. Look for sandy colored bottom, and the absence of grasses. In addition, October and November typically bring an influx of bigger Striped Bass (2-7 lb) into these creeks, along with citation White Perch (12″+). This fishery may only last 2-3 weeks, or extend for multiple months. Once creek temperatures dip below 50 degrees, the fish will be gone, heading for the open waters of the Chesapeake with other juvenile fish.
For the fly fisherman, the Upper and Middle Bay Creeks are best fished with 5 wt fly rods with sinking tip fly lines. Flies that score typically imitate small (1″ long) minnows or grass shrimp (the favored dinner for White Perch and juvenile Stripers). When larger striped bass enter the picture in the fall, 8wt fly rods have a place, with sinking tip or intermediate fly lines and Clouser minnow flies.
All of these fish are extremely aggressive – retrieve the fly with a brisk strip-pause-strip cadence, and the fish will give chase. For the spinning rod, the same tactics mentioned for the Upper Bay applies.
Lower Bay (MD/VA Line to the Mouth)
The creeks in this portion of the Bay are heavily influenced by the ocean, allowing some sea-going fish to remain as year-round residents. Here you will find juvenile versions of species such as Red Drum, but also adult versions of many game-fish: Striped Bass, Croaker, Spot, Sea Trout, Weakfish, Needlefish, and Flounder. In addition, the Lower Bay offers bonafide southern fishing: Expansive beds of SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation), oyster reefs that rise from the water on the low tide, and massive hard-packed mud and grass flats filled with fiddler crabs and, if you’re lucky, puppy drum.
A small boat or kayak is a wonderful way to fish these regions, and this combined with wading is the preferred method of exploration. Because these waters are often extremely shallow, motor noise will keep fish away, and limit your success.
Tackle here depends on the size of the creek. Ultra-Light spinning gear and 5 wt fly rods as described earlier have their place, but only in the smallest creeks and backwaters. The quarry here is “spike” trout – speckled trout and puppy drum in the 8″-15″ range. As the creeks grow in size and depth, and you move closer to bigger water, an 8wt is better choice. Floating and intermediate fly lines are the best tools, and flies that suspend in the water are preferred (Lefty’s Deceivers, Bendbacks, etc). Work these flies with a slower retrieve – strip-paauussse-strip. Lures that work include Texas-rigged plastic minnows (weedless) and top-water sliders. If Striped Bass are present, don’t worry about the slower retrieve – they are more aggressive than the drum and trout.