July and August on the Chesapeake bring an interesting mix of species and opportunities for middle-Chesapeake fly fishermen, as well as some challenges. With the hot weather, most mid-sized game fish (2-5lb striped bass, bluefish, and Spanish mackerel) are in deeper water, following clouds of bay anchovies that dimple the surface like rain drops. When conditions are right (usually several times in a day), those game fish attack, rampaging through the tight balls of tiny fish.
My game plan is typically to cruise along water depths in the 25-50 foot range, looking for signs of life.
The best scenario: Fish blitzing on the surface, trapping anchovies against the “ceiling” of their environment. This is marked by screeching terns and black-headed gulls, and lots of splashing. You’ll often see a sheen on the surface of the water, and smell the oils from the diced and ground anchovies. If you do find this, the game is to motor your boat within 50 feet of the school, cut your motor, and slip quietly into the school. Leave the motor off until the fish move, making sure that they are also no longer on your depth finder. Anchovies will often orient to your boat for cover, and this may keep striped bass and bluefish directly under you for several minutes.
The second-best scenario: You see an oily sheen on the surface of the water, and a few birds resting in or near the sheen. This usually means that the fish are feeding under the birds, or a blitz had recently occured, and the fish may still be there. In either case, follow the same guidelines: Cruise towards the birds, cut your motor, and start fishing, looking on your depth finder for marks.
Fly tackle here is light: 5wt to 8wt rods rigged with integrated-head sinking lines. 5′ of 20 lb test leader (40 lb if bluefish are present), and small flies in the 1.5 to 2 inch range. The fish will often becomes extremely selective this time of year, and unless your fly is the right length and profile, they will refuse to eat it.
Spanish Mackerel are one of my favorite fish to target on the bay, and are usually only available for a few weeks each summer, occurring as far north as Poplar Island. I have found them regularly around Solomons Island at Drum Point, and along the channel edge of the Eastern Shore. Usually, they are mixed in with bluefish. To make these fish eat, use a fast retrieve (I prefer a two handed retrieve with my rod tucked under my armpit).
Bluefish are another favorite, and may be anywhere from 8″ long to 20″ long during the summer. If you find the smaller versions, it’s likely that there are no larger fish in the area. My favorite areas for big bluefish are the channel edges along the Eastern Shore.
Striped bass are present in the summer, but not in great numbers. They tend to lay low in the heat, but do sometimes feed on the surface. Usually, smaller striped bass are most active in the summer (8″ to 16″) but fishermen to the North (Annapolis and Kent Island areas) have been doing well on 30″+ fish for several years.
One word of caution: If you are doing catch and release, do not hold the fish out of the water for more than a few seconds. Fishing mortality rates for summer-time striped bass are absurdly high, and if possible, you should release the fish without swinging it on-board. If you are keeping fish to eat (especially fresh bluefish and mackerel) take as many pictures as you want.