Summer on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is what you make of it. Want to float pin-fish for Tarpon? Bottom fish for croaker? Sight cast to cobia and red drum? It’s all possible, and depending on the conditions, available to the angler with a little knowledge (hopefully of the local variety).
I spent Thursday night through Saturday morning near Cape Charles, VA, staying with a good friend and able fisherman. We were intent on fishing for cobia, and with good weather in the forecast, things were looking up. This is one of my favorite fisheries in the bay, and one that not many people know much about. When the winds are low and the sun high, you can cruise along likely areas (buoys and channel markers) and spot cobia to fling a fly at.
Thursday night fishing kicked off around 6PM when I arrived, and despite the favorable winds, we did not see any cobia cruising or on the local buoys. With the sun setting, we headed to an artificial reef and enjoyed steady bluefish on spin and fly in the 1 lb range. Spanish mackerel were present as well, porpoising out of the water, arcing through the air at eye height.
We returned to shore under the light of a full moon, and planned the next day. While we had knowledge of where we could find tarpon on the seaside (the eastern shore barrier islands), we decided that the reportedly hot cobia fishing would be more worth our time. While I love fishing for tarpon, I know they are extremely temperamental, and hard to predict. Of course, the same can be said for cobia.
The next morning we set out from the Wise Point boat launch by Fisherman Island. The winds were extremely low, the sea state glass, and we cruised along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, blind casting jigs to the pilings. We never saw any cobia, though dolphin and sea turtles were easy to spot. With the bridge not producing, we headed out to a couple buoys in the ocean. The water temperature was cool – 69F, too cold for Cobia. We did find large schools of snapper bluefish under terns and gulls, and after catching a couple, we made a decision to head back into the warmer waters of the Bay.
Heading north, we found more terns and gulls, and more snapper (10″-12″) bluefish. Ignoring these fish, we continued north. Just as we were nearing a fishy-looking buoy, a storm blew in from the mainland. With a two foot chop, and 15 knot winds, I grabbed my 10 wt, rigged with a 6″ marabou menhaden fly and an integrated sinking line. We lined up to drift within 60 feet of the buoy, and I laid a cast out, landing my fly on the up-current side. The current and sinking line swept the fly towards and under the buoy, and I quickly stripped the fly back out. I felt a small tug as I began the retrieve, and as the fly came into view, 3 cobia to 30″ were chasing it. We repeated the same drift, and each time, the cobia would dash out into the choppy seas, swiping at the fly. Eventually I was able to get one to eat at the side of the boat, and I set the hook. The fish dove, shaking its head, and the fly pulled free. Shit. We tried another few drifts after that, working deeper jigs, but the fish had disappeared.
We headed further north, hitting another buoy. We lined the boat up for another drift, the sea-state slowly calming, and I laid another cast in front of the buoy. Strip-strip-strip-tug…and as I brought the fly into view, eight cobia were chasing it! I tried again and again, swapping patterns and playing with the depth of my fly, but the fish, while curious, would not eat. My fishing partner pulled out a spin rod and a small rapala plug, and as we drifted away, landed a perfect cast next to the buoy. He immediately had a hit, set the hook, and the drag started to sing! 10 seconds later, the hooks pulled. Shit. Looking at the reel, it seemed the drag was extremely low – not tight enough to set the hook on a bony-mouthed cobia.
With the sun setting, we headed to another artificial reef, and with heavy action spinning rods, jigged 4 oz bucktails in the slack tide current. Immediately we both hooked up, and began a heavy tug of war with two massive red drum. These fish are incredibly powerful, their head shakes and tail slaps on the line resonating into your hands. Within 10 minutes, I had boated my red drum.
After posing for a couple pictures, he was revived and released. The second drum was not so easily beaten, and after another 10 minutes, it too was boat-side. While my red drum was in the 25 lb class, my fishing partner’s was pushing 40 lb. After a few pictures, this fish was released as well.
The next day we headed out again, looking for cobia. While cruising the waters around a reef, we did see a big animal spinning and swirling on the surface. We slowly (and quietly as possible) cruised into the area where we had seen this splashing, expecting to see a 60lb cobia. After a few minutes of silence, a massive sea turtle surfaced, floating off the bow of the boat. The turtle was enormous, and as it watched us, we cast around it. As cobia often follow sea turtles and eagle rays, we hoped that this large of a turtle may have a couple in tow, but none were visible or hit our lures.
Failing to see fish cruising on the surface, we headed to the previous day’s buoys. While the first was barren, the second did have a small cobia on it. While it would not take my marabou menhaden, I switched to a half-and-half, hoping the jigging action would entice the fish. It did, and I set the hook boatside, watching the fish take the fly. The fish immediately sounded, and as I fought the fish, I started reeling in the excess line to the reel. 10 seconds later, the hook again pulled free. Shit.
As the clock struck 11 AM, my partner and I headed off the water. I had an engagement that night in DC with family, and while I had not landed any cobia, I had enjoyed exciting fishing for the last two days, good company, and good (mostly) weather. It was a great trip, and with any luck, I’ll be back again next August, throwing flies at the Chesapeake Bay’s most challenging and frustrating fish.