Fly Fishing and Light Tackle on the ESVA

After having mixed success fishing the Eastern Shore of Virginia (ESVA) this year, I and my buddy (a local) gave it another go.  The weather this past weekend was favorable, and so I made the drive from DC with fly rods and spinning rods in tow, as well as a new fly…a secret weapon in the hunt for fly rod cobia.

The boat, and my brand new cobia fly – the result of years of trying to get these fish to eat feathers and fur.

Arriving in mid afternoon on Sunday, we headed out onto the nearby flats, hoping to fish for speckled trout until the wind died and we could hunt for cobia.  We fished the flats, had a few tugs from houndfish and pinfish, but struck out for the first hour or two.  With the wind dying, we made the run to a nearby artifical reef, found we had it all to ourself, and started fishing with metal jigs.  The wreck was covered in bluefish in the 14″-18″ range, and they provided non-stop fun.  To avoid the blues, we kept our rigs tight to the reef, and were rewarded with two beautiful puppy drum of 4-5 lb, and a half dozen black seabass.

A pretty black sea bass from the reef.  These guys were willing to eat metal jigs.


We drifted multiple parts of the reef, and connected with a doormat flounder, searobins and oyster crackers, and even a large southern stingray that took a large jig.

Doormat flounder that took a jig intended for bull drum.
Fighting what turned out to be a large southern stingray.

We headed in for the night, on the way running into multiple schools of small bluefish under masses of terns, gulls, and pelicans.  That evening we cleaned our catch, and had a dinner of fresh flounder, bluefish, and drum.

Dinner (and future dinners).

Day 2 brought calm conditions, and we began on the flats again.  After a quick take from a speckled trout, we started moving around, looking for activity in our go-to spots.

Speckled trout – the first fish on the flats before we hit the mother load.

Sure enough, we found a section of crystal clear water where schoolie striped bass and puppy drum were milling around in mass, attacking mullet and killifish.  We fished these by sight casting to the roving schools, and to individual fish, as they appeared in casting range.

I was rigged with my new 6wt Sage Motive, and a floating line.  My fly was a “mini-game changer” that I had tied, and it was dynamite on the cruising striped bass.  Multiple times six or more bass would chase the fly, competing with one another for the right to eat it.

Striped bass on a home-made mini-game changer.

The red drum were different, and only wanted a dark colored clouser minnow.  I would cast the clouser to a cruising fish, leading it by 5′, strip the fly quickly, and let it fall to the bottom.  Once on the bottom, the drum would cruise in to look at it, and a small twitch and long pause would result in an aggressive take.

Puppy drum in hand.

This fishing reminded me of the barrier islands of the everglades, with the water around us filled with cruising stingrays, 5 pound jumping mullet, and schools of puppy drum and other fish.

Releasing a puppy drum into the flats.

As the tide dropped, and the fishing slowed, by friend poled the boat off the flat using his sabiki rod, and I was able to make a few more casts at cruising fish.  With the wind starting to appear, we left the flats with cobia on our minds, and headed out to our go-to buoys.  On the way there, we ran into a school of cocktail bluefish (10″-12″ fish), and caught a couple for live lining to finicky cobia.

As we approached the first buoy, I spotted two three-foot cobia on top, light brown in the surrounding emerald water.  With the sun at our backs, we set up a good drift, and I made the most of my first shot.  The large fly landed ten feet from the buoy, and as the current sucked the fly towards it, I stripped the fly gently.  The fly wiggled and gyrated as I had hoped it would, and a cobia swam from under the buoy, cruised to right behind the fly, and engulfed it with a splash.  It was an amazing take, and as I struck home, the fish sounded.  Line flew through my hands as I tried to put the fish on the reel quickly.  As I did that, the line went slack, and my heart sank:  The hooks pulled.

Defeated, I gave my buddy the word to get a live bluefish into the mix.  As we drifted away with the current, the live bluefish swam the opposite direction, moving under the buoy.  Free lined, the only indication that a cobia had eaten it came when the line started to change angles.  My friend struck the fish, and was immediately tight to a nice cobia.  The fish made a long run, and then exploded from the water on one side of the buoy.  It submerged, and continued to make its long run.  But something was wrong – the fish exploded from the water on the right side of the buoy, but the line was pointing to the left side of the buoy.  The fish had wrapped us.

While my friend fought the fish, I drove the boat around the buoy to unwrap the line.  At any second, I expected the barnacles on the buoy to cut the line, but it never happened.  We freed the line from the buoy, and were soon fighting the fish again.  After several more minutes of battle, the fish came to net.

A nice ESVA cobia.
No touch – a close up up the retractable spikes on the back of a cobia.

After that victory, we cruised around, hitting more buoys and structure.  I had one more shot at a cobia on the same buoy later in the day, and while the fish snuck out to investigate the fly, it did not take it.  It very likely was the same fish that shook my hook earlier that day.  We did try to fish it with jigs after it sounded (when we drifted into the buoy), but without success.  That was the last cobia we saw.

Despite the cobia struggles (typical stuff for the fly rod cobia hunter), we did run across more large schools of small bluefish, and I caught many more on my 6wt and a floating line.  Big time fun, and these fish helped me to get a bit of confidence back after the lost cobia.

In the late afternoon, we called it quits.  I had to get on the road, and my friend needed to take a recovery nap.  We parted, and promised to fish again sooner rather than later.

Night on the shore, where water meets land, land meets sky, and living things pass between them all.


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