Fishing the Eastern Shore of Virginia – September

I don’t fish alone, at least not often.

Fishing alone is a purely selfish endeavor.  There is no sharing – not of the hunt, the wind and water, the smells, the fish themselves.  No sharing of disappointments, the cracking of natures’ puzzles, or (if you’re lucky) the joys of success.

Fishing with good friends is different.  It is one of the greatest joys in the world, a return to our tribal roots.

I come to appreciate this truth after spending a week in Northampton County, on Virginia’s beautiful Eastern Shore.  With me I had my boat, my rods and reels, and a cast of good and decent people (old and new friends) who joined me.  We spent every day fishing, at least for a few hours.  The weather was fair – hot and humid, with low winds.  And we caught fish – not fantastic numbers, but enough to keep things interesting, and in most cases, they were my friends’ first encounters with the beasts of the Chesapeake Bay.

The beginning of my week included a run down from my home port of Solomons, MD with a friend, Jake.  Jake, an ardent and passionate fisherman (although truly ardent and passionate about most things), had only this year jumped in to saltwater fly fishing feet first.

After a 3 hour run to the rental property by water, my friends John and Steve joined us.  John, nearly a local “Northamptonite”, and Steve, an infrequent fisherman and new father, shook hands with Jake, and we took off to find our fish.

Our first evening brought small fly rod-caught bluefish and one mid-sized bull drum to the boat, a burnished steel creature glistening in the sun.

Snapper on the long rod.
An oyster toad off an artificial reef.  Not the fish we were looking for.
The fish we were looking for:  A bull red drum, caught jigging.

We headed in early with the sun still low to cook dinner, drink good drinks, and sit on the dock by the creek.

Views on the way in.

That night we sat under a vivid and clear sky, watching shooting stars flash across the brilliant haze of the milky way.

The next day brought a late departure (after a late night of drinking).  It didn’t matter – cobia are late risers, too.

With a bucket of live eels, a 10wt fly rod, and a few bucktails and jigs, we approached each buoy along the way to the bay bridge tunnel with excitement and possibility.  The cobia were sparse, and we struggled.

Staring at a buoy.  Will it hold a cobia?  Or maybe four cobia?

After striking out in the morning, we enjoyed a long lunch on dry land in Cape Charles, which bustled with holiday tourists.  As a counterpoint to the morning’s optimism, we approached the second half of the day with heavy skepticism.  Where the hell were these fish?  And, as is often the case when fishing, nature doesn’t follow your script.  As it happened, we landed three cobia that afternoon, the largest approaching four feet in length.

Steve with his big cobia – his largest fish ever.  Big cobia love live eels, and this one was no different.

Two sucked down eels next to buoys, requiring quick rod and boat handling to land them, unwrapping the fish from the abrasive buoy chains.  The fight of these fish was wonderful – long initial runs, and then a brutal tug of war boat-side.  It amazes me how easily a worn-out cobia can scoot by a net – just a little shimmy of the fishes shoulders and you go right back to the tug-of-war.

A third cobia came that day when drifting through pods of leaping menhaden, motor off.  The menhaden were being harassed by small cobia and sharks, which we would occasionally see swimming on the surface around the schools.  Standing on the bow, we cast jigs to the few fish we did see.  In the case of one fish, Jake was able to make a picture perfect cast, landing a 1 oz jig within 20 feet of the fish.  The fish turned, and Jake reeled like hell.  As the fish followed the lure back at warp speed, it refused to eat the jig (a typical cobia move).  At that moment, no more than 40 feet from the boat, Jake simply stopped reeling, and the weight of the lure caused a sharp direction change – straight down to the bay’s floor.  The fish darted down, ate the jig, and Jake set the hook.  Picture perfect.

Jake’s first cobia, released shortly after this photograph.  A live eel was the ticket for this little guy.
Jake’s second cobia – a beautiful black and white juvenile that was released.  This fish ate a small jig, and required a bit of finessing to get a bite.

That night we ate the largest cobia for dinner, it’s flesh firm and mild.

Steve with his cobia (the “before” picture).
From the ocean to our dinner plate (the “after” shot).

After the highlights of day two, day three saw a brief morning run with Jake and Steve to hunt more cobia, but the single fish found was uninterested.  After a quick stop at a reef to hunt for drum without success, we headed back in, and Jake and Steve left the shore, returning to urban life.

Within a couple of hours of their departure, my friend Percy arrived, and again I and my boat departed to chase cobia.

Percy with an early bluefish.

Percy’s first day was nearly a knock out success, as he landed several bluefish, and hooked into his first cobia casting a jig.

This cobia hook-up is another example of why these fish are so amazing:

We sighted two mid-sized cobia on a buoy, hovering along the chain.  After I cast a fly to them and managed a quick eat and spitting of the fly, we upped our game and started working a jig.  The two cobia followed the jig initially after pinpoint casting from Percy, but wouldn’t eat.  Again, typical cobia nonsense leaving us a bit frustrated.

Pondering our next move as I moved the boat for another drift by the buoy, one of the cobia ate the jig while Percy let it drag behind the motoring boat.  Simply amazing stuff.

After a few minutes of fight (expertly handled by Percy), the fish was boat side.  What came next is the stuff of fishing legend:  The cobia spit the hook, sat stunned in the water for what seemed to be an eternity, and as the jig fell, ate the lure a second time.  Stunned myself, I yelled at Percy to set the hook, but Percy stood un-blinking and frozen.  By the time Percy raised the rod, the cobia was gone, disappearing into the green water.  Again, simply amazing stuff.

After losing the cobia, we headed to a nearby reef, and brought out the heavy rods to jig for red drum.  These fish didn’t disappoint.  I quickly hooked up and landed a smaller drum in the 35″ size range, a giant in most other places but not in this part of the world.  After a quick fight and quicker release, we began jigging again, hoping for a true giant.

A small bull drum quickly boated and released.

Within 15 minutes, I set the hook into something massive, and the animal bore down and peeled line in a long and distant run.  No head shakes.  Just a determined charge away from the boat.  I jumped behind the helm of the boat, started up the engine, and gave chase.  This was a fish that could spool me.

Having a difficult time both steering the boat and fighting the fish, I wisely passed the rod off the Percy, who was hesitant to take the rod (as I had hooked the fish, and not him).  After a couple words of encouragement, Percy stepped out onto the bow and started to fight the monster.  The fight was probably no more than 15 minutes, the tackle appropriately sized to the animal (thanks John for the broomstick-sized loaner-rods), and as the fish came into view, we were both blown away.  The question at that point was obvious:  Is this fish too big to net?

The brassy body of a big drum comes into view.

We made the next work, and after dislodging the jig, Percy gently cradled the monster for a backwards-falling hero shot.

A very big Chesapeake Bay redfish, and a fish that required serious collaboration.

We released the fish quickly after a few photos, idling the boat forwards while holding the fish by the jaws.  After a few minutes, the fish began to kick its tail and bite down on my hands – good signs that it was ready for release.  After another minute of forced oxygenation, I released the fish…and it swam from my hands and rolled onto its side, floating on the surface.  Its swim bladder was full of air, either the result of depressurization when rising to the surface, or some other internal trauma sustained during handling or the fight itself.

As the fish struggled on the surface, obviously recovered enough to swim in circles but not able to right itself, we drove our boat in circles, wary for sharks or birds that may want to harass the fish.  After giving the animal a couple minutes of space to fix the problem on its own, we motored slowly toward it, hoping to right the drum by hand.  Cutting the motor, we floated to the fish…and directly over it.  Not my proudest moment of boat handling by any stretch.

Surprisingly, the boat forced the fish deeper underwater, and we scanned around the hull and motor, we realized that the fish had finally righted itself (a service provided by the boat in this case) and swam away.  We waited there for a few minutes, full of fears of seeing a mortally wounded 60 year-old bull drum suddenly float back to the surface.  Thankfully, that never happened, and we headed back to the house for the night, greeted by girlfriends and negroni cocktails.

Gorgeous night on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

After more dinner and drinks, I again went out to the dock to take in the stars, bringing the latest arrivals with me.  As we walked, marsh crabs skittered across the boards of the dock, so small they could be mistaken for crickets.  The surrounding creek was alive, spitting and boiling and breathing with fish and shrimp from edge to edge.  And the noseeums were there too.  Though not in oppressive numbers, they were enough to chase off a couple of our group and lead the rest of us back indoors.

Day four saw Percy and I head out around 11AM to hunt for cobia, with Percy the designated caster as we inspected each buoy.  We quickly found a cobia near our home port, and Percy expertly cast, hooked, and landed a nice three-foot specimen.

Cobia with a chartreuse jig mustache.  As they say, “If it ain’t chartreuse…it ain’t no use”.

As with most cobia, it refused to be netted, making repeated short runs under and around the boat with each attempt to land the fish.  Eventually we prevailed, and photographed and released the fish unharmed.

Percy with a nice juvenile cobia.  Landed in the rubber net and quickly released after this photo, it shot off without much of a revival.

After this fish, we struggled to find any more on the buoys or in open water, and headed in to Cape Charles for lunch at “The Shanty” with our girlfriends and two other late arriving friends from Solomons, Nick and Dana.  After a couple beers and a massive meal, we sleepily headed back out, leaving our girlfriends and the late arriving couple to wander Cape Charles (and hopefully buy us some ice cream).

With the cobia under our belts and time limited, we decided to focus on another local reef and fish for bluefish on fly and light tackle.  As expected, the fish were there in force, the strong running tide bringing current and breaking fish to the surfaces and edges of the reef.

A fly caught snapper bluefish.

We enjoyed steady action on bluefish to four pounds, and for an hour, watched as bluefish cartwheeled around the boat with our flies and lures in their jaws.  We kept a few larger fish for dinner, providing enough thick fillets for the entire group.

Fat bluefish in the 2-4 lb size class.  The perfect size.

That night, we enjoyed the fresh cooked bluefish grilled in butter, onion, lemon, and garlic, adobo-seasoned cobia from a couple days earlier (still delicious), and a mix of greens cooked up by the non-fishing guests.  Surprisingly, the bluefish was the biggest hit, thanks in no part to its freshness.

An excellent photograph by Percy that needed to go into this post.

Day five was Percy’s final day on the shore, and so he, I, and my friend Nick took an early start, leaving the dock as the sun had only just risen.  On the way out to the bay from our home creek, we stopped and fished a small tidal rip, finding the first and only speckled trout of the trip.

Speckled seatrout in miniature.

After a quick photograph of the “spike” trout, we released it and headed out to look for bluefish.

With visions of four pound blues in our heads, we again found our local reef alive with blitzing, breaking fish.  The water was without waves, flat and silent in the morning light, the only sounds coming occasionally from our motor and the feeding bluefish.   Small, thin menhaden and spearing scattered across the top of the reef, and we hooked bluefish after bluefish on fly and spinning gear in the underwater melee.  After some time, a second school of breaking fish began to work the edges of the reef.  These weren’t bluefish, but Spanish Mackerel, an elegant, toothy fish from the fringes of the Caribbean.

A nice spanish mackerel from a morning blitz.

Spanish frequently enter the Chesapeake Bay in the summer time, and tend to school with bluefish when and where both species find the right mix of current and open water baitfish.  Casting small, lightly weighted spoons each time these new arrivals flashed on the surface, I hooked up twice.  After a few drag scorching runs, each was brought aboard and placed into a chilled cooler – dinner for that night.

As the blitz died off with the rising sun, we headed south to again hunt cobia, our livewell full of yearling bluefish.  We did find a group of cobia on one of the many buoys we checked, but none were enthusiastic about eating a lure or bluefish, and after a few passes and casts, they disappeared from view.  We headed back in around noon, leaving Percy on shore to head back to New York.

Percy takes aim.

The afternoon of Day 5 saw plenty of non-fishing activities, including a sandbar swim with Nick and our girlfriends that we shared with countless baby stingrays and blue crabs.  And Day 6 saw a quick shot at a mid-morning red drum, but without success.  After fishing hard for the better part of five days, I was honestly tired, something I never thought I would say about fishing this part of the world.  And with that, spending more of my time relaxing with friends and enjoying the scenery (and not chasing this fish or that fish) was very, very satisfying.

After a days’ worth of recovery and limited fishing, the evening of Day 6 saw the departure of my friends Nick and Dana (headed back to Solomons) and the return of “Northamptonite” John.  We headed out around 5:00 PM from our home port, hoping to find a willing cobia but quickly giving up on the venture (cobia tend to congregate on buoys between 10AM and 4PM, at least most of the time).  We switched focus to bull drum, and began jigging our selected reef with broomstick rods and 4 oz jigs.  After multiple drifts without success, I hooked up, coming firm to large fish.  This drum, uncharacteristically for the species, made multiple long runs between shakes of its head and changes of direction.

After ten minutes of athletic sprints and dashes, I brought the animal to the surface.  And as it broke the water’s surface, it began to drum – thrumming emanating from the fish’s body and resonating through the hull of the boat.  With the sun setting, the drumming redfish was an otherworldly vision, refracted gold on the surface of the sea.

A beautiful bull drum, gilded in sunlight.

I pulled the fish from the water, laid it across my lap, and we took a quick picture before releasing the fish back to the reef.  It swam away after a short revival, chewing on my hands until I released my grip.

A gift.  Nothing more, nothing less.

We headed back in as day turned to night with a spectacular sunset.

Chesapeake sunset.

That night we celebrated with whisky on the screened-in porch, katydids whirring in the dark.  Six days into this trip, I was nothing if not thankful.  Thankful to have so many friends come to this beautiful place with me, and to have those friends share in the experience of hunting and traveling in its waters.

My final day, day seven, saw my luck run out:  I would need to leave a day early due to a coming cold front.  While I could likely make the voyage home to Solomons in four foot seas, it would not be pleasant, and would likely take between 2 and 3 extra hours.  And in a worst case scenario, conditions could worsen, making a return trip impossible.  After a slow morning of packing and errands, I left the dock in late afternoon alone.  Along the way, I hunted for cobia, checking buoys along the shipping channel.  I found nothing – only empty and calm water – and quickly decided to stop fishing and simply enjoy the beauty and views of the drive home.

And the views did not disappoint.

Views on the return trip, looking out over Smith Point and the Potomac River.

A week removed from this trip, I sit here and think about how fortunate I was, and am, to do something like this.  And although the fishing was good, the time spent with friends will be what I remember most.

As it should be.




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