Striped bass can be caught many different ways. Most methods that catch a lot of fish, do not catch very many big fish.
Of course, what constitutes a big fish depends on what size you are used to catching past season, on the Healthy Grin, we boated over fifty fish, 42 to 50 inches long. This is how we fish.When we are fishing for big fish, we want to discourage smaller fish from striking. That nice 32 inch fish, that gives you such a good fight when casting bucktails, is not what we are after.
We sacrifice numbers of fish to try for bigger fish. Big fish can be caught any way stripers are caught, but your odds go down if you are spending all of your time fighting smaller fish.
Primarily, we target big fish either by drifting live bait or by trolling. When we are using live bait, eels are what we usually use and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is where we are fishing. Other baits, such as croaker, bunker, or legal sized gray trout, are also very effective. We fish the CBBT because it concentrates fish. When fishing live bait, you are not going to cover a lot of water. In open water, we prefer to troll, but live bait will work wherever you find a concentration of fish. The basic rig consists of a fish finder rig with enough weight to keep your bait down near the bottom. Hook size will vary on your bait size. 7/0 is a good choice for a medium sized eel. Circle hooks work well if you use them correctly. With a conventional hook, you want to set the hook after letting the fish get the bait in its mouth, a slight hesitation. With a circle hook, you let the fish take the bait longer, and then start cranking. If you can’t resist setting the hook, use conventional hooks. If you are gut-hooking a lot of fish, try circle hooks. In place of the fish finder rig, you can use an egg sinker above the swivel. 3-4 feet of about 60 pound mono attaches your swivel to your hook. When the current is not moving fast, we start on the up current side of the bridge and drift through the bridge along the side of the pilings. When the current is moving faster, we will pull up to the down current side of a piling and use the motor to hold us in the eddy. The eel is dropped to the bottom and then cranked up a few turns of the reel handle to avoid snagging.
A couple of variations can be used when you have a good concentration of big fish. One is to tie up to the piling and fish in the eddy. Another is to anchor up on the up current side of the bridge and put out baits like you were cobia fishing. When doing this, you can also put out a Stretch 25+ and let the current make it wobble up under the bridge. I fish the CBBT at night, mostly because the boat traffic is not as bad at 2 am as it is at 2 pm.
When trolling, we use big baits. Along the CBBT, I troll 2 eels on the up current side of the bridge. These are natural eels that I have rigged like a rubber eel. I use mono, but the set up is like a wire-line rig. Main line to a 3-way swivel, a dropper (3-4 feet) to a big sinker, and a 9-10 foot leader to the eel. The leader is about 80 pound test. The lip (called a tin squid head) in front of the eel makes it swim like it is alive. The rods can be placed in the rod holders. Unlike wire-lining a bucktail, you don’t need to give the eel any extra action. I also don’t drag the eels along the pilings like with a bucktail. The fish will come get the eel.
When fishing open water, we will pull more baits. We still pull at least one eel but will often trade the other one for a different rig. We replace the weight with a 24 ounce jig with a 13 inch shad body. In place of the eel, we put a large spoon. Either a big Crippled Alewive or a big Pet Spoon. We will pull two big spoons off the outriggers with in-line sinkers in front of them. We pull a Stretch 30+ and at times will pull a Stretch 25+. With a good crew this is what we can handle on my boat. If I am alone, I will cut back to 4 rods. Stretch 25+s can catch some really big fish but they will also catch a lot of small and medium sized fish. If they become a problem, we stop putting it out. When using a Stretch 25+, I change the hooks right out of the box. Even the newer, heavy duty version has hooks that bend too easily. On the Stretch 30+ you need to watch the hooks and the split ring on the front hook. If it is not round, change it. We’ve lost some big fish because of a failed split ring. The longest fish we caught this season came on a rigged eel. The heaviest came on a big Crippled Alewive spoon. The next heaviest came on a Stretch 30+. In all, we caught five fish over 40 pounds up to 51 pounds. This was done by a boat of weekend fishermen during a single season.
There are two main areas to find numbers of big fish in open water. During the fall bay season, the waters from the Cut Channel on down to the Cell and then down to the Concrete Ships is a big productive stretch. The key is the deep water. Near 36A, off of Cape Charles the water is over 100 feet deep. The fish and bait seem to use this deep water as a highway up and down the bay. These big fish can be found shallow but there is usually some deep water near by. Look for feeding birds to help you find the fish. The area from York Spit Light to Mobjack Bay produces big fish every year. During the winter ocean season, you have a narrow strip of water you are allowed to fish. Luckily, this happens to be where many big fish are found this time of year. From the beach or the demarcation line at the mouth of the bay on out to 3 nautical miles is where you are allowed to fish and big fish can be found all along this stretch of water.
If you fish like this, you are not going to have 50-100 fish days but you just may get that fifty pounder.