Looking out over the Chesapeake Bay, the red and orange colors of the rising sun blended at the horizon. My waking eyes could not differentiate between the sky and the water for several minutes until the entire circle of the sun was above the water. I began to prepare for a morning on the water. It was 33 degrees, I’m sure the wind on the Bay would make it feel colder, especially on the boat as we made our way to search for rockfish and red drum. I needed to be prepared for the cold and wind, remembering there is no such thing as bad weather.
I met my three fishing companions and the captain/guide at the docks before 8am. The captain had the energy of someone confident in their abilities but experienced enough to know the personalities of his clients could impact the vibe of the day. He made some last few preparations for the trip between his lock box and the boat with purposeful movements. Thanks to Covid and distance, I had only met my other companions previously over phone or zoom. It was great to put faces to names and shake hands with people I’ve been working with for over a year. The captain welcomed us on the boat with a gruff warmth while instructing us how to step onto the boat without falling in the water or twisting an ankle to start the day.
All three of my fishing friends were avid spin fishermen and had lots of experience fishing the Bay. My time with a fly rod in my hand wasn’t likely to correspond with a high level of competency on this trip. There were a half dozen St. Croix rods and reels set up with soft plastic paddle tail jig lures. How different could it be from casting a streamer?
The captain guided the boat toward several gatherings of gulls, terns, and pelicans but continued on. Porpoises flanked the boat in search of their breakfast. “Terns can be liars, especially this time of year.” The captain responded to the inquisitive gazes of our group toward the circling birds to our left. “I’ve got the spot for the stripers.”
Passing the red and green channel markers, we slowed rapidly to eliminate the wake. The reduced wind allowed the sun to warm the chill on my face and hands. The captain instructed, “We’re going to hit the drop off, along that shadow line just off the docks.” Bob, just to my right, made the first cast. With a flick of his wrist he launched the lure within inches of a pile of the dock.
“Done this before huh?” I was impressed with his accurate cast and now I was very nervous that I may look like an idiot in front of my fellow anglers.
“Mainly for largemouth, I live near Virginia Beach and go fishing all the time. Fish on!”
He couldn’t even finish his sentence. Within five seconds he was hooked up to a large striped bass. Within two minutes my two friends near the stern of the boat had bent rods and the captain was netting, unhooking and measuring fish one after the other. However, my casting left a bit to be desired. I felt like I was learning to shoot while everyone around me was already a high level sniper. I was forgetting to close the bail of the reel after I casted and forgetting to open it before I casted. Was I going to get skunked?
“Need a fly rod?” The jokes were starting, I knew full on ballbusting was only a few minutes away. Uh oh. “I may!” Under the added pressure my focus sharpened (or I got lucky) and I cast directly to the pile, the jig head hit the pile and dropped into the water. I counted to three to let the lure sink and then I started to wind the lure back to me, changing the pace of the retrieve from fast to slow. Bam! “Got one!” The excitement of feeling the tug on the line erased any of my building self doubt and brought me into the flow of the group.
We drifted over the shelf three times and each had hooked several fish and each landed one keeper in about 45 minutes. In a colorful and fun conversation while pulling in the fish, we learned about the struggles of the Bay fishery and the history and development of the region. We were all smiles and excitement, brought back to our youth by telling fishing stories and remembering fishing trips.
The captain turned the boat south and directed us to a cove about 25 minutes away. A small high tide was followed by a larger low tide, so water levels in the tidal tributaries were low. “Puppy” drum, juvenile red drum, move their way into the smaller channels chasing bait fish. “They’ll be stacked up on each other, but they’ll be spooky as hell in this low clear water.”
Small clouds of turbulent water showed rapid movement of the drum and slow moving shadows revealed the locations of slow moving schools. The captain moved up to the platform over the center console to help spot the drum. He’d call out the direction (by clock arm position) and distance and we’d do our best to cast to the moving pods of fish. Each drum aggressively struck the lures and rolled on the surface of the water during the fight. With a flash of bright blue from their tails splashing against the water we knew we hooked into a drum. We caught our limit and headed back to the docks. We had a blast.
I haven’t fished with a spinning rod in over fifteen years. I have to admit there have been times fly fishing when spin anglers have moved through the water near me and I got righteous in my mind, thinking I was more advanced. Being on a boat out in the Bay, with a group of fun, like-minded anglers brought me back to being a kid and the joy of catching fish and camaraderie with friends. When I look out at the Bay, I see the beauty of the water, but reading where feeding fish are holding overwhelms me. It was impressive to observe the captain reading the water to find structure, follow the birds, and have extensive knowledge of the bathymetry, ecology, and characteristics of large areas of the Bay. Spin fishing was technical, challenging and fun. I was the least advanced angler on the boat.
Similar to fly fishing, I developed a rhythm while casting with a spinning rod, improving with each cast. The crisp air and the smell of salt water helped each deep breath rejuvenate me. In some ways it was similar to time on the river feeling the rushing water and having my senses filled from the river. Sharing the experience with new friends capped off a great time, similar to fly fishing with my fishing buddies.
It would be difficult to fly fish with three other anglers on a boat. Spinning rods help reduce the space needed to cast, and help anglers of various skill levels catch fish quickly. If you have a chance to get on the water and fish, fly fishing or spin fishing, there is lots to learn and enjoy. Thanks to Captain Tyler of Tidewater Charters!