Published in The Fisherman Magazine by Ric Burnley
There is no excuse for anglers in Hampton Roads to ever suffer cabin fever. For Virginia striper fishermen, there is no down season, no off season, no holiday break from striper fishing. Even when the season is closed, crews fishing the lower Chesapeake can still catch and release trophy rockfish all night and all day.
Late last winter, I joined a crew of fool hearty anglers aboard Ken Neill’s 31 Albemarle, Healthy Grin for an all night fishing mission to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
The water temperature was in the 40s and it had been weeks since anyone had caught any bass in the ocean, but it only took a rumor of big fish around the pilings of the High Level to get us to spend a night fishing under the bridge.
The first time I saw Ken Neill and the crew on Healthy Grin in action was on another cold night a few years back. It was close to 3 AM and my buddies and I were anchored west of one of the huge pilings that support the High Level. We had been there all night, freezing and shivering, and trying to catch a striped bass.
I was half asleep with my rod in my hand when a 31 Albemarle rumbled up to the piling next to us. The boat spun around and backed hard to within a few inches of the concrete support. When the boat was in position, two anglers in the cockpit swung live eels on three-way rigs over the side and dropped their baits to the bottom. It only took a second for one of the guys to hook-up.
If I hadn’t been wracked with cold or deprived of sleep, I might have convinced my crew to try the same thing. But the image would stick with me until eventually I found myself part of the Health Grin crew, standing in the same cockpit preparing to drop my own eel to a hungry striper waiting below.
Ken’s crew uses a simple fishfinder rig to get their bait to the bottom. Start with a medium heavy action conventional rod and matching reel spooled with 50 pound braided line. Then slide a bead, a 2/0 swivel, and another bead over the running line. Use a Palomar knot to attach the line to a 2/0 swivel. Next, take a 9/0 Owner cutting point J-hook and snell it to 3 feet of 80 pound fluorocarbon and tie the leader to the 2/0 swivel with a uni knot. Hook the eel by driving the point of the hook up through its jaw and out one eye.
Ken backed his boat as close as possible to the pilings and we dropped our eels to the bottom. To slow the eel’s descent, I hold the bait in my hand while letting the sinker fall to the bottom. When I feel the weight touch down, I release my eel and crank in the slack as the bait slowly descends.
Ken favors the big pilings under the highest section of the south bound bridge, but any of the pilings from the shore of Fisherman’s Island to the shoals at the Inner Middle Ground can hold fish.
It didn’t take long to verify the rumor of big striper at the High Level. After a few drops we had already picked up a couple nice fish. I even caught two striper by casting a 2 ounce bucktail from the bow. We worked the pilings while the tide picked up speed and when the current hit full blast, we decided to switch tactics.
When the incoming current picked up speed, and the wind joined in, we moved to the north bound span of the bridge. Ken positioned the boat far upcurrent of the bridge and deployed the anchor. After letting out over 200 feet of line, the boat was still dragging along in the swift current. However, the anchor slowed our drift enough that we were able to deploy lines and catch fish.
Our spread consisted of eels under bobbers, freefloating, and on fishfinders. The bobber rigs started with a 9/0 Owner cutting point J-hook snelled to 3 feet of 80 pound fluorocarbon. The leader is tied to a 2/0 snap swivel that is clipped to a 2 to 6 ounce inline sinker. The sinker is attached to another snap swivel that is tied to the running line. I use a break-away float and set the lines at 10 to 25 foot increments. The bobbers are dropped back in the current until they are floating just in front of the shadow of the bridge.
The fishfinder rigs are the same as mentioned above and dropped directly below the boat or cast out a few feet from the stern. The deadliest rig has no weight and is floated back into the current so that the eel is swimming under the lights falling from the bridge.
As the boat would drift back into the lights, rods would start going down. By the time we had two or three fish on, Ken would give the order to clear the lines and we would pull the anchor and start the slow drift again. It was cold and nasty, but once we started catching, no one seemed to notice the weather.
We caught fish (including three striper over 44 inches that were eligible for Virginia Trophy Citation) until the current died and the wind laid out.
The bite died with the current, so Ken moved the boat to quiet spot between the two spans and dropped the anchor. We set out the spread and half the crew disappeared into the cabin while Bob Manus and I took turns dozing and watching the lines in the cockpit.
On the Troll We waited out the turn of the tide until dawn, then pulled the lines and headed out to look for working birds and feeding rockfish. Our search ended when Ken got a call from Charles Southall alerting us of a blitz going off west of the second island on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We raced to the scene and found hundreds of birds diving on a huge school of fish.
For the third time, we switched tactics, this time we deployed bunker spoons on Mojos and behind 6 to 12 ounce inline sinkers and 24 to 48 ounce Mojo jigs. It wasn’t long until rods were bouncing under the weight of heavy rockfish. The bite lasted until a fleet of commercial gill netters swooped in and scooped up the fish.
We had had our fun. We had fished for almost 24 hours, pulling every trick out of our hat to catch and release dozens of trophy rockfish. Most important, we had cured our cabin fever.