Giant Atlantic Ocean Stripers

News & Tips: Giant Atlantic Ocean Stripers

Too many people associate fishing strictly with sunny days and shirtsleeve weather. The fact is, some of the most rewarding angling takes place in the dead of winter and early spring.

Claude Bain, former director of the Virginia Saltwater Tournament, lands a 15-pound striper at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel near Virginia Beach.

Nowhere is that more obvious than along the coasts of the mid-Atlantic states of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, and especially the Virginia Beach area. Here anglers bundle up in layer after layer of wool and synthetic clothing and forge out with thermoses of hot coffee to challenge the mighty saltwater striper.

Big fish swarm down the East Coast and congregate along this coastline from December through March, offering the chance for stripers in the 50-, 60-, even 70-pound class. Thirty and 40 pounders are caught every day. Twenty pounders are routine.

Last year striped bass were the most prevalent species registered for awards with the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, which recognizes notable catches among sport anglers. Some 1,331 of the pin-striped bass received award citations, meaning fish over 40 pounds if they were kept or longer than 44 inches if they were released. This was the second highest award total for striped bass in the Tournament's history.

Some 107 of those stripers weighed more than 50 pounds and 22 of them topped 55 pounds. A total of 11 fish weighed 60 pounds or more.

The fishing in 2012 was especially inviting because the weather was a bit milder than normal. Those relatively balmy conditions drew over 100 boats to a small area off the Virginia Coast in the Atlantic Ocean on one particular day, January 20, 2012.

Large numbers of 20- to 40-pound fish were reeled in by the anglers trolling that day. But none of them caught a striper to match Cary Wolfe's.

The Bristow, Virginia angler landed a fish that was certified as a new state record for striped bass. The enormous fish weighed exactly 74 pounds, eclipsing the previous record by one pound. That fish was caught by Fred Barnes, of Chesapeake, nearly four years earlier, to the day, according to Lewis Gillingham, director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament.

Wolfe, an X-ray technician who works at Manassas Hospital in Virginia, was fishing off the Virginia Beach coast near Cape Henry that day. He was trolling with Captain Tim Cannon aboard the charter boat "Bada Bing" when a rod bowed sharply and began throbbing in its holder. Grabbing the rod, Wolfe let the fish make a strong initial run, and then skillfully worked it in by cautiously pumping and reeling.

Fifteen minutes later, the giant striper broke water near the boat. It was then that the captain realized it was too big to fit completely in his landing net. The angler would have to first lead the fish's head over it. Then the captain would scoop the body in, curling and lifting it simultaneously.

But just as the angler pumped the fish towards the net, the hook fell out of its mouth! At that point the fish could have dove and escaped. Fortunately for Wolfe, momentum carried the tired striped bass over the frame of the net and the captain and angler somehow hoisted it aboard.

The anglers shot several photos and figured the big fish would easily weigh over 50 pounds. But when they got to the dock, they were shocked to find out they had landed a new state record. The fish measured 56 3/4 inches long and had a girth of 31 1/2 inches.

It struck a trolled tandem parachute rig, consisting of a pair of 2-ounce big-mouthed nylon skirted jigs, paired with 9-inch rubber shad bodies trolled from a custom rod mated to a Penn 114H reel spooled with 80-pound Ande monofilament line.

Tournament director Lewis Gillingham, who viewed the weigh-in at Long Bay Pointe Marina, said "the fish seemed very long for its girth. It had a large head and not much in its stomach."

Cannon said the fish had spit up several medium-sized eels after it was brought onboard. The fish was hustled down to the Richmond Boat Show and displayed there for the weekend.

Umbrella rigs with plastic shad bodies are popular for trolling.

Wolfe allowed the removal of the big striper's ear bone (otilith) by a member of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission so it could be aged. The fish turned out to be a female with a large egg mass and was 26 years old. That made it a member of the 1986 age class, the same one the previous record caught by Fred Barnes had come from. It is one of the oldest striped bass ever recorded.

To put this fish in perspective, Gillingham noted that "it is one of less than ten stripers weighing 70 pounds or more ever landed on rod and reel along the Atlantic Coast."

The giant stripers of the mid-Atlantic are most abundant inside the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia waters until Dec. 31. After that action moves off into the Atlantic along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts when the bay waters close to fishing for this species.

Whether you're fishing in the Chesapeake Bay waters or offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, the same technique is employed. And for these big stripers that routinely weigh 15-50 pounds that means one thing: trolling.

Use 30-80 pound line and tie on big diving minnow plugs such as the Mann's Stretch series or Rapalas. Alternately, umbrella rigs with groups of jigs or jigheads with soft plastic shad lures are used on a spreader. This rigging allows you to imitate a whole wad of baitfish swimming through the water.

Captain Chuck O'Bier is a master at this fishing and moves his boat down from the mid-bay area near the mouth of the Potomac to Virginia Beach around Thanksgiving to take advantage of the concentration of giant stripers in that area.

"We use nine jigs are on each umbrella rig," says O'Bier, "but seven of them are dummies. Only two have hooks. It looks like a school of baitfish moving through the water. Troll the edges of the channels and areas where you find bait on the sonar. But also watch for breaking fish and gulls swooping down and troll the edges of that activity."

Using only two jigs with hooks on the umbrella rig reduces tangles. But it also prevents breakoffs. If you had a hook on each jig and five or six 30- to 40-pound stripers nailed each jig, it would be impossible to land them. Even when just two 30 pound-plus stripers hook up on one umbrella rig it's a challenge to land them because of their strength and size.

O'Bier staggers the depths of his spreader rigs so they run anywhere from just under the surface to 25 or 35 feet deep, using anywhere from no weight up to 28 ounces.

While trolling is the main method used, bait fishing also accounts for some of the big fish, particularly around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland waters. Use a sharp 5/0-7/0 hook and a three-way bottom rig with about 3-6 feet of leader.

How much weight you use varies with the type of line you use. Generally 30-50 pound braided line is best, and 2-8 ounces of lead will work with that. If you use monofilament you'll need more weight.

Fishing with Captain Chuck O'Briar, an angler lands a couple 30-pound plus stripers.

Best baits are spot, croakers and live eels. Some of the best live bait fishing takes place at night. You can catch the fish on any tide, but often the outgoing is best because it's strongest. Rough weather doesn't hurt the fishing, but you need to keep safety in mind because these waters can get extremely rough and dangerous in storms.

If you're more of a fair-weather fisherman, take heart. The striper action in both Maryland and Virginia portions of the Chesapeake Bay from spring through early fall is excellent. You just have to settle for slightly smaller fish, say 3-15 pounders on average.

Some trolling is done for these fish, but casting plugs and jigs to the bridge pilings and near breaking birds is also productive. You can even use streamers on a fly rod, like the Clouser Minnow, and take stripers during this warm weather period. Get the fly close to rocks or bridge pilings with a sink-tip line and maybe a split shot for weight and you'll likely catch not only stripers but also stray bluefish as well.

The most popular method of all for spring through early fall is chumming. That's the tactic O'Bier and other charter captains use most. They grind up menhaden, ladle it out into the tide in small batches and the scent and food particles draw in the schools. Anglers then drift cut chunks of bait back on light or ultralight tackle and usually catch stripers until their arms get tired with this technique.

If you want to make it more challenging, you can tie a "chum fly" which is basically a pink or maroon pipe cleaner or piece of chenille wound around a hook. Drift it back on a fly outfit with a sink tip line and soon you'll feel the weight of a scrappy striper throbbing against your graphite rod.

For more information on this tremendous striper fishery, contact the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, 757-491-5160. For guided trips get in touch with Chuck O'Bier, 804-529-6450, or David Rowe, 804-529-6725.