Summer Fishing at the CBBT

I love the feeling I get when I fire up my outboard and head for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the CBBT, on a warm summer morning for a day of fishing. In that moment, the day is full of possibilities. Hopefully, it will include some nice flounder for the dinner table. It will most likely involve battles with bluefish, possibly mixed with some Spanish mackerel. There may be the chance to tangle with a full grown red or black drum, or at least a feisty fight with some puppy drum. And, there’s always the chance of a tug-of-war with a stubborn sheepshead. The list goes on and on for so long—cobia, spadefish, weakfish, stripers and more—that one article cannot contain all the possibilities. So, for now, let’s focus on just a few top contenders: flounder, drum, and sheepshead.

fishing at the chesapeake bay bridge tunnel
Drum - both blacks and reds - may be encountered when fishing at the CBBT.

Flounder

Let’s begin with flounder—last year I determined to really learn to jig for flounder. Oh, I’ve caught plenty of flounder on jigs, but they were usually a by-catch while fishing for other species. When it came to flounder, my old method was the stand-by: to drift cut or live bait on a bottom rig. But, I discovered that flounder will hit a jig when they won’t even look at anything else.

Often last summer, I was pulling in fluke while drifters around me were coming up empty. I tried to avoid eye contact with those frustrated anglers. And, it’s not just my imagination. I watched a Youtube video recently showing underwater footage of a typical flounder rig with cut bait being fished alongside of a jig. It was amazing (go to YouTube and search “underwater flounder bait vs jigs,” and it will pop right up). The flounder would look at the cut bait, then attack the jig repeatedly. I experienced similar results when I fished a conventional flounder rig and a jig at the same time. I would catch some fish on the standard bottom rig, but consistently catch more on the jig. I became a believer.

cbbt flounder
A jig-caught flounder, from near the first island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

The jigs that scored for me are from Backwater Baits. No, this isn’t a cheap plug for a friend. I only know him from ordering his stuff. And his jigs work. They come in multiple sizes and many colors. He has two types, one is a “Spro” type he calls an “ultra-minnow”, the other he calls a “poison tail”. I’ve caught my share of fish on both. They are designed to be tipped with Gulp minnows. But when small bluefish are making quick work of the Gulps, I switch to a strip bait on the jig. Both work well.

As far as the “where-to” goes, I like two spots. One is along the ocean side of the first island (south island), near the tube end. This has always been a productive place for me. The fish are never real thick there, but I usually pick up a few. The other location is along the pilings leading up to the first island. The fish hang out in the rubble found in that area. People also fish the pilings past the second island, but I always catch way more oyster toads than flounders there. My two locations call for slightly different techniques.

I fish the side of the island when the current is moving, drifting with the current while slowly jigging along the bottom. I slowly raising the bait about a foot off the bottom, and drop it. The fish will usually hit it when it is off the bottom.

When fishing the bridge pilings, I keep the boat just up current of a piling, and drop the jig down. Again, slowly raising and lowering the bait is all you need to do. This can get tricky when fishing alone. I have one hand on the rod, and the other on the controls. I keep the bait just in front of the piling, sliding down the bridge from piling to piling while maintaining this distance. Don’t drag the bait along the bottom or it will get snagged. Once the fish bites, I give him a moment to get the jig in his mouth, then start reeling.

See How to Fish for Flounder in DelMarVa Bays and Inlets, for more info on chasing after flatfish in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Red and Black Drum Fish

When you’ve got your limit of flounder, it’s time to look for drum. Both red and black drum swim along the sides of the islands during the summer. There is a place along the side of the second island where I usually start. Look for a pile of rubble rising from 20 feet to 10 feet. I have caught reds there from 25 to 44 inches on jigs. I have also caught black drum there in the same size range. The key, particularly for the reds, is moving water. Jig size and color don’t seem to make much difference. The largest red I have caught (about 50 pounds) was on a half-ounce jig with a four-inch Gulp swimming mullet. Elephants do eat peanuts.

If you don’t find the fish immediately, drift down the side of the island staying 30 feet from the rocks. Keep one eye on the fish finder. There will be many marks since spadefish, triggerfish, small sea bass, and blues inhabit the same area. The distinct marks of the larger fish will stand out from the others. Both types of drum often swim around in schools a few feet from the surface. At times it is easy to spot the school, so keep your other eye on the water. If you’re marking fish but not getting bites, try a live bait. I always put a few spot or croakers in the live well first thing in the morning. Either will work for red drum, or for the odd cobia that swims by.

red drum caught at cbbt
Justin with a nice puppy drum caught at the second island of the CBBT.

I use light spinning tackle when jigging for drum. Once I hook a big one, I settle in for the ride. The key is to keep constant pressure on the fish without trying to horse him in. I was out with my step-son Justin when he hooked into a big red a few years ago. He had it to the surface a couple of times–just long enough for me to see that it was a monster fish. We chased it around for about 45 minutes. The fish headed for the pilings, so he tried “feathering” the reel. He put on a little too much pressure, and broke him off. A little bit of his heart broke off too. It happens. It takes patience, along with light and constant pressure, to bring these fish to the boat.

Sheepshead

Once the current goes slack, it is time to hunt for sheepshead. They hover above the rocks covering the tunnel tubes and around pilings, nibbling on barnacles. You must put the bait right in their face. This is easier to do when the current isn’t running. Fishing the pilings is popular with the kayak crowd. This is one time the yakkers have the advantage. They can position themselves alongside of a piling and drop the bait straight down. The key is to keep the bait close to the piling. The bait usually consists of pieces of blue crab or fiddlers. The typical rig has a couple of hooks on dropper loops above a sinker.

Sheeps move in small pods from just under the surface down to the bottom. If you catch one try again on the same piling at the same depth. These are powerful fish which require stouter equipment to muscle the fish away from the bridge. If one wraps you around the piling, you can kiss that fish goodbye.

I keep flounder and sheepshead for the dinner table, and release all the drum. Even though you can keep one black drum over 16 inches, and three reds from 18 to 26 inches, I rarely keep them; too many other fish taste better. Flounder are good fried or baked. They can be frozen, but their mild flavor loses something after much time in the freezer. Sheepshead are excellent table fare that stand up well on the grill.

We’re spoiled with multiple choices and great fishing at the CBBT in the warm months. These are just a few of the favorites—and by keeping your options open, you’re sure to come home with some filets or pictures to remember the day.

- By Chuck Harrison. Chuck and his wife Peggy live in Newport News, Va. He fishes the lower Chesapeake Bay on his 16 foot Mako, as well as the surf in the Outer Banks, and the Atlantic Ocean. He is a long-time writer of fishing articles, and former charter boat mate. His real job is as a consultant with churches.