Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Kows Past

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is what many in this region refer to as a magical time for the striped bass angler.  The reason this time of the year is so special and coveted is that the temperatures in the Chesapeake Bay start to fall and approach the low 50 degree mark.  The striped bass have left their northern summering water holes and have started moving south, making their first appearances normally near Ocean City, MD and Delaware.  For the Chesapeake boat angler and countless charter boats, the search for that coveted citation is centered around the high-rise and 4th Island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.  This area is not recommended for kayak anglers, due to the increased boat traffic and countless lines in the water being trolled and drifted.

As a kayak angler, we find refuge in the remains of the concrete ships located a few hundred yards off the beach at Kiptopeake State Park on the Eastern Shore.  These ships were partially sunk and placed here in 1948 to form a ferry breakwater; however, the ferry went out of business shortly thereafter but the ships remained and now are a natural habitat for many coastal birds and fish, including tautog, sheepshead and the coveted striped bass.
The last week found the winds to be unfavorable for fishing the ships at times reaching 25mph and higher.  For those new to the fishery and concrete ships at Kiptopeake, you can fish the ships in most calm conditions; however, any winds above 10-15 mph results in the kayak angler spending more time focusing on boat position than fishing.  I was watching the forecast and the real time winds for Kiptopeake and noticed a window of approximately 6-8 hours where the winds were going to be blowing out of the northeast between 3-8mph.  So, I called the wife and checked to see if would be okay, then I went home and loaded up and stopped off for some eels and began my first pilgrimage to the kayak angler's "Utopia".  I also called two of my kayak fishing friends (Rob Choi and Justin Mayer) and asked if they would be interested in joining me.  We must have all been on the same wavelength, because Rob was already loaded and heading that way, and Justin was gearing up as well.  As fate would have it, neither Rob or Justin were able to join me, but I was determined to get out there for my first time.

The desire to catch a Kiptopeake Kow as they are commonly referred to in this area was fueled even further by the recent report from the previous weekend where a kayak angler landed a 51" striper at the ships.  Needless to say, I was a tad on the anxious side. As I crossed the high rise, I noticed the winds had started to blow in earnest and coming straight out of the north.  Not the best conditions to fish in, but alas, I had already paid the toll and was 3 miles from the state park, and I had eels to get wet!!  I pulled in and started to unload and noticed my friend Kevin Whitley (aka Kayak Kevin) and his fishing buddy Lee Williams coming in.  They reported no action at all, as I had feared.  You see, the water temperatures had cooled slightly this past weekend, so I headed out with the hopes that the temps had stayed in that range.  Unfortunately, the temps had stabilized and were now reporting in at 54 degrees - too warm for a realistic chance at some big stripers.

Not to be dismayed or deterred, I finished setting up my rod using Kayak Kevin's tutorial and launched.  I started out on the northern ships, since many kayakers were already prowling the southern ones.  I figured I might as well get a feel for how to fish the ships in the hopes that I might make it back out this year before the bigger fish have moved on.  For those that have not fished for the bigger stripers in this area, once the water temperatures dip below 42 degrees and stay there, the big fish leave.  While we are on the topic of big fish, I feel compelled to educate the novice angler here and encourage you to practice CPR.  Not the medical version, the angling version which is Catch - Photo - Release.  The big stripers that are landed in this area are mostly females and are loaded with eggs.  When you harvest a big striper like that, you are literally killing 10,000 or more potential schoolie and citation striped bass for the Chesapeake Bay fishery.  Do the right thing, carry a digital camera and measuring device, measure the fish, take your "wall of fame" glory photo and properly revive and release the fish to live another day.

Anyway, the fishing was dull as was expected, but I still was diligent and spent 3 hours drifting amongst the alleyways and broadsides of the ships.  I even ventured around to the bay side of the ships into the deeper sloughs but the wave chop was getting a bit rough and several power boats were on that side.  I made the decision to call it a night and head to another fishery to at least catch something.  As I was peddling my way back to the launch in my new Hobie Revolution 13, I noticed a powerboat was making it's way as well but was on a collision path to broadside me.

Whenever I kayak at night, I always wear highly visible clothing, a PFD with reflective piping, and I have my YakAttack VisiCarbon Pro visibility light paired with a custom hi-visibility neon green flag with SOLAS tape.  I also outfit my kayak with reflective tape and decals to make it easier to be seen on the water when a light source of any kind is shone upon it, yet this boater was motoring along slow enough to not be on plane, yet bow riding high enough for him to not see me properly.  As he was approaching, I let out a nice "Yo!!!", and he immediately cut the throttle to allow his bow to lower in time to see me.  I was still a good 50 yards from him, but if he had continued on his path, he would have still had a good chance of hitting me.  I know we are all anxious to catch that "fish of a lifetime", but please pay attention to everyone that's on the water.  I try and do my part to make sure I can be seen, but I encourage you as a boater to do your part as well and be aware of your surroundings.

I made it back to the launch safely, and loaded up the kayak fairly quickly.  I didn't even bother taking off my cold weather gear, just the PFD.  I strapped the kayak down securely, made my way back across the bridge and headed for the HRBT.  I checked my phone before I left and noticed that Rob ventured out for some speckled trout action on the Elizabeth River instead.  If I was smart enough, I would have checked the water temp reports before crossing the bay bridge and paying the toll and would have spent my time in calmer waters.

I made it to the HRBT in time to catch the last hour or so of the falling tide.  I launched and headed out to the river side of the bridge and started patrolling for any signs of activity.  As I pedaled about, I noticed the current was really strong and made boat position tough even with my new Turbo Fins and Sailing Rudder.  It wasn't impossible, but it was challenging to say the least.  As I pedaled about, I watched the other power boaters and few kayakers I saw and noticed they weren't having any luck either.  I noticed that the water clarity was poor.  Apparently, the recent rains combined with the tides and currents created a very unfavorable set of conditions for targeting the schoolie/slot size stripers that frequent the HRBT.  Fishing for these fish at the tunnel and bridge is fun, since you are basically sight casting to the fish and tempting them to attack your lure.  This may seem a little akin to "shooting fish in a barrel", but these fish are finicky and can turn their nose up at almost every lure you toss at them on some nights.

I fished about for an hour or so and landed my first one of the night.  It measure in at a shade over 18" and was legal to keep.  In Virginia, you are permitted to keep 2 stripers measuring between 18"-28" with the exception of harvesting one fish 34" or greater.  While catching a fish over 34" is possible at the HRBT, it is a challenge to locate them and can be frustrating and result in several nights of no fish.  Back to the fishing.  The fish was landed successfully and measured.  As I was transitioning the fish from my Fish Grips to the stringer, the stringer clip did not push through fully and the striper gave one last thrash and escaped!!!  Oh the choice words that ran through my head and escaped out of my mouth.

No worries, the night was still young.  I pedaled back into position and started again - nothing.  Not a single bite for the next 3 hours.  Shortly around 2am, the rain started coming down and the wind picked up with strong gusting winds out of the northwest making positioning the Hobie a little difficult on a falling tide in full current.  I decided to peddle over to the bay side and target the few fish that were still actively feeding.  I was able to land another slot striper just as the current change for the incoming tide started.  I was using a Gulp 5" Jerk Shad in Chartreuse Pepper on a 1/4oz Marsh Works Bull Red Jig Head in copper.  He hit it hard and fast and put up a nice fight on my Shimano Sahara 4000/Teramar Inshore Southeast spinning rod combo.
This one was successfully attached to the stringer for consumption at a later date.  Earlier in this report, I mentioned kayak safety.  One of the items I carry is a VHF marine radio tuned to channel 16 for any inclement weather.  I use a Standard Horizon HX-280S (submersible) waterproof radio, but any VHF radio will suffice as long as it is waterproof.  Well, the reports coming in for the Hampton Roads area were not any cause for concern until 6am later that morning when they were calling for a small craft advisory.  Well, I think their forecast was a tad off, because I spent 2 hours fighting nasty chop, strong winds and bridge pilings in search of that last fish for my stringer.  I had 3 more hits but none were solid enough for a hook set.  I had a terrible time sight casting due to the murkiness of the water.  Normally the water here has a greenish tint to it from the glow of the lights overhead, but tonight it looked more like chocolate milk.

The winds and chop were so rough, I was caught in the proverbial "washing machine" that kayak anglers detest.  Basically, it is when the wind and waves are opposing each other and create a washer machine like environment and toss you about. I was using all my energy to focus on peddling and rudder control for position and not having much time for casting.  The conditions were so poor, that the rudder would immediately move out of position the second you let go of the rudder control, so I decided it was time to call it a night.

While it wasn't the best night, it wasn't a complete failure - I accomplished a few things.  One, I explored and familiarized myself with the area around the ships at Kiptopeake.  Two, I reinforced the need to always be aware of your surroundings when out on the water.  Three, a VHF marine radio is a necessity not a luxury or optional item when out in saltwater.  And finally, and perhaps the best lesson of the day, know your limits and don't hesitate to call it a day.  You can always come back another day to try again, but you first have to make it back in otherwise you won't be back.

Be safe and dress appropriately for the weather conditions both at launch and for while you are out on the water.  I encourage you to visit Kayak Kevin's Kitpo How-To page and re-read the section at the end on cold weather angling.

Tight lines folks.


  1. Yeah...guess I should have called. We decided to target specks all night instead. Sorry bout that.

  2. Thanks for the well-written report.