CAPE CHARLES, Va. (WFXR) — The fish of a lifetime. We all dream about it. Very few of us ever get the chance to experience it.

If you ever wanted to catch the striped bass of a lifetime, now is the time to do it, and Virginia’s portion of the lower Chesapeake Bay is the place.

Every year from December to February, huge Atlantic striped bass, or rockfish as they are also known, make the turn from the ocean into the Chesapeake Bay. They come to the bay to winter out and to feed before heading to Chesapeake tributaries in the spring to spawn.

“Striped bass are one of the most iconic species of gamefish along the Atlantic seaboard,” said Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Aquatic Education Coordinator Alex McCrickard during a late December fishing trip out of Cape Charles. “These fish are here now putting on weight getting ready for the spawn.”

Because those large, trophy-sized fish are actively feeding, this makes it the best time of year to target them.

“I hear it every trip, every time, definitely the fish of a lifetime,” said Captain Johnny Mathena of Patriot Fishing Charters. “It’s catch and release, but for you to see that fish, the first time you see that fish, it just takes your breath away.”

Mathena guides for stripers on Smith Mountain Lake from March to November, but once the weather turns colder he shifts his base of operations to Cape Charles to take advantage of the Atlantic striped bass migration.

“Fifty pounders are common, even bigger,” said Mathena as he captained his boat on a calm late December day on the Chesapeake.

Mathena and First Mate Marty Riddlebarger were trolling eight rods, each baited with a live eel.

“The big rock love the eels,” said Riddlebarger.

Alex McCrickard battles with a trophy striped bass on the lower Chesapeake Bay (Photo: George Noleff)

It was not long before the drag on one of the reels was screaming. We were hooked up, “tight,” as the captains on the lower bay like to call it. McCrickard grabbed the rod. He’d be the first to take a crack at boating a giant.

“This is rowdy,” exclaimed McCrickard as the huge fish peeled line off the reel as it went on a long run.

McCrickard and the fish battled back and forth for nearly 30 minutes.

“Are your arms burning, yet?” asked Captain Mathena.

“This thing is huge, I have to let my arm breathe for a second,” replied McCrickard as he briefly let go of the rod with his left hand, and shook it at his side.

After several more drag-testing runs, the fish was finally near the boat. Because of its size, netting it would prove to be a challenge, but First Mate Riddlebarger was finally able to sweep the giant striper into the net.

Alex McCrickard gets advice from First Mate Marty Riddlebarger while reeling in a trophy striped bass (Photo: George Noleff)

“Holy smokes!” said an exhausted McCrickard. “I’m speechless, just look at the size of that fish!”

Now, it was time to move fast. This is a catch and release fishery. The fish has to be handled with wet hands to protect the slime layer that actually protects the fish from parasites and infections.

The circle hook, legally required because they do minimal damage to fish, had to be removed.

Then the fish was measured and weighed: “56 pounds,” said Mathena.

The tape showed the fish was 50 inches long.

Then it was time for a quick photo, before the fish was tagged so it can be tracked for conservation research, and then returned to the water. The striper entered the Chesapeake with a loud splash and quickly swam away.

There are concerns about striped bass populations, so catch and release fishing, and safe fish handling practices are essential to help restore the species and to help it thrive.

“The recreational release mortality of striped bass is actually 9%,” said McCrickard, who wants to see that mortality rate drop. “Catch and release and best practices are really essential for anglers to embrace to promote conservation of the resource.”

Here is what anglers can do to help:

  • Practice catch and release
  • Use non-offset, corrodible circle hooks
  • Use tackle appropriate to the target species to minimize the amount of time fighting the fish
  • Use a net large enough to land/boat the fish
  • Always handle the fish with wet hands to protect the fish’s slime coating

Another way striper numbers are being protected is by tagging them so they can be tracked and their movements studied. Captain Mathena is one of several Virginia captains who is part of a program run by Gray Fish Tag Research to tag and track striped bass.

“It’s a non-profit, they work with captains and fishermen all over the world,” said Mathena. “It’s a good program to help the fish.”

A green tag is placed in a striped bass by Captain Johnny Mathena

On this day, six fish hit and four were boated. The largest went 56 pounds, the smallest weighed in at 35 pounds. All were released alive and healthy.

Mathena summed it up: “It’s great to be able to come out here to catch a 55, 60 pound striper, tag it, release it, and watch it swim back out for somebody to catch next year.”