Top 14 Chesapeake Bay Game Fish
This post will list the top 14 Chesapeake Bay Game fish. Chesapeake Bay and it’s tributaries make up an amazing estuary that supports many game fish species. As salinity levels drop up and the waters become more brackish, freshwater game fish become more plentiful.
The top 14 Chesapeake Bay game fish are:
- Striped bass (rockfish)
- red drum
- back drum
- speckled trout
- Spanish mackerel
- white perch
- smallmouth bass
- largemouth bass
- blue catfish
- channel catfish
Top 14 Cheasapeake Bay game fish species
Capt Jim Klopfer runs fishing charters in Sarasota Florida. However, he was born in Washington D.C. And grew up fishing the waters of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Here is his list of the top 13 Chesapeake Bay game fish, in no particular order.
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1) Striped bass
The undisputed king of Chesapeake Bay is the striped bass. It is known locally as “rockfish” or just “rock”. Chesapeake Bay is the primary spawning grounds for most of the striped bass on the east coast of the United States. It is a perfect environment with many tributary rivers and brackish water.
Striped bass feed on both crustaceans and bait fish. Chesapeake Bay is famous for it’s blue crabs, which striped bass enjoy every bit as much as humans do! Large striped bass make a seasonal migration throughout Chesapeake Bay. Striped bass populations have seen their ups and downs. In the early 80’s, anglers could hardly catch one. Now, they are the top predator species in Chesapeake Bay. Striped bass are excellent to eat, but anglers should be responsible in their fishing.
Spring will find striped bass moving up into rivers to spawn. All major tributaries will see a run of fish. One unusual aspect of this large fishery is that there are no man made dams to stop fish movements, other than Cowingo on the Susquehanna, at the top of the bay. This allows for the fish to move quite a way up the rivers. At the northern end of Chesapeake Bay is the Susquehanna flats that runs into Pennsylvania. This area offers anglers the chance to catch huge striped bass in shallow water.
By mid summer, striped bass are found throughout the bay. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is a hot spot, as are the Choptank, and mouth of the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. Really, all of the middle bay area should have fish.
Anglers can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “Inshore Saltwater Fishing” for $5 by clicking on the title link. It is 23,000 words long and covers tackle, tactics, and species.
By fall, the striped bass have moved south to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. There is one last flurry at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel before the season winds down. Some very big fish are caught here in late fall!
Cobia are a terrific game fish that have become more plentiful in recent years. However, there is a danger of over fishing them, as they are fantastic to eat. Cobia used to be found at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. However, they can be caught almost anywhere in the warmer months.
Cobia have an interesting behavior of cruising right along the surface. This results in anglers having the ability to sight cast to them using lures and live bait. This is very exciting as cobia can grow to 100 pounds!
Cobia also love structure. Anglers can bottom fish for them on ledges and dropoffs, around bridges, jetties, rock piles, and channel markers. Jigs are the top lure while live eels are the best live bait.
Flounder put up a nice little fight when hooked, but they are prized by anglers for their incredible fillets. They are in the “flatfish” family, all of which are terrific on a dinner plate.
Flounder are predator fish that hide in the bottom and attach prey as it comes by in the current. Anglers target flounder by presenting their offering on or very close to the bottom. Most anglers use live or fresh cut bait, but jigs will produce as well. The fish will most often be found in the sandy areas adjacent to structure such as rocks or bridges.
Flounder numbers are not what they once were. This is mostly due to their high quality fillets. However, management strategies are helping and flounder are rebounding in Chesapeake Bay.
4) Red Drum
Red drum are another species that are doing well in Chesapeake Bay. Smaller versions are known as “puppy drum”. In the southern states they are “redfish” or “reds”, it is all the same fish.
Red drum grow very large, well over 50 pounds. They feed primarily on crustaceans, and the abundance of crabs is certainly an attraction. The schools of big fish are often found in the deeper water, though they will move shallow to feed as well. They are also caught by anglers surf fishing the beaches of Assateague and Chincoteague.They are less tolerant of fresh water are are rarely caught north of the Bay Bridge.
Smaller drum will also be found in schools, often times in shallow water. They are great fun on light tackle and will readily take a jig and grub. Most anglers looking for a meal will do best to keep a couple smaller fish and release the large ones, they can be wormy and those big fish are mostly breeder females, which are best left to reproduce.
5) Black Drum
Black drum are a cousin to the red drum. They school up in large numbers in late summer and grow quite large. The area around Smith Island at the Maryland Virginia border is a top spot. They are usually found in deep water.
Black drum are less likely to be caught by anglers using lures. The vast majority are caught on natural bait, with crab being the top choice. As with red drum, the smaller fish are much better to eat, larger drum tend to get wormy. They are great fun to catch, though!
Read this article on how to clean and cook fish
Smaller black drum are found in the same types are areas as red drum. Oyster bars are top spots as drum feed primarily on crustaceans. Man made structure including docks, bridges, seawalls, and jetties will attract black drum as well.
6) Speckled Trout
Speckled trout, also known as “specks” or spotted sea trout, are another recent visitor to Chesapeake Bay. They have become more numerous in recent years. Back in the day, weakfish, a similar species, were abundant, not so any more. The improving water quality and abundance of bait are probably reasons for this.
Speckled trout have a very diverse diet. They feed on both crustaceans and bait fish. They are often found on large flats in 5′ to 10′ of water. Drifting and casting jigs or bouncing a live or cut bait on the bottom will catch them. A lead head jig with a grub body works very well. In cooler water, speckled trout can be found schooled up in deeper water.
Get more spotted sea trout fishing tips here!
Speckled trout are fantastic eating! They are the most popular inshore species from Texas around to the Carolinas. As with most fish, the medium sized fish are best to keep while the big girls should be released to spawn. Most trout will be found from the Choptank River south to the mouth of the bay.
7) Spanish mackerel
Spanish mackerel are another southern species that has ranged up into the southern portion of Chesapeake Bay. They are primarily found in the summer and early fall. Spanish mackerel school up in big numbers and feed aggressively. They are very good to eat, though should be prepared within a day or two of catching them. Mackerel do not freeze well.
It is very exciting to encounter schools of Spanish mackerel feeding on the surface. On a calm day, this can be seen from a long way off. Just about any fast moving shiny lure will catch them. If the fish go down, anglers can usually mark them on the bottom machine and get them to bite a spoon or jig.
Trolling is another excellent technique used to catch Spanish mackerel. It will also produce bluefish, striped bass and other species. Anglers use planers and sinkers to get the lure down in the water column. Mackerel respond to fast moving lures, 5-6 knots works well.
Bluefish once ruled Chesapeake Bay, not so anymore. When Capt Jim was a youngster (late 70’s) big bluefish terrorized the bay. 10 pound blues were not uncommon. The resurgence of striped bass in the mid 80s seems to have displaced the bluefish. They have always been a cyclical species. Bluefish are found in the saltier portions of Chesapeake Bay.
Bluefish are voracious predators. They feed in packs and are very aggressive. They can be caught by anglers casting and drifting lures as well as on cut bait. Surf casters catch them all along the Atlantic and Carolina coast. Bluefish have a strong meat, and though decent when eaten right away, few anglers prize them for their fillets.
9) White perch
Some anglers may not consider white perch a game fish, but Capt. Jim does. When caught on ultralight spinning tackle or a light fly rod, these little saltwater panfish put up an excellent fight. They are also one of the best eating fish found in Chesapeake Bay. They do not grow large, with 12 inches being a very nice fish. However, when the larger “black backs” as they are locally called move in, it is great fun.
Most anglers target white perch in the spring when they move into the smaller creeks to spawn. Deeper holes and outside bends can hold large concentrations of fish. It is not uncommon to sit in one good spot and catch as many fish as an angler needs. Live bait is most often use, with blood worms, nightcrawlers, and razor clams being the top baits. They will certainly hit small artificial lures such as a jig or spoon.
Atlantic croaker are another very popular bottom fish found in Chesapeake Bay. Locally known as “hard heads”, croaker grow to 20 inches and put up a very good fight for their size. They are especially known for how hard they strike a bait. Most croaker are found in schools and slightly deeper water. Areas of rocky bottom, oyster, and ledges are prime spots.
The vast majority of croaker are landed by anglers bottom fishing with live or cut bait. Peeler crab, nightcrawlers, blood worms, razor clams, strips of cut bait, and even live minnows will fool them. Croaker are outstanding eating, but do have a lot a bones in a fairly large rib cage. They are not as abundant as in years past.
11) Smallmouth bass
Not a lot of anglers associate smallmouth bass with Chesapeake Bay. However, the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay along with the upper reaches of many of the tributary rivers, especially on the west side, offer anglers excellent smallmouth bass fishing. They are a little less tolerant of saltwater than are their largemouth bass cousins.
The Susquehanna River is a terrific smallmouth bass fishery. Plenty of them find their way into the brackish portion of the river below Cowingo dam. Anglers target them with artificial lures such as spinner baits and jerk baits, just as they would and most other freshwater lakes. The upper reaches of the Rappahannock River, James River, and Potomac River also have plenty of smallmouth bass. While smallmouth bass are good to eat, most anglers practice catch and release.
12) Largemouth Bass
Largemouth bass are much more tolerant of brackish water than are smallmouth bass. In fact, some of the best bass fishing in the United States occurs in these areas where freshwater and saltwater mix. The reason for this is the abundance of forage; there is just so much for the fish to eat. Most of largemouth bass caught in the Chesapeake Bay estuary are very healthy, chunky fish.
The eastern shore rivers in particular are noted for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. The Chopank River, Sassafras River, Nanticoke River, Wicomico River, and Pocomoke River all offer excellent fishing for largemouth bass. The same is true for the large shallow Susquehanna flats at the headwaters of Chesapeake Bay.
13) Blue catfish
There is a lot of controversy surrounding blue catfish in the Chesapeake Bay system. These are apex predators which grow in excess of 100 pounds. They have been stocked and several of the larger reservoirs to offer anglers an opportunity for a very large freshwater fish to target. Some have escaped into the rivers and have thrown off the natural balance, especially affecting smallmouth bass in rivers such as the James and Rappahannock.
Some anglers are actually targeting blue catfish in Chesapeake Bay. As mentioned, they grow very large and put up a terrific fight. Also, the fillets are snow white and flaky. Many consider blue Is to be the best eating fish of all the catfish species. Time will tell how they affect the fishery, but as of now they are here to stay.
14) Channel catfish
Channel catfish are native to all of the tributary rivers of Chesapeake Bay. They are found in both the freshwater and brackish portions of most of the rivers. They are quite plentiful in the upper Chesapeake Bay as well. Channel catfish average 3 to 5 pounds and put up a nice little tussle on light to medium tackle. They are very good eating!
Channel catfish have a wide and varied diet. While most anglers fish for them using live or cut bait, channel catfish will most certainly take and artificial lure. They get a bit of a bad reputation as being a bottom feeder the prefer some kind of rotting, stinking bait. This is far from the truth. Many a bass fisherman has been surprised when a channel catfish has taken the lure and convince the angler that a trophy bass was hooked.