Wednesday, March 3, 2021

On the Hardwater: Nighttime Crappie Fishing

I noticed that, on some of the social media ice fishing groups, some folks are interested in learning about how to catch crappie at night through the ice.  So, since this is one of my favorite ice fishing activities, I thought about putting together this post so that I can provide more detail than I possibly could on a social media response.

My Brother, Kyle, setting up for the crappie fishing night bite at one of our favorite lakes.
One of my greatest wintertime thrills is to jig for panfish at night through the ice, and especially for crappie.  In this blog post, I'll present to you my strategies that will, hopefully, help you find and catch crappie at night.  I love icefishing, and I'll do it from dawn to dusk, but, there's no question in any of my fishing buddy's minds that my favorite time to be out there is at night jigging for crappie.  That's when I'm usually on my game. 

Jigging at night for crappie can be rewarding as it is exciting.
It's no secret that I love to catch crappie, especially big ones.  I love chasing them at any time of year.  When they're active, it's some of the most fun fishing that you could possibly have.  It can take the most serious of anglers and cause them to giggle like school kids.  For one such crappie fishing adventure, you can read back to one of my old posts:  the Joy of Crappie Fishing.
I love crappie fishing any time of year, especially where you can catch slabs like these consistently.  With good action, it's about as fun as fishing can get.  Getting fish like this through the ice at night is a little more challenging, but can be very rewarding.
So, what's my strategy to find good nighttime crappie action?  Keep in mind that this is my strategy and I have my opinions.  I don't have much science to back it up.  It's not necessarily the "right" way or the only way, rather, it's my way.  But, I have plenty of experience and, hopefully, some of these tips will help you find and catch more crappie through the ice at night.

Now, for the details of the strategy.  The first step is to choose a lake that is known for having good numbers and size of crappie.  I learned how to do this based on my experiences fishing various lakes either during open water or during ice fishing season.  These days, we have the advantage of researching on the internet or through shared experiences on social media.  A good topographic lake map of your lake, if available, will help you to identify places to try once your find a lake that you want to fish.

Next, finding nighttime crappie, especially on a new lake, means that you have to start during the beginning of your ice fishing trip.  Early morning bite locations for crappie tend to also be good spots for night fishing.  But, if you catch one, or even better, several crappie from one particular are during your day trip, chances are that you'll find them at that spot at night as well, or at least, close by.  It doesn't always work out, but more times than not, it does.  

I think crappie behave in the summer kind of like they do in the winter, but without a thermocline.  So, locations on a lake during the summer that hold crappie, might be good spots to check in the winter.  Such places might be shoreline woody cover on deep water shoreline slopes, or, perhaps the deepest basin in the area.  That could be a cove on a large lake, or near the dam on small lake.  I search for them over depths ranging from ten to forty feet deep, with the mid-twenties being a good place to start in our waters.

But, it depends on the lake.  Some lakes that we fish have a maximum depth that is shallow compared to our reservoirs.  In some lakes we fish, the deepest area in the lake could be as shallow as eight or fifteen feet, while our reservoirs could be extremely deep comparatively.  So, I can't tell you that any particular depth is the right depth, but I can tell you that I rarely search for crappie in depths exceeding forty feet.  You can determine a good area to try based on the topographical features of your lake and what type of lake it is.  

Crappie also behave differently at different stages of our ice fishing season.  Generally, they can be found in early season where you might expect them or when you caught them right before the ice formed.  During the middle of the ice season, when the winter is at it's coldest and ice is building fast, try a deeper area and maybe look for marks closer to the bottom.  During late ice, when the days start to get longer and perhaps the lake edges start to warm, they may move into shallow water cover, like weed beds, stumps or fallen logs.  These places can also be productive during early ice.  Crappie are like other predators, they follow the food chain.  Where aquatic insects and minnows thrive, so do crappie.

Another tip that I can offer to you is to read the ice.  On public lakes, or lakes where people don't "claim" a spot as always theirs, you can determine likely areas by reading the ice.  It's kind of like reading the currents on a river or a stream for fish holding spots, but, rather, looking for evidence on the ice that a spot might be good, especially when visiting a lake for the first time.

Visual clues include, obviously, areas where a lot of anglers concentrate.  Personally, I don't like fishing in a crowd.  I prefer to be away from the crowd for several reasons.  Crowds often make noise, which I feel, can shut feeding fish down, whether it's music, a lot of people walking around, noisy power augers (or even a hand auger cutting a lot of holes), and, as some people claim, that sonar might cause fish to become inactive.  If there are a lot of sonar units out there, could that slow the fishing, perhaps?  

I personally don't know if sonar causes fish to not bite or become inactive.  I can't dispute it one way or another.  But, the likelihood of seeing interference on your sonar rises the closer you get to another sonar unit, especially if there are a lot of different sonar brands on the ice with you.  Let's face it, dealing with sonar interference can be annoying.

Next, I would look for evidence on the ice that indicates perhaps a good spot.  It doesn't always work, but, sometimes, it does help, and could make the difference in being successful or not, especially if you don't have many hours to fish.  It narrows down your search.  Let's discuss some of the types of evidence that you may encounter.

Holes:  Lots of holes cut in an area, are such evidence.  New, open holes, obviously, means that someone fished there recently.  But, old holes give clues too.  A line of holes far apart may indicate that angler was searching for fish.  A cluster of holes might indicate a good spot.  Two holes or three cut close together might mean that someone thought that this spot was good enough to put their sonar and/or camera in adjoining holes to the one that they fished.  Lots of times, people that nightfish together leave this type of evidence.  Open holes save time, allowing you to check them quickly with your sonar, moving from one spot to another looking for suspended fish.  At night, this could be key if the first area you chose didn't pan out.

Blood:  blood on the ice could mean many things, but usually, that's evidence that someone either kept fish that they caught on the ice, or, heaven forbid, some other tragic personal event!

Evidence of bait:  Discarded minnows, saw dust from spike or waxworm containers, discarded waxworms or spikes (the more the better, that means someone spent some time there).

Trash:  Maybe discarded bait containers.  It stinks that people leave trash on the ice.  But, it is evidence.  I clean the big stuff up if I find it, unless, it appears that someone left something out there to purposely mark a spot.  Recently, there was a beer bottle buried in the ice that we couldn't remove.  Either someone littered, or they put it there purposely.  I believe that they did it to mark a spot, because, it was buried halfway in a cut hole.

Lots of tobacco stains:  Huh?  Yes, evidence that someone fished here for more than a minute or two.  The more tobacco stains, the better.

Footprints:  they also tell a tale.  If someone used tip ups, you can see trails that connect a series of holes.  You can also see where they chose their base.  That may or may not pan out for jigging.  However, if you see a couple holes or a few holes close together, or a lot of old frozen holes, and even better, with lots of footprints, someone spent time there.  If an area is well used, you can't identify individual footprints.  The entire area is mashed down.
You can imagine why footprints can indicate a good fishing area, at least until new snow covers them up.  When guys find a good spot, like my buddies Geoff and Yaz did here, their footprints kind of give it away that they had something going on here.
Lots of sled tracks:  They can be road maps to good locations, especially if there are holes cut in a line or direction that are far apart, but lead you to a bunch of holes that indicated that they may have found fish and opened up the area.  That said, the evidence or clues that I mention here in this post don't guarantee that the previous anglers knew what they were doing.  But, it doesn't hurt to check such spots.  The best evidence is when you cut or check a hole with your sonar, and you mark fish.  If you see sled tracks that leads to lots of footprints around a hole, that could mean something.

Wood sticking up through the ice:  could be structure to fish in lakes that are shallow.  If there are holes around it, it could be a good spot to find nighttime crappie.  Be careful around these spots during early or late ice if the ice conditions aren't great, as wood or other debris can absorb heat and weaken the nearby ice.

Weeds on the ice:  often, these are pulled up by augers or reeled in after being snagged.  But, they indicate the presence of a weed bed.  Find where those weeds meet deeper water, that could be a good crappie spot.

Lake shoreline contours:  Finally, the slope of the shorelines and shapes of the points and coves can lead you to a good area, especially if you did your homework by researching a lake contour map.  If there aren't any contour maps available, check the lake out by using the satellite feature on your favorite browser's maps application.  Such aerial images can point out shallow weedy areas, long sloping points, underwater sand bars, the deepest water, and other types of structure.

When you know of a good spot ahead of time, my suggestion is, if your not nearby, head to that spot before the magic hour (the last hour of daylight before dusk) and use that as your starting point of your search.  You'll probably catch other species there too, but, the crappie will start getting aggressive around that time.  If you find fish, it can be hectic from that point on until about an hour after dark, maybe longer.
Steps to finding crappie at night:  Step 1: Find a lake with a good population of large crappie - check.  Step 2: Mark a bunch of suspending fish during the day - check.  Step 3: Catch a crappie during the day, remember that spot for the night bite - check.  Step 4:  Go back to that spot and fish at night - check.  Step 5:  Catch crappie at night:  ugh...not this time.  It was a tough day and this jumbo crappie was caught at 10 AM during the day.  We went back and tried that spot at night, but it didn't pan out this time.  The system usually works, but not always.
Also, at any time during the day, if you mark a lot of suspending fish and they are aggressive, that could also be a good place to try later after dark.  If you arrive at the lake late in the afternoon, cut holes until you find suspended fish, or, at the very least, mark a fish on your sonar.  Remember these spots especially if you catch a crappie.

Of course, if you fish a favorite lake often and have had success at various areas of that lake before at night, that could really narrow down your search and give you a good place to start.  Most of the time, the best spots to fish are similar from year to year.

Next, it helps to have the right tools.  Can you catch fish without some of them, especially the more expensive ones?  Sure, but, you could be missing out on a good bite if you don't know where the strike zone is.  You can develop strategies to figure that out, but, it's a lot more work and more time consuming.

So, what are my preferred tools?  My must have tools, in my humble opinion, are a flasher style sonar, a sensitive ultralight ice fishing rod spooled with two pound test, and a selection of jigs that you know catch crappie.  I prefer glow in the dark jigs for night fishing, for the most part.  As far as electronics go, any sonar will do, but most anglers prefer flashers. 

A flasher style of sonar will not only find fish, but you can see your lure and also how fish interact with the lure.  This is critical for nighttime crappie fishing since often the fish are suspended.  

The latest technology in electronics allows you to switch views between traditional fish finder screens to a flasher screen.  These new and improved sonar units have improved with very close to real time responses to activity.  Flashers, in the past, held an advantage in this area.  What do I mean by that?  When you jig your lure, a flasher will show that in real time, so when a fish bites, you will see that in real time also, allowing you to focus either on your rod tip or sonar at the correct time.

The main point here is that electronics hold a huge advantage to finding and fishing for crappie at night.  Not only can you find fish, or see them on the bottom or suspended, but you can see your lure and how the fish react to it.  Once you buy and use sonar, and later fish without it, it feels as though you are fishing blind.

Another key piece of equipment that I think really helps is to have a bright lantern out there with you.  I use a Coleman Northstar lantern that puts out 1,500 lumens.  I'm a firm believer that fishing with one or more fishing buds that have lanterns in the same area really helps.  The more light that you have, the more zooplankton is attracted to the area, which, I theorize, brings in more fish.  Some people also use submersible lights.  I've never tried that as I don't own them.

In this photo, you can see three of my most regarded pieces of equipment, my sonar, lantern, and a sensitive ultralight ice fishing rod with a glow in the dark jig tied on.

Supplemental lighting also helps, not only for seeing bites and your rod tip, but also for finding things in your sled or tying on lures.  Usually, light from the lantern to see all my stuff in my sled is blocked by me, so the additional headlamp helps.  Seeing your rod tip and line is key to catching crappie at night, especially when they are not that aggressive.  A strong LED headlamp or other LED lighting can really help.  Plus, they make a great backup if you run out of propane or forget your lantern.
Supplemental lighting also helps.  A good LED headlamp will also not only allow you to see anything at night, but will help you catch fish by focusing a light beam on your rod tip so you can see bites.  I also use a magnetic shop light that sticks to the metal base of my seat rail on my sled.  In this picture, both came in handy when my lantern ran out of propane that night.  Note to self: always carry a spare can of propane...
The last piece of equipment that I personally like is my pullover shanty/sled.  I have a Clam Fish Trap Pro and have been using it for many years.  I love it, I love fishing inside it, and it helps me in so many ways.  Before purchasing it, I sat out in the cold and fished, and usually, it's much colder at night.  
A pullover shelter/sled, like my Clam Fish Trap Pro, helps me get out of the elements and stay warm. Being out of the wind helps you catch more fish.  Being more comfortable helps you catch more fish.  And, being mobile helps you find and catch more fish.  If I need to move, all I do is flip my canvas top back, gather my gear and go.
Fishing inside my shanty is warmer naturally because you're out of the elements. Your lantern helps provide heat as well as light inside.  I can remember fishing when temperatures outside my hut were in the teens, and I had layers peeled off inside while wearing just a flannel shirt!  The shanty also provides a nice wind break, making it easier to see bites without the wind messing things up.  Plus, the extra warmth helps keep the holes from freezing up on you.

And, if you like to fish in privacy, it's a great way to escape the eyes of neighboring anglers that might want to get in on your action if you're catching fish.  Usually, I don't mind company, and I like to share my spot with friends, but, it's nice to have a couple fish under your belt before they all come join you.  Sometimes, their holes are producing anyway, so they may not have the need to fish close to you.

I've been using a flasher style sonar on the ice for over thirty years now.  My friend and ice fishing mentor, Jeff Redinger, not only taught me the fine points of ice fishing, he also was the first person that I ever saw using a flasher on the ice.  I fished with him for a couple years without using sonar, relying on him for intel as to where the fish were.  I can tell you that, even though he shared info, he always out fished us by at least 8 fish to our one, maybe even more.
One of the guys who introduced me to ice fishing and the use of sonar on the ice, including teachings of Dave Genz, is my good friend and ice fishing mentor, Jeff Redinger.  Here Jeff shows the results of his talents with a couple jumbo slab crappie.  

Jeff was a big fan of Dave Genz at the time, and used what he learned from Mr. Genz to become a top notch ice angler.  Dave Genz basically made famous the use of sonar to find and catch fish through the ice, and his tactics of constantly moving to find active fish, rather than sit on one hole all day waiting for a bite.  Jeff was my mentor, but I have to also give credit to Mr. Genz for what he showed the world.  He wasn't the first or only person to use sonar on the ice back then, but, he certainly made it famous.  As far as his strategy to find fish, many people did that too, but, he was certainly a pioneer in that regard as well.

Jeff, a couple other buddies and I went to a particularly good lake known for big crappie in hopes of repeating success that he had on a previous trip.  We fished hard all day long and caught fish here and there.  We set up at right before dark at an area where Jeff marked fish earlier and caught a crappie.  He used his sonar while fishing small live minnows on a light aberdeen hook with a split shot on one rod, and a jig tipped with a waxworm on the other.  We jigged glow jigs tipped waxies within 12 feet of him.

Jeff relayed info to us about what depth he was seeing fish.  As he yanked in one after another, it was apparent that we pay heed to what he was saying if we wanted to catch fish.  Without sonar, most guys, including me at the time, would fish the bottom three feet.  He'd tell us that they were suspended at a certain depth, so we'd try to keep our lure at that depth and jig.  We had to guess that we were at the right depth, of course.  

By Jeff using his sonar, he could see his jig, see the fish, and see how they reacted to his jig.  That feedback allowed him to alter his jigging cadence to get the fish to bite.  He could also see his live minnow and if fish were looking at it or not, and adjust if necessary.

Here, you can see fish suspended on my flasher on the right side of the sonar screen, at two o'clock down to a couple feet off the bottom at 5 o'clock).  I try and drop my jig just above those marked fish

We caught fish, just based on what he said, that we probably wouldn't have caught had he not been there, or if he didn't have sonar.  Fishing with sonar through the ice is so valuable to me, and many anglers, that after purchasing one, we can't realize what we'd do without it, and wonder how we caught fish all those years without using one.  

Using sonar was quite a revelation, let me tell you.  Definitely, a game changer.  My friend, Glenn, purchased one the next year, and I got one the year after that.  Ever since then, it changed the way that I approached jigging for panfish forever.

I have to give credit to the other guy that introduced me to ice fishing, my good friend, Glenn Cumings.  If it wasn't for Glenn convincing me to go to one of his ice fishing workshops, I would never have set foot on the ice. You see, people just didn't ice fish where I live.  I met Jeff at that first workshop.  A few days later, they talked me into going to ice fish a local lake.  I was scared to death out on four inches of clear ice, but, I was hooked after that.  Here, Glenn shows a crappie caught at night during a recent trip.

Not only that, while fishing other lakes with my new sonar, I had people come up to me and ask what I was doing.  I showed each of them how the sonar worked, that you could find and see fish, that you could see your lure, and you could see them react to your lure.  In most cases, I gave up my seat and let them try it out and catch a few fish.

As time went on, over the years, some of them found me on the ice or on the ice fishing forums and told me that they wound up purchasing sonar too as a result of that experience.  I became friends with most, if not all, of those guys.  Some of them recognized me on my favorite ice fishing forum,  By the way, my user name on that forum is also Fat Boy (the origination of the Fat Boy name for this blog).

Over the past 30 years, sonar has become more and more widely used.  In fact, almost everyone that I see on the ice today has some form of fishing electronics with them.  I'm certain that the popularity of flashers started with television shows and magazines, but it really exploded as the internet emerged as a dominant source of information for anglers.

So, how does a flasher style sonar unit help at night while fishing for crappie?  Well, in my opinion, I feel that crappie tend to "feed up", so, when I'm successful at night fishing for crappie, I try to entice them to follow my lure by fishing my lure just above their depth.  When they chase or follow my lure, I know pretty much that I'm going to get a bite.  So, having the sonar is key to knowing what depth to fish.  How can you work a lure above them if they're suspended, and you're fishing the bottom?

Crappie often suspend, and seeing them on the sonar helps you figure out best how to work your lures.  It also helps you determine if the fish are in a biting mood or not.  In this photograph, the bottom is at about six o'clock on the sonar, and the red marks are so thick that they fill up the screen all the way to four o'clock.  The green marks above that are suspended fish.  Usually, those are the most aggressive.  On this particular trip, the fish were all seven to nine inches long, not big, but, we caught a lot of them, so it was fun.

Well, experienced anglers that don't have sonar know that crappie suspend, so they set baits at various depths (especially if using live minnows) to try and tempt fish that may see their baits.  They also jig the entire water column, starting at the bottom and working their way up.  That works, but, it's certainly not as effective as if you use sonar.

Do you need sonar to be successful fishing for crappie at night?  No, but it certainly helps.  If you know a good spot, and it's consistently good from year to year, then you can set up and fish without sonar and catch crappie.

I can remember at one lake that we used to love to fish, a bunch of guys would sit together in a circular group, each with two holes cut, one for each rod rigged with minnows, and each having a lantern fired up.  All those guys, lanterns and minnows grouped together over a good spot resulted in them catching a lot of nice sized crappie.  We saw them almost every time we visited that lake.

But, think about it.  All of the elements that I've discussed in the last example, save the sonar, were at play.  There is also a social benefit to fishing this way.  At least now, with COVID guidelines, people can't get too close to fish to you if they follow the six foot distance rule!  Even that is too close sometimes!!!

What kind of lures do I like?  Crappie will hit a wide variety of ice fishing jigs and spoons.  There's no denying that.  I have my favorites, and I'll share them here.  Some work really well for me at night, and those are my go to baits.

Probably my favorite rig is two glow colored Custom Jigs n' Spins Ratsos rigged in tandem, one above the other about 8 to 12 inches apart.  These lures have caught me more night time crappie than I can ever count.  The slow fall and enticing plastic tails tempt crappie just about every time I'm out at night fishing for them.  They also work great during open water fished under a float.  They come in various sizes, but I like the two smaller sizes the best.  Guess who turned me on to the Ratso?  Why, Jeff Redinger, of course!

One of the first lure combinations that I've had great success with over the years was a simple 1/64th ounce jighead teamed with a Bass Pro Shops pumpkinseed Squirmin' Grub.  Panfish love 'em.  For night fishing, put them on a glow jighead, or even a Ratso head.

The smaller Ratso in this picture (middle column, third from the bottom) and the Bass Pro Shops Squirmin' Grub in pumpkinseed (just below the Ratso are two of my favorite crappie ice fishing favorites.  I like the Ratso's glow colors best (pink, blue and green) when night fishing.

Another favorite when targeting big crappie for me is the 1/16 oz. Cicada.  It produces a lot of vibration and calls fish in nicely during the day or after dark.  I haven't caught a ton of fish on this lure, but I've caught my biggest crappie on this lure.  I pull this one out when I know that the lake that I'm fishing has jumbo sized crappie up to 15 inches long.

I always have a blade bait rigged up.  Often, if I need a break to stand up or the fishing slows at the hole that I'm sitting over, I'll get out and bounce around and try this lure at every open hole around me.  I can cover a lot of water quickly.  I drop the blade bait down to the bottom, lift it up to just off the bottom, then rip it up so that my rod tip is about eye level.  Then, I let the jig fall on a tight line.  Hits will come either on the fall or as the lure stops at the bottom.  

I can't tell you how many bass and big crappie that I've caught this way during open water or through the ice.  You don't need your sonar for doing this, but it's fun to watch, so also try it at the hole that you were fishing before too.

The 1/16 oz. Cicada (right side, middle row) is one of my favorite lures when targeting big slab crappie.  I've caught some real hawgs on this lure.  Bass and other predators like it too.  
Another really good ice fishing jig for night time crappie over the years is the Custom Jigs and Spins Demon in the orange glow brite color, but any of the glow colors will do.  I carry a variety of sizes and colors with me.  This is probably my favorite vertical presentation bait.  The glow feature on these are fantastic, and offer a bigger glow profile than other jigs.  They flutter on the fall like a spoon, and are deadly when tipped with waxworms or spikes.
This is the Custom Jigs and Spins Demon jig.  It's a vertical jig that has lots of fluttering action.  The glow colors glow exceptionally bright, making them one of my favorite nighttime crappie jigs.  This isn't the smallest size, maybe the next size larger than the smallest.

I also carry a whole bunch of ice jigs in various sizes and colors.  I have a good selection of horizontal jigs (like the Ratso) and vertical jigs (like the Demon).  I also fish a bunch of different sizes and colors of the tungsten jigs like the Fiskas jigs that you can get at Your Bobbers Down.  I've caught crappie on the smallest and largest sizes.

You can tip these with live bait like spikes or waxworms, or fish them with a variety of soft plastic lures.  I choose something that glows for night fishing.  Some of them have a glow bead, that shows a small glow profile to the fish at night, while other colors might cause the entire jig to glow.   Try different ones until you find one that works the night that you're fishing.  In general, if they're finicky, I go to the smaller sizes.  Conversely, if they're really aggressive, I'll choose the larger sizes.

But, honestly, you don't need to carry a ton of lures around with you.  I think that I can catch fish on usually what I have rigged up.  But, there are times when fish are finicky and you need to solve the puzzle, when a different lure might make a difference.

Here are some slabs that my Brother, Kyle, and I kept one night.  Kyle and I, caught a bunch of fish that night and kept just enough for a couple meals.  These fish hit a tiny Marmooska jig  with a small glow dot on the front of the lure tipped with a couple spikes.
Tungsten jigs fish heavier than lead because it's a much more dense material.  What that means to me is that I can fish a much smaller jig and get it down to the fish faster than a lead jig.  When they're aggressive, especially in deeper water, after you catch a fish, you want to get that lure back down there quickly before the fish move off and lose interest so you can catch another one.  

OK, so let's discuss the Ratso.  What makes this lure so special?  It's not tungsten, but is lead, so it has a slower fall than other lures.  I think that, in itself, draws strikes when faster falling jigs don't.  I like it best when the fish are holding in 25 feet of water or less.  I'm not afraid to fish it in deeper water, but it takes a long time to get the lure back down there to the fish.  The soft plastic is small, relative to the Bass Pro Shops grub or soft plastic tube jigs.  But, that stinger tail will twitch on the slightest movement of your rod tip.  One is great, but two in tandem are deadly.  

Custom Jigs and Spins now offers a tungsten version of the Ratso that is called the Tutso.  I plan on getting some of them too for fishing deeper water.  Edit:  I just ordered some of them directly from the company.  Please don't tell my wife about that!

Generally, if I'm marking a lot of suspended fish, I let the lure drop down through the school and watch my line and rod tip.  If I see the line go slack, then I set the hook.  That means that a fish intercepted the lure and inhaled it as the lure fell.  If there are a lot of fish down there, it's tough to distinguish your lure from the fish.  

If I don't draw a strike on the fall, then I'll jig it up slowly, using 1/8 inch hops of my rod tip, raising the Ratso 1/8 inch at a time.  I don't hop the jig up and down.  I just jig it up and keep it up.  I keep raising it to see if fish follow it.  If they do, I keep on raising it up.  My favorite cadence is almost as if my rod tip is like a pencil, and I'm drawing a pig tail style line from bottom to top vertically with 1/8 inch circles.  I don't know, but doing that keeps me focused on that spring bobber.  I do all of this when I have the attention of the fish.

But what if they don't seem to be interested?  Sometimes, they just aren't looking in the direction of your lure.  You have to jig more aggressively to get their attention.  Once they react to your jig, especially if they move right to it, then the above cadence works great.  

What if you were marking lots of fish, but, then they seem to vacate your screen?  Try aggressively jigging again to "call" them back in.  Once they show up, usually others follow.  If you try this often and no fish appear, then perhaps it's time to scout out other holes and move.  For me, once I'm on fish at night, they rarely leave.  I think that the lantern lights attract and keep them there.  Plus, the activity of fish feeding (being caught) seems to draw others in.  That's my theory, anyway.

Speaking of spring bobbers, for my Ratso rig, that's a key component.  Crappie are notorious light biters, and often, you don't see the bite with just a rod.  With my spring bobbers, I can see the bites easily.  If a fish hits without pulling the spring down, it may create slack line, and often the spring will move up, or relax.  If you see that, set the hook.  

In the video below, I talk about my tandem Ratso rig and my home made DIY ugly as sin but effective spring bobber.  What I don't mention in the video is that the light wire was purchased from a lure making vendor so I could make weedguards for my buzzbaits.

Even though I make my own spring bobbers out of light lure making wire, there are some very good commercially made ones out there that fasten to just about any rod that you own, and, they're much prettier than my springs.  I highly recommend that you have at least one spring bobber set up for fishing at night for crappie, or at least, a very sensitive rod.
This is one of my home made spring bobbers.  It's not pretty, but it works.  Basically, I bent the wire to my desired shape, added a bead at the end so it's easy to see, then formed a loop that my line goes through.  At the other end, I shrink wrapped the end and glued it onto the tip of an old broken rod.  Years ago, I accidentally broke the tip off the original rod, which I loved, but now, it catches even more fish with my spring at the end.

Sometimes, when they're really aggressive, they'll charge right to the lure and hit it.  Other times, they'll follow it way up the water column, maybe a few feet or even all the way to just under the ice.  As long as a fish is interested, I keep working it until I get a bite.

If the fish is just below the lure, you can see that separation on your sonar.  When the fish is even with the lure, take your eyes off of the sonar and watch your rod tip.  If you see anything out of the ordinary, from slack line to a tiny twitch of the rod tip that you didn't do, set the hook, it's a bite.

If you know that the school is aggressive, you can drop the lure to just above the school, and they will rise up to your lure.  If I'm using my tandem Ratso rig, then I'll drop the bottom jig right to the top fish or just below.  Why?  I might catch two at a time that way.

When the fish are really inhaling the lure, your rod tip or spring bobber might bend slowly and strongly.  When that happens, you know it's a good crappie swimming off with your jig.  Set the hook!

I don't always catch big crappie at night, but many of my bigger crappie do come at night.   

Everyone knows about that magic hour during the last hour of daylight.  Some stay a while longer.  But often, after most leave, and you have the ice all to yourself, the action really picks up.  

There is a small lake local to me that we fish often.  It closes at 9 PM, so we have to be off the water by then and packed up, ready to leave the property.  Anyway, it always seems that there is a lot of activity at dusk, and for the next hour or so.  Then, it slows a bit.  But, it always seems to pick up around 8:30 PM, of course, on this lake, right as you have to leave.  

On other lakes when you can fish all night, you'll find that often the action is steady all night.  During our last trip, we were planning on leaving for home around 9 PM, but, the crappie kept on coming.  We kept fishing until just before midnight, and with our three and a half hour drive home, wound up getting back around four in the morning.  But, it was worth it.

Fishing at night can be fun and rewarding, especially when you get on some big slabs.  Hopefully, my strategy and tips will help you find crappie at night.  If you enjoy catching panfish through the ice during the day but have never tried ice fishing for crappie after dark, give it a try.  You might discover a whole new aspect of ice fishing and make it your favorite time to be out fishing on the ice.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Cobia Fishing Mayhem at the CBBT (Part 2)

This blog post represents part two of this adventure.  This post recounts the last day of our 2020 cobia fishing adventure at the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel area.  We had two other days of exciting fishing, probably the most hectic fishing that I'd ever encountered.  The combined total of the catch for both days was two cobia, 73 sharks and 13 big stingrays.  It was utter mayhem on the boat the second day.  If you missed reading part one, you can find it here.

Steve is posing with this 43 inch cobia, the first of two that we caught on day one.  We hoped to add a few more on day two.  

The extreme number of sharks and rays in the area decimated our supply of bunker over the first two days.  We had plenty of live eels, but not having bunker posed a big problem.  Luckily, one local tackle shop in Cape Charles told us that their supplier would bring them fresh bunker at nine in the morning.  As far as we knew, these guys were the only shop around that had fresh bunker.  

So much for an early fishing start!.  But then again, having to get bait at nine meant that we could catch up on some much needed rest after the beat down the sharks and rays put on us during the first day..

For some reason, there was a shortage of fresh bunker in the area.  We didn't know if COVID had something to do with it or not.  Or, if it was simply that bunker were scarce in the CBBT area compared to other years.

Shawn Kimbro discusses the fate of bunker (aka menhaden) in the Chesapeake Bay.  There are serious concerns in the Chesapeake Bay recreational fishing community about the commercial over-harvest of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.  The vast majority of menhaden harvested are not for bait supply, but ground into oil for use in dietary supplements, animal feed, or even beauty products.  Perhaps last years bunker shortage is related to the over-fishing of bunker?  Probably.

Sharks are fun to catch, but when there are lots of 'em, you're going to go through some bait and tackle.

We arrived at the bait shop to find several boats and anxious anglers awaiting the arrival of the bunker supplier.  We were told that the supplier was on his way, and would be there within the hour.  The store owner set up a system where he gave each customer a number to save our spot in line.  We had one more chance to replenish our hooks, sinkers and leader.  Even though we bought hooks and leader the previous day, later that night, we lost a lot more tackle to the sharks.

When the supplier finally arrived, we were able to get plenty of fresh bait for the day's fishing.  What we had leftover was mushy, smelly, old bunker, that fell of the hook and stank up the boat, big time.  So, we were very appreciative to yet another local business, Bailey's Bait and Tackle in Cape Charles, VA, for come through for us.  If you visit Cape Charles, make sure to stop in and check out their store.  They're knowledgeable, very helpful and have a good selection of tackle.

The weather on our last full day was a huge let down.  We faced dealing with at least 20 miles per hour sustained winds.  But, since they were coming out of the East, we decided to try and tuck in along the Bay's Western shore, thinking the land would break the wind enough that we could run to the spot where we fished the night before.  
Here's a photo of Virginia Beach as seen from the Mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near the bridge during.  The Bay was really rough on our last day, and there was no way that we could get out to this spot.  This picture was from our 2017 trip.
We hugged the shoreline en route to Steve's cobia spot.  The waves were not quite as bad closer to shore, but, they were still pretty bad.  We really wanted to make our last full day of fishing count.  The exact spot that Steve likes to set up on was, unfortunately, further away from shore, where it was much worse.  

The allure of a honey hole proved too much to resist.  It didn't seem that far away, so we tried to get out to his spot.  As we moved further out, the waves were much worse, as some of them crashed over the bow.  It was pretty hairy.  I can't tell you how many times it felt like someone tossed buckets of water in my face on the way out. 

Steve tried to set the anchor so we could start fishing.  But, the wind was too strong to hold the boat.  No matter how much anchor rope he let out, the anchor just dragged the bottom.  There was no way we could hold anchor, much less fish out there effectively or safely.

We checked our Navionics app to see if we could find some good structure with a good current break, next to deep water closer to shore, out of the wind where we could at least hold anchor.  Hopefully, such a spot would attract cobia or drum.  In theory, cobia can be anywhere out there, but, we were about to set up on an unproven spot, so, our confidence was down.

After a soaking wet boat ride, Steve found a place close to shore that provided a nice current break near deep water.  We set up the anchor.  We had no idea whether or not fish were drawn to this spot.  There was another boat about a half mile away doing the same thing.  We set out the chum bucket, baited the rods and reels, cast our baits out and hoped for some action.  At least we were fishing.  We hoped that, maybe later, the wind might die down and we could move out to Steve's spot.

The tide pushed the lines one direction, but the wind was strong enough to push the stern of the boat in a different direction than the fishing lines.  Instead lines pointed off the stern, they pointed off the starboard side.  It was a little bit of a problem because you couldn't utilize all of the rod holders the way that you'd like.  It wasn't ideal, but, we were fishing.  And, that's a plus on a day when you question your sanity for even being on the water.  It was really rough out there.

At first, the action was slow, but it didn't take that long for the sharks to find our baits.  It wasn't as hectic as the day before, but the action was steady.  Cobia often travel with sharks and rays, so we had a chance.  The sharks weren't quite as big, but, we were fishing and catching fish.  Steve really wanted to be on his favorite spot.  He's caught cobia there before, and it's a proven spot.  Our chances were much better out there.
the business end of a typical hook stealing CBBT shark!
Fortunately, right before sunset, the wind died down and the waves laid down enough that we could get out to his spot.  After we re-positioned the boat and dropped anchor, we noticed that the tide hadn't changed yet.  It was slack tide.   We took some time to make sure that all of our tackle was ready to go, ate some food, relaxed, and took in the beautiful sunset.  Like the previous evening, we expected the action to pick up as the tide picked up.  When the tide is ripping, that's when the fish really hit the most, and that would occur well after dark.
After a long day of battling wind, waves and sharks, the Bay settled down and gave us a beautiful sunset and an opportunity to fish where we wanted to fish.
Just as we had hoped, the action picked up when the outgoing tide started to roll.  Again, the sharks and rays battled us, testing our tackle and our stamina.  The sharks were bigger at this spot, but the action wasn't as fast and furious as the previous day.  Although we caught fewer rays, they were massive.  Fighting them took so much time.  And, you can't assume that each one is a ray, because each one could be a cobia.  You really don't know until one is near the boat.  Some of the bigger sharks took a long time to get in as well.

Before we knew it, it was almost 11 o'clock at night.  The tide, by now, was ripping.  We weren't getting the sharks as fast as the previous night, and we had a lot of bait.  It was our last night, and, after spending the day fishing a spot that we really didn't want to fish, and finally getting out to the honey hole, we didn't want to leave quite yet.  However, we had a long ride home the next morning.  We'd be able to sleep in a bit, so there was some solace in that.  But, we both knew that we had to rap it up soon, unless something dramatic were to happen.

Around 11:30, we said to each other that we'd finish up using the baits that were already out, and when they're gone, we'd be done.  Of course, we were thinking that the usual suspects would be going through our bait, meaning, the sharks and rays.  

All of a sudden, the spinning rod sitting in the rod holder close to the chum bucket slammed down.  It sounded like a gun shot. We both jumped up, and Steve grabbed the rod.  Line shed from the reel so fast that it sounded like a power drill.  He held on for dear life as the fish bolted out toward the ocean.  The fish moved off the starboard side of the boat.  Steve had to pass the rod around another rod in a rod holder, and then around the motor.  As he handed me the rod, it caught on the top of the motor for a split second, then slipped off the motor and smacked me right in the side of the head.  Steve cracked up as  the look on my face probably looked like Curly after getting slapped by Moe.  

All trip long, we were able to pass the fish around the boat without much of an issue, but not this time.  As I fought the fish and tried to pass one of the rods, the rod tip tangled on one of the other rods.  I don't know if I passed my rod over the other one, or under when it should have been the other way around, or what.  No matter, it had to be fixed.  Steve grabbed the rod from my hands as I offered to untangle it.  

Meanwhile, the fish kept heading counterclockwise around the boat.  By now, he was off the bow.  We cleared the line, and Steve handed the rod back to me.  The fish continued around the boat, and we had to clear the rod around more lines.  I was able to pump the rod and gain a bunch of line back, finally.  We were lucky again that this fish didn't spool us.

What does "spooling us" mean?  That the fish runs so fast and hard that it rips all of the the line off of the reel, and ultimately breaks off, winning the battle.  We almost had that happen several times on this trip.  It's nerve-racking, to say the least.

We went around more lines as the fish kept taking me around the boat.  Once again, we are at the stern.  And around the motor we went again.  The fish moved off to the starboard side, and finally, I was able to gain line and bring the fish in.  Unfortunately, as the fish neared the boat, rather than run again, it bulldogged under the boat near the bow.  I handed the rod to Steve, who was in better position on the front deck to get the rod under the anchor rope as the fish moved to the port side.

While under the boat, the fish tangled itself in the chum bucket rope.  Now, we were in trouble.  Steve handed me the rod again, and worked to free it up, but without success.  We were in danger of losing this fish that we worked so hard for.  I had an idea on how maybe we could save it, and Steve let me take the lead.

I decided to pull the chum bucket rope and bring the bucket, and hopefully, the fish up with it.  In doing so, we were able to free the line by unwrapping it around the messy chum bucket.  I set the chum bucket and the rope on the front deck, out of the way.  

Steve muscled the fish in again.  At this time, we still hadn't seen the fish.  We had no idea what we were dealing with.  It could have been a ray or a big shark.  My headlamp got a glimpse of it, and we both screamed, "Cobia!"  I couldn't believe my eyes!

I immediately reached for the net to try to help put this battle to an end, as the hard fighting cobia seemed to swimming against the tide parallel to the boat.  It looked huge.  It was still too far away from the boat to reach it with the net.  Neither of us thought that it was quite ready.

Now, I've been the net "*****" for many a fishing buddy, and have netted more big fish than I can remember.  I've only had one mishap where the fish was lost many years ago.  It was a big king salmon that we had in the net.  The lure got caught in the net at the same time that it rolled, the hook came free and the fish flipped itself out of the net.  I couldn't believe it.  I swore that I'd never lose a fish again if I could help it.

After a fight like we just had, and with how unpredictable and crazy cobia are, anything can go wrong.  Even a net man as cool and collected as me (normally) can get flustered and mess up. I was determined not to let that happen.  I waited for the right time so that we had a chance to net the fish head first.  Finally, I had my shot and nailed it.  The big fish went the net, no problem.  

Of course, Steve was extremely excited, trying to coach me the entire time, and I reassured him that I'd get the job done.  But, deep down inside, I would have been devastating to lose this fish at the net.  It was my responsibility to do my part to finish this catch.  I take pride in my net work, and this was the ultimate test, because, so much can go wrong.  Once the cobia's head was in the net, I hoisted the fish into the boat.  It flopped out of the net, doing flip flops, as if aiming it's sharp spins with revenge in it's eyes.  We both, again, scampered to the back of the boat as far away as we could until it calmed down.  I was so happy to land that cobia for Steve.  
Steve holding up our third cobia of the trip that measured 47 inches long.  What a fight.  That fight could have been the definition of "Cobia Mayhem".  It was insane.
We exchanged a bunch of high fives, and rested a little bit to calm our nerves.  After the fish calmed down, Steve walked up to the front of the boat and measured it at 47 inches long.  Another really nice cobia!  After a few pics, we thought that maybe, since the tide was moving perfectly, and we just caught cobia, that we might be able to catch another one.  So, we agreed to keep fishing. 

This 47 inch cobia that gave us such a hard time.  These fish are psycho fish, and they drive anglers nuts too.  We can't wait to go try for more!
After that, the shark action picked up where it left off, and we had our first shark double of the day.  Not long after we landed the sharks, I put a huge chunk of bunker on the bunker rod.  Go big or go home, right?  

It didn't take long another huge fish to strike that bunker rod.  I picked up the rod and set the hook.  This fish took off just like the last cobia, and then, like the cobia, headed toward the starboard side of the boat.  I didn't see it, but off in the distance, Steve saw the fish jump way out of the water.  Because of that, he was convinced that it was a big cobia.  

I worked the brute of a fish in and it went for the bottom like a sinking ton of bricks.  I couldn't stop it, as it controlled me, not me controlling it.  It was in charge.  I was just holding on.  All of a sudden, it decided to go around the bow, and you know what that means?  Watch out for the anchor rope and chum bucket.  I handed the rod to Steve, who jumped up on the front deck, and he worked the rod under the anchor rope, and the fish then went for the chum bucket.

Once again, we have a big fish, probably another big cobia, wrapped up in the chum bucket rope.  Steve held on and I decided to pull the chum bucket up again.  This time, it was much tougher to do.  That fish pulled hard and was much heavier.  Still, I was able to eventually free up the chum bucket bring into the boat, out of the way.  Steve, meanwhile, fought the monster fish.

After several minutes fighting the fish on the port side of the boat, Steve was able to raise the fish high enough that, with my headlamp, we could see what it was.  It was a massive eagle ray.  It had beautiful white spots and had to be seven feet across.  I'd never seen a ray that big.  Wow!  He held on to it while I tried to get pictures and a video, but, those didn't turn out, unfortunately.

We finally got it to the side of the boat, and, with a ray this big, with a large poisonous tail spine, Steve didn't want to risk tangling with this ray, so he cut the line.  It was too big to flip over and get the hook out with the release tool.  The sea monster eased into the depths out of site.  

Even though it was a stingray, it was worth a few high fives.  It fought every bit as much as a cobia, probably for at least a half hour.  And, it fooled us into thinking it was a cobia with that big leap early in the fight.  Steve estimated that it came out of the water by at least six feet or so.

I loved the action we had catching sharks, but, when you get so many and it's so hectic, after a while, they become annoying, especially when you lose tackle.  The rays are frustrating because, quite simply, they just wear you down and own you.  But, looking back, it's great experience fighting big fish.  The better you are at fighting big fish, the better you'll be when it's the fish that you want.

At the end of our last full day of fishing, we finished with 36 sharks between 2 to 5 feet long, 4 massive stingrays, and another 47 inch cobia.  Three cobia on the trip, not bad at all.  And, we had no shortage of big fish action.  What a trip to remember for years to come!  

I'd say that if there was only one disappointment, it was that we didn't hook into and land a big bull red drum.  That's still on my bucket list.  Steve said that cobia are a blast, but there's nothing like a big bull redfish.  Well, now I have something else to look forward if I'm fortunate to get down there again.
Steve got quite a workout hoisting this gigantic bull red drum that he caught on a previous CBBT trip to pose for this picture.  We didn't get any of these on this trip, but it's something that I look forward to next time if given the opportunity.
We didn't get off the water until about two in the morning.  When you catch a big cobia, all you want to do is get another one.  Plus, the tide was ripping and fish, although sharks and rays, were biting.  We still had a good chance at another cobia.  We had to give it a go, even though all we did is feed the sharks.  Still, it was a good effort.  We put everything into it.

As a result of our efforts though, we were paying for it.  We were both very tired and sore from fighting big shouldered fish over the past two and a half days.  And, we still had to get back to the ramp, clean the fish, get back to the motel, eat dinner (at three in the morning), get our gear out of the boat, and maybe get some much needed sleep before the ride home.

After our hours long ride back to our normal lives, we arried home tired and cranky, but, both of us realized that our trip was quite special.  During the conversation later in the trip, we brought up the point that we work well as a team while fishing, and really, other than the late night faux pas, we had a fantastic time. 

My fishing buddy and friend, Captain Steve Kelley.
Steve, when you read this, please know that, even though I've said many times that you're a great Captain and fishing pal, that I don't say such things lightly.  Not many people get those kind of accolades from me.  Thanks again for the fantastic cobia trip, and the great fishing year. Happy New Year, my friend!

Monday, January 11, 2021

Cobia Fishing Mayhem at the CBBT (Part I)

This past June, Captain Steve Kelley invited me for long weekend trip of cobia fishing near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, also known as the CBBT, near the Mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  This was my second trip down there in search of cobia.  We also hoped to perhaps catch bull red drum or a jumbo black drum. 

A beautiful sunset near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel

This trip wasn't my first to the CBBT area in search of cobia and drum.  Steve has a great amount of experience fishing the area, having landed many huge bull red drum and cobia over the years.  Although we didn't catch any cobia or drum on my previous trip, I had an absolute blast.  On this trip, however, Steve had one main goal, to put me on my first cobia.

If you wish to read the details about my first trip to the CBBT, you can read about it in the blog posts listed below.  Any trip that requires four posts of details has to be memorable for me, and it certainly was.  I hope you enjoy delving into my past CBBT trip by visiting the posts below:
CBBT Part One - Night of the Shark

We arrived late in the afternoon only to find that the local bait shop was closed.  COVID may have played a roll, but, basically, another business bought them out, and they weren't ready to open for business yet.  We purchased some bait on the way, but we still needed more bunker to get us through the trip.  The first bait shop had some, but not much.  After that, we scouted out some back bay areas in search of good fishing spots to jig for flounder or puppy drum.  

The weather outlook for our first fishing day was pretty dismal, with high winds predicted, way too much for Steve's boat.  Normally, in situations like that, he'd fish for flounder or puppy drum in the back bays.  But, after checking into the motel room, we searched our Navionics app and found some deep water channels with ocean access behind the barrier islands, and wondered if anyone ever caught bull drum or cobia in there.  Why not, right?  So, we thought we'd give it a try.
The Chesapeake Bay and Ocean were too rough for our first day, so we fished behind the barrier islands and found wave conditions acceptable.  It was windy, but not that bad.  With lots of structure, deep channels, and oysters everywhere, there should be fish?  Right?
Since the weather was pretty snotty, and we had a long ride down the previous afternoon, and, we couldn't get out to where we really wanted to fish, we didn't feel the need for an early start.  We put the boat in and cruised around while watching the sonar, looking for fish on the structure that we found during our research.  

We found one spot with a hard bottom where the tide seemed right for dropping chunks of bait to predatory fish that may be lurking below.  Steve and I set up and baited six rods with various baits that attract cobia or drum.  We didn't catch any cobia or drum the first day.  However, we caught seven sharks in the three to five foot range along with three large rays.  
This was one of the smaller sized sharks that we caught during the first day.  We brought this one into the boat for a picture, but most of the sharks caught on this trip were released at boatside with a hook-out release tool.   
The shark in the photo above was netted for a picture.  Unfortunately, it bit through the netting material and managed to get it's head stuck in the net.  It made for a lousy picture.  But, these guys are so strong, neither of us wanted to bring another one into the boat, much less handle these toothy critters.  And, I think that this was the smallest shark that we caught all day.

Oh yeah, another comment about that picture...yes...I had COVID hair!  It was tough to find anyone that would cut my hair during the weeks preceding our trip due to virus business restrictions.  And, when news of the virus first came to light, I was already in need of one.  I had it cut short after the trip, but man, I sure had the Jimmy Houston look!  I hate having long hair!  

The funny thing is that the beard is also a result of COVID.  Prior to the virus, I had been clean shaven for several years for the most part.  When was the last time that I had a full beard?  During my last trip to the CBBT in 2017!  I started growing this one in March, and I've had it ever since.  My wife hates it.

At the end of the day, it really didn't matter that we didn't catch any drum or cobia.  Yeah, it would have been fantastic to find and catch drum and cobia at a new spot, especially a spot like this that's protected from wrath of big waves on big water like the open bay or ocean.  For now, at least we were able to catch big fish.  Heck, we weren't even sure that we could get on the water!  As it turns out, it was plenty of practice for cobia or drum fishing, and I'd take catching three to five foot fish over smaller fish any day, even if they were sharks and rays.  The bigger stingrays fight just like a cobia, with multiple runs that take you a few times around the boat.  It was great practice for juggling rods without tangling lines to land big fish like that.

When fighting really big fish, like cobia, you want to keep as many rods baited out there as possible, and try to fight and land your fish without pulling the other lines in.  Why?  Often, when one cobia hits, you might have another one on really soon.  They often travel together with others alongside sharks and rays.  So, after landing any kind of fish, it's important to get another line out as soon as possible.

Another way to think of it is that, how many times have you fished for other aggressive species, like bass or stripers, and had multiple fish in a frenzy trying to steal your bait from a fish that you're fighting as you bring it near the boat?  The fight of a big shark, ray or cobia might excite other fish into striking.

One more thing about this kind of fishing.  For the most part, all of the fish caught were "our" fish, because fishing for them requires a team effort.  When fish strike and rods go down, you take turns fighting and catching fish.  Sometimes, depending on extreme circumstances, you may have to pass the rod back and forth, and share in fighting the fish.  That's how hectic it is fishing for these beasts.  Technically, when the Captain does all of the research and work leading up to the strike, even the fish that you fight should be credited to the Captain, at least in my opinion.  

The only exception was a rod and reel that I brought and kept rigged.  For the most part, I fought and caught those fish.  Not because I'm selfish, rather, it's because I fish with a right handed baitcasting reel, meaning that I crank with the right hand and hold the rod with my left hand.  Steve, on the other hand, fishes with left handed baitcasting outfits, so fishing with my gear feels awkward to him.

And, even then, technically, Captain Steve, especially when he was teaching me the ropes of cobia fishing Steve style, did most of the work, should get credit for those fish as well.  Therefore, the fish, especially the first day, could all be considered his fish.  After all, he picked the spot, set the boat into position, anchored, set up and dropped the chum bucket, rigged most of the rods, cut the bait, etc. for most of the day.  It's really hard work.  You get the point.

I don't like being the fishing guest that never wants to help.  I want to pull my weight.  I wanted him to fish as much as me, and I wanted to share the work load as much as possible.  That's what good fishing buddies do.  So, take note, this is a huge tip.  If someone invites you on a trip like this, learn everything you can and help as much as possible.  Share the work load.  Because, if you don't, you might not get another invite.  If you do, most likely, you'll be back out there again.

When you're a newbie at something like this, it's understandable that you may hold back because you may not want to mess something up.  There is a learning curve, like anything else, if you've never done it before.  But, watch and learn what your captain does.  Be a sponge.  After a while, offer to try to do something that he's been doing, and you'll get the hang of it.  Until then, ask for help on other things, or ask questions to learn.  Ultimately, it will help you become a better angler, and a better fishing pal.

We got off the water about an hour before sunset.  Steve wanted to get back to the motel with enough daylight so he could cook dinner outside on his portable grill.  He had a couple ribeye steaks soaking in one of his favorite marinades, called "agua negra".  His recipe is basically soy sauce, lime juice, pineapple juice, spiced with cumin and garlic.  Actually, it's Cindy Kelley's recipe, her take on a recipe made famous by the Chevy's restaurant chain.  She modified the amounts of each ingredient of the recipe to near perfection.  Steve expertly cooked the steaks so that they literally melted in my mouth.  Oh my goodness, that steak was awesome.  He would have made Chef Gordon Ramsey proud.  

Hey Captain, you're reading this, great job cooking dinner!  I've since used his recipe several times to wow my family's palate.  It works well for steak or chicken.  That meal along with a beautiful Eastern shore sunset really set the tone for the rest of the trip.  The best is yet to come.
Cindy's version of the Agua Negra recipe.  It's delicious.  Marinade for at least an hour,  but the longer, the better.  The marinated meat is best when grilled, but is also excellent when broiled.
Cindy's recipe combined with Steve's grilling mastery!
The weather the second day was perfect, with light winds and overcast skies most of the day, and a little bit of rain in the morning.  Steve's boat is a small center console 200 horsepower bay boat with a full front deck with a trolling motor on a bass boat style hull.  He's comfortable taking it out in winds up to 10 miles per hour, or a couple miles per hour more depending on the wind direction, but it really depends on the waves.  Anyway, the light wind prediction enabled us put the boat in and go anywhere we wanted to fish around the bridge or the mouth of the Bay to the Ocean.

This time, we got an early start.  It was dark when we put in at the ramp.  Steve was stoked to be able to get out and fish his favorite cobia spot.  Steve's boat topped 45 miles per hour on the way to his honey hole.  Once there, we stopped, set the anchor, dropped the chum bucket, baited up all six rods, and cast them out.  The outgoing tide was ripping, perfect for his fishing technique.  It didn't take long for the first rod to slam down.  Line peeled off of the reel as the drag screamed.  Could this be our first cobia?

When we rigged up earlier, Steve encouraged me to grab the rod on the first bite and and fight the fish, which I did.  After a nice fight, I was able to get it near the boat.  It was another sandbar shark, about four and a half feet long.  Steve released it at boatside with his hook out tool, and I proceeded to grab some more bait.

Meanwhile, as I reached for a chunk of cut bunker, another rod went down and line screamed from the reel.  Steve picked that one up, and before I could get rod number one baited, another rod went down.  I grabbed that one, and we both fought fish, a double!  It was crazy.  We had to pass each other, make sure our lines weren't tangled, and also make sure that we didn't get tangled with the other lines that were out.  Both of us made trips back and forth past each other.  And both fish turned out to be four foot sharks.
We caught one shark after another, with several doubles on the day.  The final shark count on the second day alone was a mind boggling 66 sharks caught! 
Now we had 3 lines not baited, and 3 in the water.  No sooner did I get the bait on one did another rod go down.  Line whizzed off the reel lickity-split.  Steve yelled that it may be a cobia.  Cobia are known for having one blistering run after another, often leaping way out of the water.  They tax your tackle and create panic in the boat because one mistake could result in a lost fish.

This fish went on one of those runs.  Steve finally brought it to the boat, but neither of us were able to get a look at it, and then, of course it took off like a shot.  It didn't even act tired.  This fish hooked up on one of his heavier spinning set ups rigged with a piece of cut bunker.  Again, he pumped the rod up, and reeled down quickly while keeping the line tight, and gained enough line back to the reel and, once again, brought the fish back to the boat.  

The second run nearly brought the braided line to the backing, so He was glad to gain that line back.  Thinking that this was a big cobia, I reeled in the other lines to get them out of the way.  Then, we got a look at it as the beast neared the surface.  It wasn't a cobia this time, but rather, a massive stingray.  After wrestling with the behemoth ray, he finally got it near the boat.  I grabbed the rod and he grabbed the hook-out tool, and expertly released the fish.  You have to be careful to avoid the poisonous barb at the base of their tail.
We caught several species of stingrays, including this cownose ray.  They put up a heck of a fight, and deserve respect as a game fish, in my opinion.  They are so strong.  It's best not to try and bring them into the boat for a picture, and practice boatside releases.  They have a nasty poisonous spine at the base of their tail.  It's not worth tangling with that.
Sometimes, with really big fish, you have to bring in all the lines, bring in the chum bucket, and let the anchor loose that is fitted with a float so you can get your anchor back after the fight.  This is so you can motor up and chase the fish if you have to.  

Fortunately, this time, Steve didn't have to do that.  And it was a good thing too, since this one turned out to be a stingray.  After all, releasing your anchor is a last resort to chase a true monster, and you need to be pretty sure that it's a cobia first.  You don't want to lose your spot where you were getting bites.  As I said earlier, rays act just like cobia when you set the hook on them.  Fighting them will cramp your forearms, let me tell you.  So, they're good practice for fighting cobia.  I have a lot of respect for these fish after fighting them so many times here and further North up the Chesapeake.  They are so strong and really tax light tackle set ups.

We wound up catching a bunch of sharks and several rays over the next hour and a half.  But man, the elasmobranchs were active that day!  The scenario above, fighting multiple fish at the same time, happened over and over.  We eventually had a down pat system for dealing with them, where I'd help stabilize the shark or ray by taking over the rod, while Steve grabbed the line and removed the hook with the release tool.  It was crazy.  During my previous trip a few years ago, we caught a good many sharks on our last day, but it was nothing like this.  Those hit one at a time, and I think that we only had one double that day.-

Around nine in the morning, with the sun climbing, as our arms ached from fighting one shark or ray after another, one of the rods rigged with bunker went down.  Steve picked it up and set the hook, and line ripped off the reel at lightning speed.  He immediately handed the rod off to me.  I said out loud, "How many sharks or rays do we have to go through to hook into cobia?"  Steve said, "As many as it takes.  The only option is to move.  Do you want to do that?"

The funny thing is that each of us fought several large stingrays earlier that did exactly the same thing.  Those stingrays put a hurtin' on us.  And, all of the stingrays took the rigs that were baited with bunker.  We assumed that this was probably another stingray.  Steve wanted me to fight the first cobia, so that was his motive for handing the rod off to me.  If it turned out to be another ray, well, that was just good practice for ol' Kevin.

Whatever was on the other end was hell bent to seek refuge under the bridge pilings and took off at warp speed with no intention of stopping.  I thought that the fish was going to spool me.  With only the last bit of backing left on the reel, I was finally able to turn the fish, pump the fish in and gain some line.  I got it about half way in, and off it went again.  My forearms burned with agony.

Again, it peeled off almost all of the line.  Steve thought about perhaps getting the other lines in and pulling up the anchor, but, just then, luckily, I was able to turn it and gain back some line.  The fish and I had a stand off for a while.  It didn't budge while I held on for dear life.  Eventually, I was able gain some line and fight it almost to the boat.  Neither of us got a good look at it yet.  When it was about twenty feet off of the starboard side, we both gawked at what we saw.  Steve yelled out, "Cobia!!!"  It looked massive in the water.  We hoped that I could ease it to the boat while Steve readied the net.  

But, not so fast.  As I got the fish close enough to almost net it, it spotted the net and went ballistic.  It took off under the boat, and headed toward the chum bucket.  I did everything that I could to keep pressure on the fish and try to coax it in another direction.  I went around the motor and to the other side, almost like I was chasing Steve.  Finally, it turned back and headed off the starboard side again.  I brought the line back around the motor and this time, Steve followed.

I finally got the fish near the boat and Steve had a shot at netting it, and he made it count.  The cobia went crazy.  It was almost a miracle that it stayed in the net long enough to make it inside the boat.  Once the netted fish went over the gunwale, it flipped out of the net and on to the deck.  Cobia are notorious for this.  Just because you get one in the net, don't be surprised when they leap out of the net.  Fortunately for us, it happened over the boat.  Most of the time, it happens outside of the boat, and you lose that fish.

Once on the deck, the fish went crazy and thrashed around like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.  We both scampered to the back of the boat to get as far away as possible from the terror in the boat.  Cobia have sharp spines behind their dorsal fin that can cut your shins to shreds.  It happened to Steve on a previous trip, so I had prior warning.
Here's a closeup of cobia spines behind the main dorsal fin and the tail.  They're very sharp and can cut you to ribbons of you're not careful.  If one of these fish gets loose on the deck, watch out!  If you can handle them, be careful.
Check out this monster 57 inch cobia that Steve caught on a previous trip.  Imagine the mayhem on the boat during the fight and when this fish hit the deck!  Notice the bloody wound on Steve's shin?  Think that the cobia's spines got him?  Yup!
We simultaneously burst out into laughter, while almost out of breath, and shook uncontrollably from excitement.  It was the single most hectic fight of a fish that I ever had in my life.  I'm forever grateful for Steve handing me the rod.  My forearms, fingers, hands, and shoulders cramped and ached, and my hands shook like they never had before.  Unreal!

The cobia resembled a gymnast during a floor exercise.  After it settled down, we each took pics, measured it, and put it in the fish box to keep it on ice.  Our first cobia in the boat, and it measured 43 inches.  Wow!!!  Although Steve was impressed at the fish we both teamed up to catch, he said, "Guess what?  They get a lot bigger than that!"  My mouth dropped wide open like Alan Grant seeing his first dinosaur at Jurassic Park. 

Since this is a team effort, once the fish were safe to handle, we each posed for a picture of every cobia landed on the trip, but only after they calmed down.  When you first get them into the boat, especially bigger ones, it's better to let them settle down, otherwise, their sharp spines can get you.
This 43 inch cobia was our first of the trip, and my first ever.  Such power in these fish.  They can make the best anglers nervous during and after the fight.

Here's Steve posing with the same fish.  It's a team effort.  What a beautiful and powerful fish!
We continued to catch one shark after another, some of them reached five feet in length, way too big to bring in the boat for a picture much less fit in Steve's net.  We had a bunch of live eels at the beginning of the previous day, but we were starting to run low.  The sharks really tore into the eels and our supply of bunker.  The bunker that we had left seemed soft and old.  Besides live eels and bunker, we live-lined kingfish, spot and croaker that we caught using Fish Bites.  They also were adequate as cut bait.  
Cobia love live eels, but, unfortunately, sharks do too, and they're expensive.  When a shark kills your live eel like this, it's unlikely that you'll get a cobia on it.  However, if you toss it back out there, it's a sure bet that you'll quickly gain a shark's interest.
From early morning until the time we got off of the water to go fetch bait, we caught 34 sharks between three and five feet long, and a half dozen stingrays, with most of them about four to five feet across at the "wing" tips.   The day wasn't even half way over, and our shoulders and arms were already sore.  
Most of the sharks that we caught were in the three to five foot range, and most were too big to bring into the boat for a picture.  I managed to pose with one of the smaller ones.
Steve poses with one of the smaller sharks that we caught the second day.  You need to have a firm grip on even the small ones.  They're all muscle, and can easily cause you to break your grip, and their first instinct is to try and take a chunk out of your arm as they attempt to escape.  The vast majority of the sharks that we caught on this trip were too big to bring into the boat, much less trying to grab a hold of them.

But, around noon, reality set in, and it was more than apparent that we were running critically low on bait.  We may have had enough to finish the day, but certainly not enough for the next full day.  Not only that, with as many sharks that we hooked, fought, caught or lost, we went through a lot of tackle.  We had some gigantic fish that peeled line off of the reel so fast that they snapped the 50 pound leader like it was nothing.  The 80 pound test braided line held up pretty well, although I had one fish break off the braid.  I couldn't imagine what those fish were or big they were.  

We had to find a bait shop that day before it closed.  Not only did we need bait, we needed leader and hooks to replace what the sharks stole from us.  We didn't have enough to last the weekend on hand, especially if the sharks kept hitting as they did that day.  So, we had to get off the water, get what we needed, and get back out on the water to set up for the evening bite.

We pulled the boat out, brought it back to the motel, and searched the internet for tackle shops that sold live eels and bunker.  Almost all of the stores that we called were out of bunker.  Only one of them had live eels and bunker, and that store was across the bridge in Virginia Beach.  One store close to where we were staying said that they'd have bunker, but it wouldn't be available until the following morning.

We drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and headed to Virginia Beach.  The bridge is 23 miles long and takes about a half hour to get across, and the store was five miles further.  So, including time to make the return trip, get the boat, launch, and get to the spot, we were looking at a minimum of about two and a half hours of lost fishing time.

We made it to the tackle shop and picked up hooks and leader, while the very nice lady that we assumed owned the store, finished up with her customers.  After finishing up with them, she netted a bunch of eels for us.  I'll tell you that we were very impressed with the store's selection and service.  The name of the store was Long Bay Pointe Bait and Tackle.  I linked their website in case you fish down that way and want to check them out.  They were great.  Having live eels for us when nobody else did saved our trip for sure.  We also bought some bunker at a reduced rate, because it was a bit old and soft.  But, that's better than nothing.  It had to do, because nobody else had bunker.

After heading back to get the boat, drive to the ramp, launch, and head back to the spot, we were excited once again to try and tame another cobia.  By the time we got there, the tide had stopped and wasn't moving at all.  It was completely slack.  

There was no point in setting up quite yet, so we opted to fish the CBBT bridge pilings to pass some time.  We caught some sea trout, and Steve hooked a big fish, probably a drum, on a Coach Jighead rigged with a 7 inch Z-Man fluke, but it came unbuttoned just under the boat.  Once we noticed the current picking up around the pilings, it was time to get back to the Captain's favorite spot.  The sole purpose of the trip was to catch cobia, not jig the pilings or flounder fish.

We anchored up, set the chum bucket, cut bait, rigged and baited all six rod, and cast our baits out.  Even anchoring the boat properly requires teamwork.  One person drops the anchor while the other controls the boat to set it into position.  By now, I'd participated in almost all phases of the work aspect of this way of cobia fishing, enabling us to work on everything as a team, not just catching fish.  I did as much as I could by helping with the anchor, chum bucket, cutting bait, retying lost tackle rigs, releasing fish, or anything else that needed done.

At first, the action was pretty slow.  Now, all we had to do was to wait for the tide to really get moving.  We relaxed a bit, made sure that we were hydrated, and waited for what we hoped would be a good bite.  The lack of action persisted until sunset.  We weren't sure if cobia bit at night or not, but we were going to try anyway.  In the past, Steve had caught several bull drum after dark, but no night time cobia to date.

During slack tide, obviously, the lines that you have out just sit wherever you cast them, and the boat sets at whatever angle the wind pushes it.  When the tides begin to move, the current changes the position of the boat and swings the stern down current, and then pulls the lines toward the same direction behind the stern.  Of course, strong winds can change this, but not on this night.  When the tide pickes up, the fish get active, it's because strong tidal currents push bait out of their hiding spots leaving them vulnerable for being eaten.  The chum bucket takes advantage of the cycle, and draws bait and predators to the boat.

Cobia most often hit the bait closest to the chum bucket, and usually, that's where Steve likes to drop their favorite food, a fifteen to twenty inch live american eel, the bigger, the better.  That is the rod that, when it usually goes off, most likely to latch on to a cobia.  But, keep in mind, sharks love live or dead eels too, big time.

After the sun dropped over the Western shore, the first rod to go down after the tide changed was the eel next to the chum bucket, and it went down hard.  It went down so hard that the braided line broke during the initial run.  Whatever hit that eel was a monster something, perhaps a shark or a cobia.  We'll never know.  

During the entire trip, that happened a half dozen times.  Each time, you lose the entire rig, hook, leader, and sometimes the swivel and sinker.  That's a bummer, because it takes time to rig back up, especially when the action gets frantic.  And, earlier, I spoke about how much tackle we lost.  I couldn't tell you how many times sharks bit through the line at during the hook set, during the fight, and at boatside when trying to unhook them.  We lost a lot of tackle, and, as active as the sharks were, that became expensive.  

As the tide picked up the pace, the action was, to say the least, frantic!  Our baits were getting eaten faster than Fat Boy's pizza at the pizza parlor.  Over the next couple hours, we had multiple sharks or rays on at the same time.  By now, we had a routine down pat.  One of us fought the fish, and the other helped keep the lines free from the rod fighting the fish.  If we both had fish on, and one was a potential cobia, the other had to land his fish, or, if it was a small shark, just let it swim around out there, then help the other guy out.  Usually, it was me that held on to the fish while Steve popped the hook out.  He was better at it, and if you didn't do it right, the sharks took your hooks.  

We fought sharks and rays all night long like that.  It was hectic, to say the least.  And, it took a while to get each one in, especially the ones that were about five feet long.  Our tackle was pretty heavy, but, for the sharks, you had to wonder if 80 pound braid was strong enough.  If I remember correctly, the bigger sharks and all of the stingrays took at least ten to fifteen minutes to land.  So, you can imagine that we were busy all night long.
Steve caught this six foot long shark on a previous trip that probably weighed over 100 pounds.  These guys get up to eight feet long.  We use 80 pound braid and 50 pound leader.  It's easy to understand how these toothy critters steal tackle, by their sharp teeth to brute power.
Around ten o'clock at night, we considered wrapping it up.  We'd been up since the wee hours of the morning, and all we were getting were sharks and rays.  Steve said that maybe we'll fish the baits we had out, then call it quits when the baits were used up.  We had two eels out, one under the chum bucket, and one cast further out.  The one further out had been getting all sharks.  

Then, all of a sudden, the one with the eel further out went down hard and ripped off line as the reel sang the beautiful song indicating a huge fish was on.  Steve picked it up, set the hook and the fish went ballistic.  The monster fish tore line off of the spinning reel at a blistering pace down to the little bit of backing that he had on.  He was sure it was going to break off, but, he luckily turned the fish.  

When a fish seems like it's going to spool you, rather than lose everything, line and all, you have to do something.  One tip that works for me is to feather the spool a bit with your other hand to slow the fish down.  It puts more pressure on the line, but, when you don't have time, it's a better option than reaching to tighten your drag.  Plus, you have much more finite control of the tension that way, rather than crank the drag down to a set tension.

He pumped the rod and gained line, then held on for another run.  This went on several times.  About twenty minutes went by as this fish took Steve around the boat twice.  Each time we passed a rod, with a line out, in a rod holder, I helped him maneuver around it.  Sometimes, it took a few seconds to figure out if we had to go over or under a line.  Why didn't we just clear the lines?  Because, remember earlier, often cobia will travel together, and you have a chance at another cobia with more than one line out.  So, we fought fish with the lines out, hoping for a double.  

After a few runs, Steve got the fish close, under the boat.  We hadn't seen it yet.  It was just out of sight straight down.  Was it another ray?  Was it a huge shark?  Or was it another cobia?  Out of the depths, my headlamp caught a glimpse of the massive fish, and I yelled out, "COBIA!!!"  It was a three exclamation point fish, for sure.  To me, it was a monster.  The water always magnifies fish and makes them look larger, but, in this case, it was larger, definitely a better class of fish than the one we boated earlier.

As the fish tired, I readied the net.  I placed the net into the water, held the bag, and moved it out to receive the fish, but, the fish had other ideas.  Like our earlier cobia, this one took off like a shot when it saw the net.  It was so strong that it took almost all of the line off the reel again, but Steve was able to turn the fish, pump the rod, gain line, and bring it back to the boat.  Luckily, it didn't run around the boat this time and came straight in.  

Steve was nervous.  This was a big cobia.  Put those to together and things get intense.  That's not a bad thing either.  It keeps us both on our toes.  He yelled at me to "Hurry up and net it already!" I was not going to lose this fish for him, no way.  The last thing that I want to do is knock the fish off with the net.  The most important thing a net man can do is to think and be calm, and not beat the fish with the net.  You have to be quick with the net when you get your opportunity, especially with psycho cobia.  When the fish presented itself at the right angle for a head first netting, I took my chance and quickly got the head of the beast safely into the net.  Net man tip:  always net head first.  Never attempt a tail first netting job, it will lead to disaster.

It wasn't over.  The fish was bigger than the net.  It was tricky to hoist it onto the front boat deck, and, fortunately, that's what I did.  The fish flopped and thrashed while in the net on the front deck.  In the video below, you can tell how thrilled we were, and almost out of breath from the excitement while in awe of this fish.
We both exchanged high fives, fist bumps, screams, and rebel yells as we both were shaking almost uncontrollably.  After the fish calmed down, Steve put a tape on it and it measured a whopping 50 inches!  What a beast!  Steve again reminded me that, although this was a nice fish, they get much bigger.  My word...I can't imagine what fighting a 60 or 70 inch cobia would be like.   These fish are amazing.  Although the first two didn't show breathtaking leaps that they're known for, they sure made catching one a hectic experience indeed.  It was pure mayhem.
Steve poses with our biggest cobia of the trip.  This one measured 50 inches.  what a beast!  As if fighting a cobia like this isn't crazy enough, imagine multiple rods going down during the fight.  The shark action made it pure mayhem.  You had to fight and get the sharks in, because those hits might have been another cobia.
This 50 inch cobia gave us both a thrill.  It was my pleasure to net this fish for Steve.  What a crazy day we had!
Oh, I forgot to mention...I caught and released two sharks while Steve fought that fish!  So, at least those two lines were cleared, and he only had to maneuver around three other lines the rest of the time.  Is that mayhem or what?  Now you understand the title of this post!  When the action was fast and furious, as it was most of the time we fished, it was literally mayhem.  We had no time to rest or take a break.  We were either fighting fish, or re-rigging, re-baiting hooks.  It was constant action like I'd never experienced before.

We caught several sharks and rays over the next hour, and decided to call it quits around midnight.  At the end of the day, we finished with 66 sharks between 3 and 5 feet long, ten stingrays and two cobia.  This was my first cobia experience.  I was hoping to get one, after not catching one over my last four day trip, but we got two!  And, to top it off, we had one that was 50 inches long!

We were beat.  We  arrived at the boat ramp around a half hour after midnight, we still had to clean the fish.  Neither of us had eaten much all day.  We grabbed a quick bite from lunch that we packed as we drove to get bait, but that was it, at lunch time.  So, we were starved and so very tired.  Being in a boat all day is tiring enough, but when you fight big fish all day long, one after another, it wears on an old man like me.  Still, I loved every minute of it.

We still had another day of this adventure, and for me to do it justice, it will require a follow up blog post.  I will have, as the late great Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story" ready for you in a few days.  I'm trying to have my posts published by Wednesday of each week, but this post, along with last weeks post, took me extra time to write about and proof.  So, please bear with me and come back to read the rest.  I hope you liked the story so far, and thank you so much for following my outdoor adventures!