Monday, June 19, 2017

CBBT Part One - Night of the Shark

CBBT, aka the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.  The acronym is quite well known around the salt water angler community because of the fantastic fishing to be had there.  Not only does it have a variety of species that are willing to bite, the CBBT is also known as a world class striped bass, red drum, black drum and cobia fishery.  My friend Steve Kelley showed me the ropes at the CBBT in hopes of putting me onto one of the giant bull reds that were showing up a couple weekends ago.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT)
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, or CBBT, is a 20 mile long twin toll bridge and tunnel system that connects Virginia's Eastern Shore to Southern Hampton Roads, crossing the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at the Atlantic Ocean.  From an angler's standpoint, this is a massive fish holding structure.  There are hundreds of pilings and four rip rap islands that hold fish and provide current breaks.

Also around the area, there are many well known shoals that provide habitat for bait as well as fish holding structure for the many large fish that inhabit the area.  In addition to that, there are plenty of shallow backwaters, creeks and coves that provide productive fishing for sea trout, bluefish, puppy drum, flounder, and a whole host of other species.  We only had a few days to fish, and to cover all of what we wanted to do proved to be a bit of a challenge.

You want to catch trophy fish, but at the same time, there are so many opportunities to catch a wide variety of species.  Both concepts appeal to me.  But do you jig for variety or target trophy fish?  Drift for flounder or anchor for redfish?  Lures or bait?  Fish or cut bait?  We had a limited amount of time but we still did a little of everything.  We had a great time even though the weather struggled to cooperate with us early on.

Our first day was a travel day, with the plan of fishing the evening bite into dark exclusively targeting red drum and catch/photo/release cobia.  The season for cobia hadn't opened yet and was a couple days away.  But when we arrived, we found high winds that blew from the West, the wrong direction for the side of the bridge that we planning to launch, making the Bay and ocean too rough for Steve's boat.  So, we decided to grab a bite to eat and relax at a local watering hole until things calmed down.

After a couple hours, the winds eased up somewhat, at least to the point where the white caps weren't so large and frequent.  We scrambled to get the boat launched to get on the water because we were chomping at the bit for some fishing time.  We headed out to one of Steve's favorite spots, actually one of those "spots within a spot" where he's had good success catching bull red drum in the past, anchored up, and set up in hopes of catching a trophy.

Although bait fishing wasn't new to me, this was a different game, on a larger scale.  Captain Steve Kelley, a title well deserved after putting me and my other friends on trophy fish in the past, expertly and quickly had the lines rigged with several tempting offerings for these trophies.  Just to be clear, Steve isn't a professional fishing guide by trade, although, with his experience fishing this area could result in such a career.  The title Captain pertains only to his experience in fishing these waters along with being the boss on the boat.
Captain Steve Kelley shows us a fish that he teamed up with my buddy Rodger to catch in June of 2016.  This was the type of monster fish that he hoped to put me on this trip.
First, he set out the chum bucket so that the tidal current would send scent and small chunks of bait away from the boat, attracting baitfish and predators alike, drawing them closer to our baits.  Then, he set up the rods one by one, organizing them by the amount of line out and distance to the chum bucket that he preferred.
Steve setting up the chum bucket to attract baitfish and predators alike.
One rod was rigged with a live eel to tempt a hungry monster cobia.  Another two rods were rigged with half of a blue crab to attract monster red drum.  Another rod was rigged with large chunks of frozen bunker, almost the entire fish minus the head and tail.  Both cobia and bull reds will readily engulf cut fish.  The last rod is usually rigged with live bait, preferably bunker, croaker or spot, all of which cobia and bull reds would devour.  However, the bait shop was out of live bunker when we stopped by.  We'd have to catch the type of live bait that we'd need.  We hadn't caught any live bait yet, so Steve baited up another large chunk of frozen bunker on that rod.

After about twenty minutes or so, Steve caught a small sandbar shark, about two and a half feet long or so.  While trying to release it at boat side, the shark shook his head a couple times and bit through the leader, saving Steve the trouble.

Shortly after that, a large pod of bottle nosed dolphins showed up.  Of course, the kid in me called out to them and clapped, and they came to the boat.  Steve inadvertently cast out one of the lines in their direction, not knowing that they had moved that close to the boat.  A few dolphins porpoised nearby right as he sent off his cast.  Just as he cast and saw them, he yelled out, "Ohhh no!  I didn't mean to do that!"  Bloozsh...the bait hit the water and the dolphins scattered.  So, our close encounter with the dolphins ended just that quick.

It was just as well, because Steve thought that they may chase fish away.  So, for the rest of the trip,  I refrained from doing that again while we were fishing.  Still, he thought it was pretty cool that we could call them in like that.  I guess I was having visions of the old Flipper TV show from when I was a kid!  I caught the whole thing on video.

Sorry about the poor video framing.  It was tough to just stand up due to the wave action much less trying to film a video with an iPhone.  It was all that I could do to keep from toppling overboard.

After an hour without a bite, the wind calmed slightly, although it was still pretty rough, we decided to haul everything in and try another spot.  Since the tide was going out, perhaps the other side of the bridge would be more productive?

So, we set up on the Atlantic Ocean side of the bridge.  However, the spot that Steve wanted to fish was very rough due to high winds and extreme tides, so during the tide change, the current was much too strong.  This made for rough seas, but more importantly, made it difficult for our baits to hold bottom.  So, after an hour of waves beating the heck out of us, we moved back to his original spot.
As you can see, it was quite a bit more rough on the other side of the bridge, and the current was ripping through there.  We couldn't keep our baits on the bottom.
The tidal current was ripping on the ocean side of the bridge.  Here you can see Virginia Beach in the Background.  I guess Portugal was to our East.
We set up our baits again at Steve's original spot and got the chum bucket going again.  The sun set and the winds died down a little more.  All we had to do was relax, enjoy the sunset, and wait for those monster fish to bite.
After we set up again on Steve's favorite spot, the wind and waves eased up a little bit, the sunset gave us a sense of calm where we could sit down, relax, and wait for that big fish bite.
After a half hour, Captain Steve yelled out my new nick name, "Hey Chum Bucket, get that chum moving!"  So, I crawled to the front of the boat and gave the chum bucket rope a good many yanks and shakes.  Actually, on previous trips, he dubbed our friend Rodger that nick name, so I guess in my case, it was more of a Captain's order than a nick name.  Either way, I'd been called worse and obeyed the Captain's order.  Throughout the trip, when we were bait fishing for monster fish, that was my job...chum bucket man.
Here's Chum Bucket aka my buddy Rodger trying to hoist up a monster bull red drum that he and Steve caught last August.  Earning the nickname "Chum Bucket" may have helped lead them to this impressive catch.
By now, darkness set in and it was a beautiful yet eerie night.  Things were quiet as we relaxed and waited for action.  The only thing we had to do was check our baits now and then and replace what the bait stealing crabs and smaller fish robbed from us.

All of a sudden, the rod with the live eel doubled over, the drag screamed and line peeled off the reel at a high rate of speed.  Steve was closest to that rod, so he picked it up and set the hook hard several times while reeling at the same time, and then he handed the rod off to me for the fight.

This type of fishing is a team effort anyway, so no matter who sets the hook or fights and lands the fish, it's our fish.  Technically, it was his spot, his rigs, he set up the baits, he did everything, so really, they're all his fish (at least from the point of view of me giving someone the most credit to catch one).  I'm just happy and lucky to participate in the experience.  That said, Steve's goal was to provide me the experience of landing a big bull redfish or cobia.  This time, was it a monster cobia?

So, I fought the fish.  And, I fought it some more...and more...and more, all the time without knowing what was on the other end of the line.  It seemed like forever, but after about fifteen minutes, and bull dogging a few times under the boat and toward me around the motor, it finally surfaced.  It wasn't a big cobia, rather, it was a shark.  It was a nice size shark, but still not a cobia.  Still, it was a good fight.

But, it was a fight that wasn't quite over.  Once the shark took a gander at the net near its nose, off it went on another run, peeling line off the reel again.  I fought the fish for the next ten to fifteen minutes.  I pumped the fishing rod up, then reeled down to gain line, over and over.  Near the end of the fight, my fingers, hands and forearms cramped in pain.  But, I was determined to boat this shark, and a few minutes later, the shark made it to the surface again where Steve successfully applied the net and put it in the boat.

It was just small enough that we could bring it on board the boat, but a little too big for me to hold for a photo, so we left it in the net for the picture.  After all, I'd like to keep both hands attached and avoid a trip to the hospital.  These sharks can bend around and reach their tail with their mouths.  So, you have to secure both the head and the tail while holding them or you risk being bitten.  If you can't do that, find another way to get a picture.
Based on the size and the position of the dorsal fin, we think it was a sandbar shark.  Later, after seeing this picture, I noticed that the shark's position was kind of precarious.  I'm glad it didn't lurch forward for a bite.
Steve knew it wasn't a cobia by the way it fought.  According to him, usually, cobia go crazy, jumping and taking you around the boat, fouling any lines or anchor rope that haven't been cleared.  The key when you hook a giant cobia or red is to clear all of the lines and release the anchor.   The anchor is tied to a buoy so you don't lose it.  If you hook a giant fish, you can release the anchor and chase the fish rather than have a fish like that strip all of the line off of your reel.  After a fight is over, you can always motor back to retrieve your anchor line and set it again.  This shark basically kept to one side of the boat, even though it bull dogged directly under the boat a few times.  It's amazing how strong a shark this size is.  I can't imagine fighting an eight footer.
Steve posing with the same shark.  He did pretty much everything to catch this fish except for the fight to the boat.
Not long after we caught that shark, the tide ripped past us along the shoal, making it tough to keep the baits down and, as a result, the bite slowed.

We had a long day due to the long travel, had to deal with rough water, it was past midnight, and we were dead tired so we decided to call it quits.  We sped back to the ramp, pulled the boat out, and went back to the motel.  Despite the late hour, Captain Steve became master chef, as he cooked up a delicious steak and grilled veggies dinner on his portable grill for the both of us.  This was quite the midnight treat after treating me to a day of fishing.  How many fishing guides or fishing buddies would do that for ya?

We would rest up and look forward to hitting it hard the next day at the crack of dawn.  We were stoked, having much anticipation for big fish to come for our first full day of fishing on the trip. Because of that, getting to sleep wasn't as easy as I thought it would be even though I was exhausted.  The weather forecast looked a little more promising.

More of this story to come...please stay tuned!

To read CBBT Part 2, please click here

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