Issue: July 2007
ANGLER'S ALMANAC: Magnetic South

The lower Bay boasts three of the Chesapeake's finest fish attractors—the bridge-tunnels at the mouth of the Bay, across Hampton Roads and at the mouth of the James.

By John Paige Williams


Every one of us who pays attention to fishing reports around the Chesapeake knows that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is one of the most productive fishing spots on the entire Atlantic coast. But lower Bay anglers also know that the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel at the mouth of the James River aren't too shabby as fish habitat either.

What makes these large, complex structures such effective fish magnets? In general terms, they offer hard surfaces for small critters like barnacles, anemones, sponges, grass and sand shrimp, mud crabs, blue crabs and worms—which in turn attract small fish and larger predators. And they offer those substrates at depths ranging from 5 to more than 50 feet.

Being at and near the Bay's mouth, the bridge-tunnels receive a lot of clean, clear, well oxygenated ocean water coming in on strong flood currents, and all fish entering or leaving the Bay and the James River must pass across or near them. Finally, the bottom topography around them also offers a range of environments, including shoals and oyster reefs.

All that said, however, each bridge-tunnel has its own characteristics. Studying them offers valuable lessons in fish habitat that are applicable to fishing artificial structures here and elsewhere in the Chesapeake.

THE CHESAPEAKE BAY BRIDGE-TUNNEL
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) stretches 17.6 miles across the mouth of the Bay from the Virginia Beach shoreline between Lynnhaven Inlet and Little Creek to Fishermans Island just inside Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore. Opened in 1964 and added to in 1999, it consists of four islands, two tunnels, two bridges and more than 12 miles of low-level trestles. The trestles and bridges offer current-restricting pilings that create all sorts of eddies; the islands present rocky shorelines; and the rock-covered tunnel tubes provide deep-water fish habitat. 

The shipping channels over the two tunnels drop down to 50 feet in between shallower areas pocked with shoals of sand and shell—especially around the Third and Fourth islands—that create plenty of their own eddies and "live bottom" communities. In addition, there is a small boat channel under a high-rise bridge just off Fishermans Island, where a 35- to 60-foot groove carrying ocean water slides between the island and two major fish magnets, Inner Middle Ground Shoal (2 feet deep on top) and Latimer Shoal (4 feet on top). It's no accident that these two shoals attract both red drum and cobia from the Atlantic early in the summer. 

Other summer fish include large flounder and black drum that forage the tubes and the islands, respectively. Two more predators, gray trout and sheepshead, forage the tubes as well as some of the pilings. Gray trout are in short supply in the Chesapeake these days, but if you want to catch a big one, the tubes hold the highest potential. Sheepshead constitute a relatively new but addictive fishery at the CBBT. Meanwhile smaller flounder, spot, croakers, pan trout and interesting oddities like clear-nose skates prowl the shoals around the ship channels. Buoys on the edges of the shoals hold shallow-swimming spadefish, while rockfish and bluefish venture into the white water created by waves crashing against the rock islands. And the eddies around the pilings always hold some rockfish.

There are three caveats to fishing the CBBT: With so much variety available, it's tempting to go out after everything that's in season, but that variety can be bewildering. For example, how do you choose between 2,523 pilings? It's always important to focus on the habitat—if not the fish species—you want to fish. Carefully pick a game plan and stay with it. Second, keep in mind that the mouth of the Chesapeake is 12 miles across, with big water on both sides and nowhere to hide from a summer thundersquall. It's no place to take a small boat on a day of iffy weather. Third, the CBBT is a very well known fishing hole, within easy reach of a major metropolitan area, highly publicized to tourists and in the middle of channels leading to two major ports and the largest naval base on the Atlantic coast of the United States. Boat traffic is routinely heavy, from 16-foot skiffs up to and including aircraft carriers. Pay attention and be careful.

THE HAMPTON ROADS BRIDGE-TUNNEL
The original two-lane Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) opened in 1957, with the second pair of lanes added in 1976. At 3.5 miles long, it connects Norfolk's Willoughby Spit with the Phoebus section of Hampton. The channel, however, is made narrower to the south by the shallow underwater extension of Willoughby Spit, augmented by the small, rocky manmade island that holds Fort Wool, and to the north by Fort Monroe, which lies beside the north end of the HRBT. The remaining mile-wide slot must carry the entire outflow from the James River, which carves a channel over 50 feet deep here. 

While the channel shoulders on each side are steep, each end of the HRBT has shallow bars and sloughs. Inside Fort Wool, the south end offers anglers a pair of 5- to 12-foot sloughs with shallow bars on either side that have a track record of attracting speckled trout in the spring and fall. Immediately downstream of the south bridge pilings, a series of hard-bottom lumps attract spot (which, after all, are officially named Norfolk spot) and croakers, with flounder on the edge dropping off into the channel.

To the north, channels closely parallel the bridge as they lead boats into Fort Monroe (downstream) and the Hampton River (upstream). Upstream of the Hampton River channel lies Hampton Bar, a 5-mile stretch of shallow hard clam and oyster bottom nestled into the crescent of shoreline that runs from Fort Monroe west to the Newport News Small Boat Harbor (denoted on charts as Newport News Creek). Although a very wide range of fish can show up between Hampton Bar and the HRBT, the staples are spot, croaker, flounder, rockfish and gray trout. The HRBT has a history of turning out the second highest annual totals (after CBBT) of citation grays in the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament.

For small-boat anglers, one huge advantage of the inner bridge-tunnels over the CBBT is their more limited weather exposure. On the HRBT, for example, there is nearly always a lee of some sort to be had on one side or the other. This is still big water that requires good gear and boat savvy, but it offers opportunities on days when the CBBT is unfishable.

THE MONITOR-MERRIMAC MEMORIAL BRIDGE-TUNNEL
Just upstream from the HRBT is the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (MMBT). Completed and opened in 1992, it stretches 4.6 miles across the western end of Hampton Roads from the Newport News Small Boat Harbor to the Suffolk shoreline just below the mouth of the Nansemond River. Note that this expanse of water is significantly wider and shallower than that under (and over) the HRBT. The James pours plenty of water through here, so the bottom is well scoured and hard, with a few lumps and bars that originally held oysters. The western end of Hampton Bar lies just downstream, while upstream are the reefs that historically supplied the vast majority of seed oysters to the rest of the Chesapeake.

Like the James River Bridge just upstream, the MMBT attracts plenty of spot, croaker and rockfish to its pilings. Few people troll or jig the tunnel tubes like they do on the CBBT, but there's potential there. Because the bridge sections are close to the water (17 feet of vertical clearance for most of the distance, 25 feet over the small boat channel on the south side), this structure lends itself to fishing light lines at night. Local anglers position their boats under the bridges, looking toward the up-current light line. They say they can see rockfish lined up along the dark edge of the line, noses into the current, waiting to ambush baitfish disoriented by the light. Casting up-current into the light and swimming a jig or fly back into the fish draws plenty of strikes. 

One alternative daytime tactic is to approach a piling from down-current, cast a bucktail past it and swim the jig with the current close by the structure. Rockfish are likely to be resting in the eddy behind the piling, waiting to ambush prey swept past. Another tactic, developed at the CBBT, has the helmsman holding the boat up-current while an angler casts to a piling and allows the jig to fall as the current sweeps it past the ambush point. This technique can yield great results, but it requires the use of plug-casting tackle and takes a lot of practice to feel strikes on the sinking lure.

For small boats, the MMBT is a short run from the marina/restaurant ramp at the mouth of Bennett Creek, just inside the mouth of the Nansemond, or from Anderson Park on Chesapeake Avenue in Newport News. In benign weather the MBBT is a great spot for small-boat anglers—but it too is exposed and not a nice place to be in a strong northwest wind.

Three bridge-tunnels, three different complexes of fish habitat where the Chesapeake and the James River meet the Atlantic. So many pilings, such long tubes, so many adjoining shoals. There's enough going on here to keep dedicated anglers busy 24/7/365.

THE TACKLE BOX
• To learn more about the three lower Bay bridge-tunnels, each an engineering marvel, visit www.roadstothefuture.com.

• Bass Assassin (www.bassassassin.com) has introduced a new line of versatile saltwater lures that Bay anglers will find effective for a wide variety of fish around the bridge-tunnels and elsewhere. The lures feature SLURP, a special scent-release technology that has been added to Bass Assassin's already popular 4-inch Sea Shad and 5-inch Saltwater Shad soft plastic tails. The company says its highly concentrated SLURP scents get stronger the longer the lure remains in the water. Unlike biodegradable, water-based plastic tails, the new lures are designed not to shrink or harden. They're made of Bass Assassin's regular saltwater plastic in colors like pearl and electric chicken, both favored on the Chesapeake.