Week 37. Chris Karwacki: Chesapeake on the Fly
Looking at map of the Chesapeake, Tangier Sound looks like a big chunk of the Eastern Shore disintegrated into the Bay – which, in a way, it did.
Bounded by a chain of soggy islands to the west and endless expanses of marshes to the east, the sound is underlaid by a texture of submerged islands, grass flats, channels, shoals, and in some places, stump fields where groves of hardwoods once stood. The diversity of water creates some crazy currents, which keep the sound well-oxygenated and makes a pristine habitat for fish, but can also pose a challenge to navigate.
Chris Karwacki knows these waters by heart. He’s been guiding Tangier Sound and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia coastal bays since the 1990’s for mostly rockfish and speckled trout, but also gets redfish, bluefish, and the occasional Spanish mackerel mixed in. The speck fishing on the Tangier rivals anywhere from Texas to the Carolinas, and it’s not uncommon to catch rocks bigger than 30 inches in the skinny water of the stump fields.
I caught up with Chris recently to hear more about tips for fishing Tangier Sound, the best time to target specks and rocks, and of course his approach through the 52 weeks of the year.
What makes Tangier Sound unique and so good for fishing?
Tangier Sound is off the beaten path and is very remote. It is for the most part undeveloped and therefore doesn’t suffer from runoff and pollution that other parts of the bay receive. The sound’s rivers, creeks, marshy barrier islands, and expansive grass flats help direct and filter the cleanest water in the Chesapeake Bay too. It’s that blend of strong current, natural structure, and oxygenated saltwater that makes for a healthy marine ecosystem.
What are the primary species that you target?
The most common target in the sound are stripers. Schoolie-size bass are everywhere in the shallows and will aggressively strike flies and lures, and each year we catch bass over 30” on the fly in water that is just a couple of feet deep.
Speckled sea trout are also prevalent in the sound during the warmer months. The speck fishing in Tangier Sound can be world class. It is not uncommon to catch trout in the 20” range throughout the season with some fish pushing up to several inches beyond that number. We have the best specks anywhere north of the Carolinas. I would be willing to put the quality of our fishery up against any those in the Southeast.
What’s your favorite week or two each year to target specks? Rocks?
For specks, I like the last week of May and the first week of June. Some years, the last two weeks of September can be another great time for trout.
For stripers, my absolute favorite time is the last week of October leading into the first week of November. This is a great time for the new saltwater fly angler to sharpen their skills as the quantity of fish is very high.
How do your strategies change through the seasons?
I focus primarily on shallow water, so my strategies don’t change drastically from season to season, but there are some minor tactics that I tweak that can sometimes result in more bites.
In the spring, I usually start fishing in late April or early May. I like the water temps in the shallows to be at least in the 50s to target stripers. I never pass up shallow water structure in depths of 6-10 feet this time of year -- rock piles, jetties, and lighthouses all can attract a nice grade of bass.
As the days become more consistently warm, I’ll start fishing the grass flats and sod banks for both stripers and trout. May can be the month when a nice grade of specks begin to move into the sound. They are here to spawn and are full of eggs, so it’s important to catch and release to help sustain the fishery.
What are some of the seasonal cues you watch for that jumpstart the migration and spawn?
I think water temperature is very important. Stripers will begin to bite flies and lures in temps in the upper 40s, but trout typically need consistent temps of at least in the 60s in the shallows. This time of year, they’re typically feeding on menhaden, silversides, and soft crabs.
As for conditions, water clarity is everything. If it has been windy, which is typical in spring, you have to search for clean water to find a consistent bite on artificial baits.
Moving into summer…
I’ll fish the shallows straight through the summer regardless of water temperature or sunlight intensity. The clean, salty, oxygenated water of the sound sustains the fishery when most other parts of the bay shut down this time of year. That is not to say we don’t have our challenging days—this is fishing after all!
We’ll catch stripers in the shallows right through the summer, although not in the high numbers of the fall. More specks tend to move into the area during the summer, especially starting in July and August. Blues and sometimes puppy drum will move into the summer shallows as well. Last season , we caught some nice sized Spanish mackerel too on the flats while speck fishing.
Do the specks prefer the saltier water of the high summer?
Trout do prefer some salinity to the water. Tangier Sound is located just far enough south in the Chesapeake Bay where you can start tasting some ocean water when you take some spray across the bow. During the hottest parts of the summer when the salinity levels are highest, some juvenile specks are caught in the middle to upper reaches of the bay.
Any tactics for the brutal dog days when the fishing in most of the bay seems to shut down?
Yes, one is to fish a structure-laden area on the incoming tide. Fish love to hang around structure in the shallows such as grass beds, tree stumps, or rocks, and an incoming tide can bring in cooler water from the deeper parts of the sound. As the current brings the cooler water across the flats, the temperature change -- even if only a drop of two degrees -- can trigger the fish to feed.
Fall is perhaps the easiest time of year to catch fish in the shallows as the water temps begin to cool and the bait fish begin to congregate. September and early October can see some fantastic trophy speck fishing. By mid-October, the specks have migrated out of the shallows and are replaced by huge numbers of striped bass.
The entire month of October is a great time of year to fish the sound. If I were to break it down to a four week stretch, the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November are my personal favorite.
The stripers are everywhere and they can get into the 30” range. They are in the shallows, stacked on channel edges, and blitzing bait under shore birds. The action can be non-stop. When temps become consistently cold, the vast majority of the stripers will move out into the open water.
Some years we fish the sound well into January, especially if it is a mild year. These days, I like to hang things up by the end of November to spend the holiday season with my family.
Do you duck hunt the sound?
I do duck hunt the sound during the winter months, but not as much as I did when I was in my 20s and 30s! I guess I’m starting to get old. These days, I spend many winter mornings upland hunting with my bird dog.
What kinds of flies do you use?
I’m mostly fishing clouser minnows in chartreuse and white. I like how the hook point rides up and snags less on shallow water structure. If I want a bigger profile, I will tie a half and half, which is essentially a clouser with hackle feathers tied as a tail. I fish these flies during all of the seasons.
What are your favorite recipes for trout?
While I do release the bulk of the fish I catch, I do enjoy to eat some specks now and then. They meat is white and flakey and is absolutely delicious. Fried speck fillets breaded in House Autry seasoning with a side of Smith Island Special Blend crab cakes and some Eastern Shore sliced tomatoes is my favorite summertime dish.