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Bill Cochran: Winter striped bass fishing big disappointment along Virginia coast

Bill Cochran: Winter striped bass fishing big disappointment along Virginia coast

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The old saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” applies to winter striped bass fishermen along the coast of Virginia.

The Chesapeake Bay fishery all December was a huge disappointment. There were a handful of trophy fish caught off Cape Charles, Kiptopeak and along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but most anglers went home empty handed.

When the Bay catch-and-keep season ended, Dec. 31, anglers turned their attention to the Atlantic oceanfront where the season continued from the Eastern Shore, to Virginia Beach, to northern North Carolina. While there have been scattered encounters with big fish, some of them 40-to 50-pounders, the coastline action has been just as slow as it was in the Bay.

Statistics from the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament tell the story. The 2013 citation count for stripers stands at around 325, with a few more to be added as late forms are tallied. In 2012 the count was nearly a thousand more, the second highest on record at 1,331. Of that number, 107 fish weighed more than 50-pounds apiece; 11 of those were more than 60 pounds. Included was a massive 74-pound state record landed off Virginia Beach by Cary Wolfe of Bristow.

All winter, reports have indicated there are plenty of big stripers to the north, many of them said to be hanging around Ocean City, Md. like summertime tourists. But mild temperatures have provided little incentive for them to continue southward through Virginia to their winter grounds off the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

So Virginia anglers have been wishing for cold weather to get the big fish cranked up and journey bound. They got it last week in the form of brutal, polar air that shattered long-held records across the country as nature displayed its power and savagery. Water temperatures along the Virginia Coast dropped into the low 40s.

It got so cold that angles now wonder if the stripers will sail past Virginia closed-mouthed and determined to find warmer seas, or maybe they will stay well offshore where there is no recreational season.

In her weekly fishing report, Dr. Julie Ball of Virginia Beach said: “The latest winter blast could jumpstart the movement of larger fish from areas further north, but if local water temperatures don’t cooperate they could pass by Virginia Beach in search of more favorable conditions off Carolina.”

Adding to the confusion, for both fish and fishermen, the polar air quickly was replaced by temperatures in the 70s. In Virginia Beach, last Thursday the temperature dropped to 14; by Saturday it was 73.

In the minds of many anglers, the final test for this season, as to whether it will be a dud or just a late starter, would be the Jan. 9-11 Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout. The 11-year old event attracts the experts by offered more than $217,000 in prizes for big fish. It has the reputation of being the largest striper tournament in the country.

The anglers showed up, so did bystanders at the weigh-in station, where Hooter girls served rockfish chowder, hot cocoa and gourmet coffee.

The stripers were a no-show. The shootout, organized in 2004 to highlight what the sponsors said was some of the finest striper fishing on the East Coast, was telling a different story:

Thursday, no fish weighed in.

Friday, skunked again.

Saturday, tournament ends, no fish weighed, prize money raffled off, contest Web site has pictures of skunks rather than stripers.

The fact that the tournament was more of a shot in the foot than a shootout doesn’t mean the fishing is over, but the absence of tournament fish leaves many fishermen wondering, “Why bother?” It also has some suggesting there is something going on in addition to the fickle weather (See Cochran Field Reports).

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