The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
This is the CBBT, Baby
The biggest and best fish magnet on the East Coast
It all started with a phone call from my brother-in-law, Greg Banker. His boss had a coveted fishing charter date that he found himself unable to fill, and had offered it to Greg with a generous subsidy included. It was one of those deals you couldn’t refuse, and for all the good reasons.
Greg’s call caught me at my most vulnerable. Smarting from some recently unproductive late-season outings, I was despondent with the approaching winter. Coupled with the fact that this adventure was at the legendary CBBT, the wintertime mecca of striped bass fishing in the Chesapeake, I quickly agreed to join up.
The Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge-Tunnel, usually referred to as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel or the CBBT for short, is an engineering marvel that spans the mouth of our nation’s largest estuary.
Completed in 1964, having taken three and a half years to build for the bargain price of $200 million, it is comprised of 16 miles of bridges, four five-acre man-made islands, and two one-mile-long tunnels.
It is largest complex of its type in the world. In contrast, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which is scarcely over a mile in length, took over a year longer to build and cost $2.4 billion.
The mouth of the Chesapeake under any circumstances is a wintertime hotspot for striped bass. Hordes of baitfish chased down the Bay by winter temperatures and our Bay rockfish linger at its junction with the Atlantic. At the same time, migrating schools of the big ocean-running stripers arrive as they pursue bait down the Eastern Seaboard. The collision is spectacular.
To finesse the event, the Bridge-Tunnel complex provides miles of reef-like, underwater sanctuary and protection for the predators and the prey alike throughout the winter. In anglerspeak, it’s the biggest and best fish magnet on the East Coast, and Greg and I were headed right for it.
On the Hot Spot
Early the next morning we met up with our captain, Tom Hughes, at the Sting-Ray, a restaurant that has perched on the northern side of the Chesapeake for the lifetime of the Bridge-Tunnel. A local landmark, it delivers a great meal.
You’ll hear the Eastern Shore dialect enthusiastically spoken among some of its many patrons. To an eavesdropping, untrained ear, it could easily pass for a foreign language and gives the place quite an eclectic atmosphere.
Meeting the captain was an experience. Tom, having retired from one job years ago, was obviously and thoroughly enjoying his second career as a fishing guide. Bearded, salty and knowledgeable, he was quite a character, referring to everyone he spoke with as baby and emanating infectious energy and an endless good will.
Greg and I were cautious about hoping for too much, both of us having checkered experiences with fishing new hot spots. Our CBBT adventure proved to be an exception. Launching his 22-foot, twin-vee-powered catamaran, Captain Hughes steered us straight to the fish.
Using light, fast-action six-foot spinning rods and high-speed reels spooled with 14-pound Fireline furnished by the captain, we armed them with seven-inch, one-ounce, Bass Assassin jigs. Almost immediately Greg and I both connected with hard-fighting stripers. As soon as we boated and released the seven-pound beauties, we hooked up with even larger fish.
Still, I remained a bit apprehensive. That kind of easy success couldn’t be maintained. It reminded me of winning the first hand of poker, with the likely expectation of being blanked the rest of the night. But this turned out to be different sport. Over the next seven hours, we found school after school of stripers with many of the fish over 10 pounds.
Greg’s rod hand went numb about the middle of the day, and my arms began to cramp from the constant lifting. But Capt. Hughes never stopped urging us on with his favorite refrain, “This is the CBBT baby. This is what it’s all about. Let’s catch some more fish.”
Experiencing a drop in the wind and switching to my fly rod didn‘t diminish the tempo one bit. My first five casts resulted in five fish. For a time, it became unusual to complete a retrieve without a strike. Throwing a 3/0 chartreuse-and-white Clouser on a 350-grain Teeny line was a sure ticket for a ride on a striper express.
This was a perfect antidote to my wintertime blahs. It should keep me in good spirits until springtime. For the rest of the winter, when the weather gets unbearable, I’ll recall one particular memory.
Whenever we would have more than five minutes or so without a strike, the good captain would loudly call out, “Bring ’em in, baby, and keep ’em in. I’m going to go find us some more fish.” Then he would do just that.
Fish Are Biting
The Chesapeake Bay striper season closes December 15, but ocean side it remains open year around. Check DNR regulations and capttomhughs.com for details.