Tuesday, September 22, 2015


“Still little guys.”

Bob Ackerman’s voice grumbled over the static of engine noise and river spray as Captain Chuck O’Bier idled his 46-foot “Sea Fox” by a small flock of seagulls engaged in a choreographed feeding ritual above the lower Potomac River. Bluefish were breaking all around, exploiting the same panicked balls of baitfish from all angles. The sun sat low on the horizon in a Tidewater haze, colored around by warm streaks of light.

Sunrise over the lower Potomac River.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Several fish had been boated after only a few casts, but O’Bier, who operates Chuck’s Charters out of Lewisetta, Virginia and boasts 35 years of experience fishing the lower Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, knew there was more to be had. Ackerman, an experienced boat owner and successful tournament angler himself, put that knowledge into words.

To the four outdoor writers and friends aboard, it was simply a pleasure to have found willing fish so early. Nevertheless, we retrieved our metal spoons and topwater plugs and stowed our rods on faith.

On our way to a limit.  A collection of blues.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
September is for bluefish in Virginia. Summer drought and temperatures draw the pelagic predators north into the Chesapeake Bay and tidal river mouths. As autumn approaches, cooling weather and rain events push the fish to more salinated waters as a prequel to their winter migration south.

We know them by many names:  Silverside, glass minnow.  Bluefish know them as "food."  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Finding them is easy. Voracious bluefish corral baitfish--commonly glass minnows, or “silversides”--into tightly-packed balls and then “blitz” their prey--pushing the schools towards the surface and tearing through them mouth open, chomping their razor-sharp teeth, in an adrenaline-soaked frenzy. Swirling flocks of seabirds, locked on to the bite-sized minnows and diving, are the above-water clues. When occurring in unison, the scene is chaos defined, and observable from a distance.

A crazed bluefish with a mouthful of glass minnows.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Years of searching the horizon has taught O’Bier to utilize a quality pair of binoculars, and when they came down from his face and retreated into the cabin with him, it was evident he was on to another localized blitz.

A few minutes of motoring put us in contest with another, smaller vessel with the same quarry, which had edged in too close to the school and put them down.

Within seconds, the school reappeared on the port side. The telltale gulls had dissipated, temporarily losing the bait as it fled from dispersed blues, but surface water bubbled up, and fish could be seen making runs at bait just beneath the surface.

Almost every cast produced a fish between one and three pounds for each of the five fishermen, prompting Tee Clarkson, friend and outdoor writer from Richmond, to break out his 8-weight fly rod and rig it with a popper. Several fish fell prey to the long rod, and we took turns stripping flies from pumped-up bluefish until the action wore out.

The 8-wt. pulls an all-but-resigned blue to the surface.  Photo by Tee Clarkson.
This routine was repeated several times. It was quickly discovered that topwater (save for mylar poppers fished with the fly rod) was losing out to the silver spoon that I casted all morning.

By 9:00 we had our five-man limit of 50 fish. By noon, we were tuckered out and looking towards shore.

It was on our ride back to the dock when Ken Perrotte, friend and outdoor writer from Fredericksburg, proudly represented outdoor communicators everywhere by asking Clarkson to catch just one more fish so he could get some photographs with the fly rod doing battle. Though reluctantly, Clarkson submitted.

In seconds we were up to our armpits in fish.

Clarkson made the first cast to a busting school of fish, and suddenly we were surrounded by birds, bait, and blues. Bait balls were yards wide and opaque with the brownish tint of blood.

Clarkson plays a bluefish that smashed a popper to the boat.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Everyone ran for rods. Clarkson was engaged in a game of cat and mouse with a popper and several bluefish. Each fish would take a swipe, knock the popper into the air, causing Clarkson to set the hook, pull the fly away, and upset the fish even more.  

For 20 minutes, every cast had a two- to three-pound bluefish on the end of it--a fish strong enough to strain your arm and suggest rest. And because they were so caught up in the blitz, they fought all the way to, and in, the boat, at one point throwing a treble hook and planting it into O’Bier’s helpful arm. Another fought me so doggedly that it lost its jaws and returned lip-less to the chaos. One of Clarkson’s fish took a bite out of his shirt.

Double? Triple?  I lost count!  Photo by Matt Reilly.
When at last the action had slowed, we left the fish feeding and headed for shore. On land, O’Bier and his wife treated us to a blue crab feast, complete with corn on the cob and fried bluefish and hush puppies as hors-d’oeurves.

A bushel of fresh blue crabs.  Photo by Matt Reilly.

A feast!  Photo by Matt Reilly.
Over dinner, we called the day’s catch conservatively at about 350 fish.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian