Every year like clockwork December rolls around — and we anglers in the Chesapeake Bay fishing zone love this time of year for many reasons. Yes, it gets a bit chilly. But here in Chesapeake Country dedicated anglers love to suit up for the cold and ply the waters of the Bay in search of striped bass. Good fishing can happen over the winter, too, but if you want to take a fish home for dinner, this month marks the final opportunity of the season.
Annual “last chance” striper fishing in my mind doesn’t start on a specific date but on a specific water temperature. I love fishing shallow water, targeting shallow structure and current in two- to six-foot areas where stripers, speckled sea trout, and red drum ambush bait. When water temps in the shallows drop to below 50 degrees, however, that bite comes to a screeching halt. As the Bay waters drop from the 50s into the 40s and below the fish move deeper, but are still very catchable.
Last Chance Striped Bass Lures
During the last chance season my favorite bait is a six-inch Bass Kandy Delight, or a 10” when big fish are present, loaded on a one- to two-ounce GI Jig head. Skirting a GI makes it even more effective. This bait can be placed where the active fish are no matter what depth they’re feeding.
When your boat is over the top of fish tight to the bottom in water all the way down to 70’ or so I love a simple two- to four-ounce diamond jig. If fish are up high smashing bait on top or just below the top, a five- to six-inch Storm Shad or Sassy Shad tail on a one-ounce G-Eye Jig head is awesome. And if you see fish on top certainly nothing is better than seeing the surface hit on a topwater plug. I love the Stillwater Smack-It, but just about any surface plug popped along producing a smart pop and splash will produce hits. Remember, changing out treble hooks is a great idea to help in preserving the health of the catch-and-release fish. Properly handling the stripers we are releasing is very important to the future of these beautiful fish.
Having guided well over 4000 fishing trips on Chesapeake Bay one thing that sticks in my mind regarding working a lure to inspire hits is to work it IRRATICALLY. Short sharp rod tip twitches allowing for zero slack line is what I preach on my boat. Basically it’s pop, pop, pop while reeling, and then follow the lure back down with the rod tip and then do it again. No exact cadence required.
Reeling while twitching keeps the slack out, along with following the lure as it sinks with the rod tip — but not dropping the tip faster than the jig drops. Practice makes perfect, if you are new to the light tackle thing. Fishing with a guide or an experienced angler can cut your light tackle learning curve quickly.
Jokingly (sort of) on my boat when a person is jigging or plugging and not putting what I think is enough pop on their jigging/plugging technique, I declare their current technique is “dog poo.” The lure looks like dog poo and predators won’t eat it. You have to make your bait look like an injured baitfish, and abrupt erratic movement makes it happen.
Last Chance Striped Bass Locations
Once temperatures drop into the 40s stripers move very deep and may be in water over 70’, typically suspended 30’ to 50’ down eating menhaden. My strategy during these cold-water months starts with running out and looking for life. Life is certainly birds working the surface, but birds don’t work bait every day and where they were yesterday could be 10 or 20 miles different today. This is when great electronics and knowing how to use them can be the difference between a skunk and an epic day.
In the Chesapeake, stripers can be literally anywhere up and down the Bay from the Susquehanna Flats to the CBBT during the last chance season. I fish out of Solomons Island, MD and usually find fish anywhere from the mouth of Eastern Bay to the Cut Channel all the way well down in Virginia water. The magic that occurred shortly after the last chance season in early 2023 (and somewhat the year before) was the appearance of true giants up the Bay in January through March. Last year’s winter water temperature never sunk below 40 degrees and large menhaden stayed in Maryland’s portion of Chesapeake Bay. Because of this, giant stripers to over 50” stayed for the party.
Birds weren’t always on these fish because of how deep the baitfish were holding. Sometimes gannets would show where the fish were by diving over deep water. Gannets can dive as deep as they need to in order to feed and when they're spotted it’s game on. But when the gannets and other birds aren’t showing the fish’s location using your electronics is the only way to locate them.
I use a Humminbird Apex 13 on my boat and Humminbird Side Imaging has been incredible to me; when birds show where the fish are I always stop well short of and up-current from them, because typically, stripers push bait into the current. Then I look hard at Down and Side Imaging as I move towards the activity. Many times I can tell the anglers on my boat exactly where to throw and Side Imaging and Down Imaging makes the difference between catching and not catching.
When the birds don’t cooperate, many times I will run my Judge 27’ Chesapeake on plane until marking schools of baitfish. Once in the correct region I slow down to idle speed, observe my Side Imaging and Down Imaging, and often I can locate a school of bait. Once located on the Humminbird I move my boat over the top of the bait to see what depth it’s at and if large fish are around them. Then, we can deploy the BKDs or metal jigs.
Never let slack in your line while dropping because on the way down your jig may get hit and if there’s slack in line you won’t feel the strike. If you are snug with your lure as it’s dropping and your lure quits dropping while on the way down, SET THE HOOK! Many times this happens when fish are suspended in the water column over deep water, and you might not realize that your lure has already reached their depth.
One final note: always be sure your boat is in good working order, have all your safety equipment in order, and make sure you have the ability to communicate if you have a problem. During last chance season and through the winter months the water is very cold and caution must be exercised. Be safe — and catch them up!
-By Capt. Pete Dahlberg