Chesapeake Bay Fish Guide: Sportfish Directory

Chesapeake Bay Fishing is downright awesome, and there’s a huge diversity of Chesapeake Bay fish to chase after. But whether you’re hunting for monster cobia at the Bay’s mouth, looking for largemouth bass in one of the northern tributaries, or casting a line anywhere in-between, catching fish takes a certain amount of know-how. Here at FishTalk we’ve been publishing how-to articles and creating how-to videos for over six years, and at one point or another we’ve covered just about all the species you’re likely to encounter on the Bay. Sorting through all that intel can be tough, though, so we’ve created this Chesapeake Bay fish species sportfishing directory. Consider it your starting point for catching more, bigger fish!

Black Drum

blck drum caught in chesapeake bay
Black drum have a stocky body, a downturned mouth, and a tail with little to no fork in it. Smaller specimens have vertical bars on their back.

Black drum are some of the biggest fish you’ll encounter in the Chesapeake, and they can be found from the CBBT clear up to the Choptank River on a regular basis. On rare occasions, they’ve been found as far north as Love Point. How you fish for them differs by seasonality and location. These fish are fun to catch and smaller ones (under 20 or so pounds) are good to eat, but older, larger fish often have worms in their meat so most anglers release them.

Articles on How to Catch Black Drum in Chesapeake Bay

Black Sea Bass

fishing for black sea bass
Black sea bass are mostly black, but they have streaks of blue and white. They also have long filaments on the end of their tails, and wide bass-like jaws.

Black sea bass can be found throughout the Chesapeake waters up to about the Bay Bridge and on occasion even farther north, but as a rule the farther down the Bay you go the more you’ll find. Most inside the Chesapeake are on the small side and catching keeper-sized fish are the exception, not the rule. That said, sometimes a run of fish large enough for the cooler does take place, usually late in the fall after those juveniles have had some time to grow but haven’t yet moved out of the Bay for winter and transitioned to living in the ocean.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Black Sea Bass in Chesapeake Bay

Blue Catfish

blue catfish caught in the patuxent river
Blue catfish have a gray-bluish body, a white belly, beady little eyes, and long barbels. They may be differentiated from other catfish by looking at the anal fin, which is straight rather than rounded and has 30 to 35 rays.

Blue catfish are an invasive species that has spread throughout the Bay’s tributaries and, north of the Magothy River, are commonly found in the main-stem Bay as well. These brutish fish can get rather huge (Virginia has recorded fish over 100 pounds) and while they are considered trophies in southern regions, Maryland encourages anglers to keep as many as possible to hopefully reduce their environmental impact. In any case, while nothing in fishing is a “sure thing,” fishing for blue cats is as close as it comes in many tributary waters.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Blue Catfish in Chesapeake Bay


bluefish caught by an angler
Bluefish have a bluish back and are mostly white below the lateral line. They also have a sharply forked tail, as well as a mouth full of very sharp teeth.

Bluefish are a Chesapeake Bay mainstay. They may be found just about anywhere in the Bay waters as long as there’s a bit of salinity though their numbers can vary quite a bit from one season to the next. Small ones are called snappers, medium-sized blues are tailors, and the big ones are called choppers. If you catch one, remember — watch out for those sharp teeth!

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Bluefish in Chesapeake Bay


carp caught in a chesapeake bay tributary
Carp have a golden hue, large scales, and a small downturned mouth with barbels. In a way they look a lot like some species of goldfish.

Carp may have a reputation as poor table fare, but they get big and they tug hard. They’re very plentiful in many of the tributaries with more fish found the lower the salinity gets. If you want to tangle with them, you’ll have to use very specific methods. Remember to gently release these fish as they aren't very good to eat.

Articles on How to Catch Carp in Chesapeake Bay

Channel Catfish

channel catfish caught while fishing
Channel catfish tend to have enlongated bodies with olive coloration and a smattering of black specks.

Channel cats are a surprising species. Yes, they’re catfish, but they’ll smash lures and give you an energetic fight. They’ll be encountered throughout the upper Bay and in most Chesapeake tributaries, and up some of the rivers are utterly dominant.

Articles on How to Catch Channel Catfish in Chesapeake Bay


cobia caught on chesapeake bay
Cobia can get quite big! They are torpedo-shaped with a gray-green or brownish back that fades to white at the belly, have forked tails, and a flat head.

Cobia represent the holy grail for many Bay anglers—these fish can push 100 pounds, fight with obscene vigor, and are the closest thing to an oceanic pelagic that the Chesapeake has to offer. They are a prime summer target in the lower Bay, usually make a showing in the middle Bay up to the Patuxent, and sometimes get caught a bit farther north.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Cobia in Chesapeake Bay


crappie fish caught by an angler
Crappie have a distinct speckled pattern and rounded body that makes them hard to mistake.

Crappie are best known as freshwater gamefish, but in all of the Bay tributaries when you get into areas with fairly low salinity they’ll start popping up. And in some of the rivers they offer spectacular action. You’ll find plenty of articles from FishTalk targeting the freshwater variety, but if tidal water crappie are on your mind check these out.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Crappie in Chesapeake Bay


croaker fishing in the chesapeake bay
Croaker have a golden-brown coloration, a tail with no fork, and a downturned mouth. Some will have wavy bars of coloration as well. If there's any confusion as to this fish's identification, it disappears when they start grunting and croaking.

Croaker used to be a mainstay for bottom fishermen, though in recent years the numbers of keeper sized croaker in the Bay has been on the thin side. Still, many anglers love to target them since they offer fast action, a great fight, and awesome fillets. You’ll find them throughout the Chesapeake, though how far north they go varies by the season and some years they don’t make it far above the Bay Bridge.

Articles on How to Catch Croaker in Chesapeake Bay


cutlassfish also called ribbonfish or hairtail
When you reel up a long, slender fish with a hair-like tail and a mouth full of dagger-like teeth, there's no doubt it's a cutlassfish.

Cutlassfish (also commonly called ribbonfish, hairtails, and beltfish) are rather zany looking things, with long, slender, eel-like bodies and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. They’re usually present near the mouth of the Bay and in recent years have popped up in good numbers all the way up into the middle Bay. Don’t sell these fish short just because of the way they look, because they offer a unique fight and an awesome meal.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Cutlassfish in Chesapeake Bay


flounder fishing anglers
Thanks to their flat, round bodies - brownish on the top and white on the bottom - flounder are an easy catch to ID.

Another species that varies between hard-to-find and prolific from one season to the next is the flounder. While they’ve ranged to north of the Bay Bridge in the past, most seasons the flounder fishing is best in lower portions of the Bay and only sublegal fish are in good numbers north of the Maryland-Virginia line. Every now and again, however, the middle Bay sees a good run of this highly valued species.

Articles on How to Catch Flounder in Chesapeake Bay


kingfish, also called roundhead
Though kingfish are most often caught in the surf, plenty enter the Chesapeake's waters. A long gray body, down-turned mouth, and a tail that's rounded are trademark features.

A prime panfish target when surf fishing is the kingfish, also called sea mullet or roundhead, however, these tasty critters often come into the Bay during the summer months. Most will be caught in Virginia’s waters, but every so often they make their way a bit farther north and show up in good numbers in the Tangier Sound or the lower Potomac. While they aren’t usually a targeted species inside the Bay, kingfish are a great bonus catch you’ll most likely encounter when bottom fishing for fish like croaker and spot.

Articles on How to Catch Kingfish in Chesapeake Bay

Largemouth Bass

angler with a largemouth bass
Largemouth bass - with their unmistakably huge jaws and olive-green coloration - may be freshwater fish, but plenty live in the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Though they’re freshwater fish — and in fact the nation’s most popular freshwater sportfish — largemouth bass are found in the fresher areas of all the Chesapeake tributaries. Head upriver, and go get ‘em!

Articles on How to Catch Largemouth Bass in Chesapeake Bay


pickerel in a tributary
The chain pickerel's markings make it clear why this species got its name. A long, torpedo-shaped body and a duck-like bill make pickerel unmistakable.

Pickerel are often thought of as a freshwater fish but they’re native to the Chesapeake’s tributaries and are found in many areas with relatively low salinity. Most are chain pickerel like the one pictured above, but there are also redfin pickerel in some areas. Since these fish are active in cold water they’re a prime target for wintertime angling. Remember: these fish have some serious teeth, so keep your fingers away from their jaws.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Pickerel in Chesapeake Bay

Red Drum

bull redfish
Redfish have a copper coloration and an unmistakable black spot at the tail. On some fish, there will be more than one spot.

Whether it’s giant bull redfish over 40 inches or “slot fish” that you can keep, red drum are one of the most popular fish to pursue on the Chesapeake from late spring through early fall. And at times, we have some of the most intense redfish action on the face of the planet when huge schools of those massive fish move through. It happens season after season through the southern Bay and most years ranges up into the middle Bay in the area of the mouths of the Choptank or Patuxent rivers.

Articles on How to Catch Red Drum in Chesapeake Bay


hickory shad in the potomac
Shad (this one is a hickory) are silver fish with small mouths. American shad look very similar but grow significantly larger.

There are several species of shad in the Bay but the main ones of interest to anglers are hickory shad and American shad. In some areas these fish are protected but thanks to a vigorous fighting ability they remain a fan favorite for catch-and-release fishing during the spring run. Note that certain rivers may have strong shad runs, while many others have very weak runs or none at all.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Shad in Chesapeake Bay

Sharks (Multiple Species)

shark fishing
Sharks of several species do enter the Chesapeake (and yes, they do bite great at night).

Many species of sharks may be found wandering the saltier portions of the Chesapeake. If you want to target them as a rule of thumb the farther south you go the more you’ll catch, with your very best prospects at the mouth of the Bay. None of the species found here are good to eat, but especially for kids, nothing beats the thrill of reeling up a shark!

Articles on How to Catch Sharks in Chesapeake Bay


sheepshead in a net
Sheepshead have black bars on their flanks and some sharp dorsal spines, but their strangest attribute is a mouth full of teeth that look almost like a human set of chompers.

Sheepshead generally like high salinity, so the best fishing for them will be found in the lower Bay, only, and often right where the Bay meets the ocean at the CBBT. They eat shellfish and have a mouth full of molars for grinding up mussels, barnacles, and small crabs. As a result of sticking near their favorite foods these fish like hard structure like wrecks and reefs. Catching them requires very specific tactics and tackle, so few get caught accidentally.

Articles on How to Catch Sheepshead in Chesapeake Bay


anglers with a snakehead they caught
Snakeheads have a long, cylindrical body with dark splotchy markings, a very long dorsal fin, and a rounded tail.

An invasive freshwater species, the snakehead spread throughout the Chesapeake’s tributaries over the past couple of decades and is now found in just about all of them. They have a tolerance for low levels of salinity and while they do pop up in brackish areas of the main-stem Bay on occasion, most are caught up inside the tribs. They have turned out to be a great gamefish that out-ranks most competitors in terms of eating quality, so their popularity has exploded almost as quickly as their population.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Snakeheads in Chesapeake Bay

Spanish Mackerel

spanish mackerel in the chesapeake
Spanish mackerel have silvery skin with gold and brown dots. Their forked tail is rather pelagic in nature.

These summer visitors can range up to the Bay Bridge, though some years few make it north of the Maryland line. They like high salinity and warm temperatures so there can be quite a bit of variation in how good the Bay fishery is for them from one year to the next.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Spanish Mackerel in Chesapeake Bay

Speckled Sea Trout

speckled trout
The speckled sea trout has a silver body with a purple sheen on the back, and black speckles. This fish also has a pair of distinct "K-9" teeth in its upper and lower jaws, so keep your fingers clear.

Another very popular target in the Bay’s saltier areas is the speckled trout (also called specks). Most seasons they range as far north as the Choptank and some years up into Eastern Bay. They’re summer visitors in Maryland waters and most of the northern Virginia tributaries, but during mild winters, can sometimes be caught year-round in the southernmost portions of the Bay. Many anglers love targeting them with light tackle, especially since these fish dwell mostly in relatively shallow waters where you don’t need to use lots of weight to be successful.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Speckled Sea Trout in Chesapeake Bay


spot fish
Spot are small fish with vertical bars on the back, a white belly, and a distinct dark spot just behind their gill plate.

Spot, also called “Norfolk spot,” are some of the most prolific fish in the Bay. They can be found throughout its brackish waters during the warmer months of the year and often in huge numbers. Small spot are often caught for bait — many anglers consider them to be rockfish candy and just about every predator in the Bay enjoys eating spot — and bigger ones are great to keep and eat.

Articles on How to Catch Spot in Chesapeake Bay

Striped Bass (Rockfish)

striped bass rockfish or stripers
The stripes make it clear why these fish are referred to as stripers!

Not only is the striped bass considered the number-one sportfish in many areas of the Bay, it’s the most popular sportfish on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. Rockfish are present in the Bay and its tributaries from top to bottom, and this fish is prized for both its fighting abilities and its excellent taste. Yes, we talk about rockfish a LOT around here, so be prepared for a long list below.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Rockfish in Chesapeake Bay


sunfish in the bay
There are several species of sunfish (like this bluegill) but all have round, colorful bodies - and are almost always willing to bite.

Although sunfish (with several different species like bluegills and pumpkinseed) are a freshwater species they’re found throughout the fresher areas of the tributaries. And one of the species, the pumpkinseed, will be found in creeks and coves with surprisingly high salinity. These are small fish but they’re usually willing to bite, making them a favorite for kids and beginners.

Articles on How to Catch Sunfish in Chesapeake Bay


tautog fishing
Tautog have a dark body and rounded tail, but their puffy lips are this species' most unusual feature.

Tautog, which are often called “blackfish” up north, are found only in the southern areas of the Bay (and the best fishing for them is generally out in the ocean). These fish are a good cold weather option since they bite until water temperatures drop into the low 40s, however, they can be extremely frustrating and difficult to catch. That said, they also fight like bulldogs and taste great on the plate.

Articles on How to Catch Tautog in Chesapeake Bay


weakfish in the bay
Weakfish have bodies shaped just like speckled trout, but rather than specks thay have a purple/silver sheen.

Weakfish, which are also called gray trout, yellowfin trout, or weakies, have been present in the Bay from the southernmost reaches up to the Bay Bridge through the years. However, in recent times their numbers have been low and north of the Virginia line few anglers have had luck with them. Don’t lose hope, however, because this species is known to be cyclical. Decades go by with weakfish few and far between, then one year they suddenly reappear — and for the next five or six years the fishing for them gets better and better until the cycle repeats itself.

Articles on How to Catch Weakfish in Chesapeake Bay

White Perch

kid with a white perch
White perch may not be very colorful, but since they almost always bite kids love fishing for them.

White perch live in all of the tributaries and the main-stem Bay as well, and are one of the most common fish in the Bay. They don’t get very big but they bite most days, fight hard, and are quite tasty, so they’re a very popular target. They also are willing to feed year-round, so you can catch them just about any time of the year if you know where to look for them; they do move in and out of the tributaries with the changing of the seasons.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch White Perch in Chesapeake Bay

Yellow Perch

yellow perch fishing
With their yellow body, dark bars, and orange fins, yellow perch are some of the most colorful fish in the Chesapeake.

The spring run of yellow perch marks the beginning of the fishing season for countless anglers ranging from the headwaters of the Bay clear down to the southern Virginia tributaries. But they bite even before then, right through the winter, making yellow perch a prime off-season target. Though these fish are caught in the open Bay on occasion, they mostly meander through the tributaries and creeks through most of the season. When you find them they’re usually willing to bite, and these “ring perch,” as some call them, taste fabulous.

Articles and Videos on How to Catch Yellow Perch in Chesapeake Bay

Wow, people — that’s a lot of different fish species! Like we said right up front, there’s a huge amount of diversity when it comes to Chesapeake Bay fish, and while this fish species fishing directory is quite comprehensive, there are other oceanic invaders that make their way into Chesapeake waters from time to time. On rare occasions you may reel in a king mackerel, a pompano, or a grouper. We’ve seen ladyfish and smooth puffers pop up. Even the famed tarpon is known to have been caught in the Chesapeake. The bottom line is that you simply never know just what will be on the end of your line when you go fishing in Chesapeake Bay. But hopefully, this Chesapeake Bay Fish Guide will help make sure that you do feel a tug on that line from something or other.