Suspended fish, I hate ‘em. Scattered fish suspending in deep water is one of the most difficult situations a light tackle angler will encounter on the Chesapeake Bay.  In years past, I’ve refused to target suspended fish. I’d rather run fifteen additional miles looking for stripers feeding off the bottom than fool with the picky little snots.  But, as Bob Dylan might say, The Times, They Are a Changin’. Bad water makes everything different. As predicted in my last entry, low oxygen levels have led to prolific algae blooms in the tributary rivers and in some areas of the main stem of the Bay. Conditions are worse around the western shore rivers since more people live there and there is more pollution.

Pollution, especially nutrients like nitrates and phosphorus get into the Bay as a result of raw sewage dumping, storm-water runoff, and excessive fertilizer use. This makes the water very fertile, so small microscopic plants such as algae grow rapidly. The algae cells block sunlight, then die and sink to the bottom creating areas of low oxygen where fish can’t survive. Since dissolved oxygen levels were already at record lows this year, it didn’t take long for the blooming and decaying cycle to use up whatever oxygen was left.

In May, we saw fish kills in almost all the western shore rivers.  Most of the dead fish are menhaden and perch, but there has also been lots of young rockfish washing up on our now-smelly shorelines.  Older stripers are a little smarter and more adaptable.  They usually recognize the onset of algae blooms and take off to areas of the Bay where the water is more survivable.  Lately, those areas have been the mouths of the Eastern Shore rivers, and farther south to the west side of the Mid-Bay.

Even in those areas, conditions are tough.  There isn’t enough oxygen for rockfish to survive on the bottom, and the water is getting too warm for them to hang out for any length of time near the surface. They adapt by suspending in depths between 18- and 25-feet.   Since there is also isolated schools of baitfish in this comfort zone, they just wait there hoping for a meal to swim by. There are still some mayworms hatching, so they’ll occasionally move on to the oyster bars, but most of the resident two and three-year-old stripers are staying suspended in the narrow bands of comfortable water.

I’ve made a couple of trips to the mid-Bay in the area between the Gas Docks and Herring Bay over the last few weeks hoping to jig up the suspended fish in that area.  Since there are still some migratory stripers in the Bay, it’s possible to find an occasional hog mixed in, but the vast majority of the fish are 16- to 25-inch residents.

Since suspended fish usually aren’t actively feeding, they can be very hard to catch.  You have to use every strike-trigger in the book and even then it’s tough to get them to bite.  If you aren’t familiar with the strike triggers concept, take a look at my recent four-part series on this website, or glance through the tips in my book, Chesapeake Light Tackle – An Introduction to Light Tackle Fishing on the Chesapeake Bay.  I’ll also be speaking on this subject at some fishing club meetings over the next couple of months.

For the past few weeks, fish have been spread out over an area of several miles.  The best bet is to find a spot where you see heavier concentrations of bait, and cast four or five-inch jigs that are heavy enough to reach the narrow strike zone, but not too heavy to fall beneath the fish. This trick is to keep the lure at the right depth so you aren’t jigging above or below the fish.  That’s not always easy, especially on windy days when your lure is likely to ride up behind the boat as you drift over the fish.  Lighter jig heads are usually better, especially when it’s not blowing too hard. Fine tuning the weight is critical, and even an eighth of an ounce can make a big difference in how many strikes you get.

This is also a good time to cast flies on sinking line with a long rod.  I got a good report from my friend Todd Patton earlier this week when he caught some decent fish using that technique with a fly rod using a very specific retrieve.  Flies work well on suspended fish because the lure stays in the strike zone longer.

My fishing partner Jamie Clough has had several good days jigging over the past couple of weeks.  He’ll sometimes ride around until he finds lots of bait, then shut off his engine and let the fish find him.  I fished with Jamie and Rich last Saturday.  As fishing days go, we had a good one with an easy three-man limit in the first hour or so, but we couldn’t find any fish bigger than the mid-20s.

I’ve also made a couple of trips to the Bay Bridge in the late evenings.  There are lots of baby rockfish in the shallows, but the bigger fish have been suspended on the deeper columns.  Like the fish farther south, they aren’t easy to catch.  One fish every half-hour is a pretty good average.

Fortunately, there are signs that a pattern change is just around the corner, so get ready.  I got out with Mark for a few hours yesterday. We started out working suspended fish, but then decided to look for birds and breaking fish at some of the usual early summer locations. We found plenty.  Most of the surface-feeding fish were small, but we hit a couple of schools of bigger fish just before dark that were breaking over depths of 16-22-feet. We caught several fish on big topwater plugs, and landed a few on BKDs as well. If things go as they have in seasons past, those suspended fish on the west side will move east over the next couple of weeks and the summer pattern of breakers over hard live bottoms will become more common.  I hope so because I’ve had about all of these finicky suspended stripers I can take!



Posted Friday, June 8th, 2012 at 6:04 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


Responses to “Don’t Keep ’em In Suspense!”

  1. Joe Fish says:

    Good to hear from you, Big Buddy, even if the news is suspended fish (D’ho!). But I do like the forecast. Even I can catch fish under birds. Hookin’ up on topwater is something to look forward to. Thanks for the report. Hope to see you on the water.

  2. Jerry Meyer says:

    I’ve seen a lot of dead fish in the South River this year. Do you think the worst of the algae blooms are over? Thank you for this information. It is really good to hear about breakers.

  3. jumbo1 says:

    I think this suspended fish pattern will be here for a while (hopefully on Wed’s) crew and I have been very fortunate to find nice schools of bait the last few weeks..just like you said…shut off the motor and let the fish find us..
    Sure is nice to see some birds..

    • Daniel says:

      Jamie, I’m coming up in a couple weeks. Wanna fish on a Wednesday? You do realize that this whole article was just Dad getting you to post as fast as possible, right?

  4. Rogert says:

    I lucked into plenty of fish today in the shallows on structure above the BB .Ive never been very good with hooking into many suspended fish,wish I knew the secrete.
    Excellent read.. BTW that last picture is a keeper!

  5. Jerry Meyer says:

    I got out this morning. I looked for breakers but I couldn’t find any so I looked for those suspended fish on the west side. I fished for them last week, but couldn’t get them to bite. I used your advice and caught four fish and my wife caught a 28 incher which is her biggest to date. THANK YOU!! I wish you had a place where we could post pictures.

  6. Bil M says:

    Saturday lots of suspended fish. Tried some techniques I’ve read and learned about here and on TF. Caught some, but have to agree it is frustrating. I will pay more attention to jig head weight next time. Thanks Shawn.

  7. Chris (DW) says:

    As usual, a GREAT tutorial in the hows, whys, and what fors. Now I just need more practice time on the water.

    If only I could get the fish to find me like they do Shawn and Jamie. I must not call them the right way.

    • Daniel says:

      It requires a certain toxicity in the blood-stream. Light beer mixed with Tennessee Whiskey on your breath will help you call them.

  8. Steve F says:

    This past Saturday I was fishing with my good friend Tim Smith on the Reel Affliction and we found a lot of those damn suspended fish. I’m having a hard time catching them but I’m getting better. Now when we came across some marks on the bottom it was game on for me. I gave Jamie some Intel on some fish so I don’t know if he will find them or not. It was good seeing ya a couple weeks ago and boy was it a tad rough out there.

  9. RiverCat09 says:


    Is that a thermocline at 10 feet on the picture of the meter? I thought that it was only me that only did well for fish either right on the bottom or breaking. Thanks for posting.


  10. Gitzit 2 says:

    Hi, Shawn.
    Great info!
    Fishing has been tough for me the last few weeks….I haven’t been able make time to get out!
    I will be out this weekend.

  11. ES Fisherman says:

    I believe we have reached that pattern change if ya know what I mean 😛

Leave a Reply