There may be no other fish species more emblematic of fishing in Virginia than striped bass. Also known as stripers or—more commonly in this part of the country—rockfish, striped bass offer some of the most exciting angling opportunities in the Commonwealth.
Most of the action revolves around the Chesapeake Bay, which along with its various tributaries, forms a vast estuary that is a top breeding ground for Atlantic stripers.
Striped bass are part of a family of fish known as temperate bass or “true bass,” which are unrelated to freshwater black bass. They are more closely akin to white bass and yellow bass but are often much bigger than their nearest relatives.
Capable of exceeding 50 pounds, stripers are anadromous by nature, meaning they live most of their lives in saltwater, but return every year to the freshwater streams where they were born.
That makes Virginia ground zero for one of America’s most epic annual fish migrations and a heck of a great place to wet a line for rockfish.
Chesapeake Bay Stripers
The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, supporting a wealth of fishing opportunities. The bay and its tributaries form the core of Atlantic stripers’ breeding grounds, attracting rockfish from as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida.
When to Catch Chesapeake Bay Stripers
Some striped bass inhabit the Chesapeake Bay year-round, so there is no season when anglers cannot catch rockfish in Virginia. That being said, most anglers focus on the spring and fall seasons, when stripers are either on their way into or out of the bay.
It’s worth noting that legal fishing seasons for striped bass are a bit complicated. Seasons vary between coastal waters and Chesapeake Bay waters, and also within the bay, depending on which side of the Virginia/Maryland state line you’re on (though the two states do have a reciprocal license agreement).
Reading up on the current Virginia Recreational Fishing Regulations for marine waters is a good starting point. The Potomac River, the bay’s largest tributary, is managed separately by the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
Spring Striper Season
Striped bass spend their winters in warm, southern waters but move up the coast into the Chesapeake Bay as temperatures rise in spring. Throughout the season, the best bite begins near the mouth of the bay and gradually transitions upward.
The fishing really gets going as water temperatures warm up into the 50s, and stripers move into tributaries, including the Potomac, Rappahannock and James rivers. Stripers are closed to harvest until mid-May to protect them while spawning.
The best time to catch spring stripers in the Chesapeake Bay is mid-May through mid-June, when the fish have finished spawning. That’s when most of them make their way back down the bay and head farther north along their migration route.
Fall/Winter Striper Season
Striper fishing in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay is closed in summer, though there can still be excellent catch-and-release fishing for smaller stripers, which live the first few years of their lives in the bay until they’re big enough to join the migration.
The fishing for these “schoolie” stripers, typically weighing 5 to 10 pounds, continues to be excellent once the season reopens in early October. By late fall, they’ll be rejoined by larger stripers on their way back southward from their summer haunts in New England.
Late fall into winter is a great time to target trophy stripers, which return to the Chesapeake Bay and nearby coastal waters to feed on menhaden and other prey fish. Some stripers winter in the bay, but most continue southward.
Chesapeake Bay Striper Locations
Places to catch rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay are too numerous to list, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of opportunities for bank and boat anglers alike.
Many of the best spots in spring are also excellent in fall (the only difference is whether the fish are inbound or outbound).
The biggest clue to locating these fish is right there in their most common nickname; rockfish love rocks. That’s as true in the Chesapeake as it is in the open ocean.
Some key habitats to look for include reefs, ridges, oyster bars, rock piles, jetties, sunken docks, shipwrecks, and other forms of rough bottom structure. Bridges and tunnels also provide some of the best striper spots in the bay.
Stripers also pursue schools of baitfish in the bay’s open waters at times, and they often relate to drop-offs and channels, including the channels dredged for shipping lanes. Some of the best areas to focus on for Chesapeake Bay stripers include:
Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
Spanning the entire mouth of the Chesapeake Bay over a distance of 17 miles, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) is one of the most reliable striped bass spots. Every striper that enters or exits the bay must pass under it.
More importantly, the bridge pilings and rock “islands” that support the bridge provide ideal rockfish habitat. There are usually fish around the bridge-tunnel in just about every season. Boat ramps and marinas are located nearby in Little Creek Cove.
The area around the bridge-tunnel is a great place to catch schoolies near the surface in early fall. You may spot the circling gulls and surface commotion that give away stripers blitzing baitfish.
Anglers catch lots of quality fish by casting and jigging around the pilings and rock piles. By late fall and early winter, when big migrating stripers pass under the CBBT, this is the top spot to catch them anywhere in the bay.
Little Creek Jetties
The two jetties on either side of the Little Creek Inlet provide great opportunities for shore-bound anglers to get in on the striper action. The western jetty, in particular, is easily accessed from the adjacent beach.
While there are numerous excellent fishing piers around the Chesapeake Bay shoreline, the Little Creek Jetties are perfectly located just a couple miles west of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, placing them right in the path of migrating stripers.
Tidal James River
The spring striper run brings striped bass quite a ways up the James River, and many quality fish are caught as far upriver as the I-95 bridge in Richmond in May. As fish head back downriver after spawning, areas close to the mouth of the James can be excellent.
Top spots for stripers in the tidal James River include the James River Bridge and the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel. Also, try fishing around the James River Reserve Fleet (sometimes referred to as the “Mothball Fleet”).
These are great areas in the fall too.
In general, the best striper fishing is below the I-295 Bridge, especially when the waters cool in December.
A few good bank fishing spots are available in Newport News, including Monitor-Merrimac Overlook Park and the King-Lincoln Park Pier.
If your fishing with bait in the lower James, you might also find yourself tangling with a blue catfish pushing 100 pounds. It’s one of the best catfishing spots in Virginia.
As the largest Chesapeake Bay tributary, the Potomac River is where many of the bay’s stripers go to spawn in springtime. Channel edges leading to the river provide a perfect striper highway, and they’re prime areas for trolling.
The Highway 301 Bridge offers some good fishing opportunities.
There is also a great area known as “The Triangle” just outside the mouth of the Potomac River, which is littered with bottom structure. Casting and trolling in this area is productive in both spring and fall.
Also worth checking out are the drop-offs southwest of Point Lookout and north of Vir-Mar Beach. The Potomac River forms the boundary between Virginia and Maryland, but Maryland fishing regulations govern the river.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission oversees a long-running artificial reef program in the Chesapeake Bay, which has created a lot of prime fish habitat in various areas throughout Virginia’s part of the bay.
Stripers and other game fish use these structures at various times.
Some of the best artificial reefs are located at Northern Neck, Windmill Point, and Poquoson Flats, though there are many others. You can learn more about artificial reefs and their locations here.
Stripers follow the shipping channels in and out of the Chesapeake Bay, and anglers who do the same are successful more often than not. Granted, there are hundreds of miles of channels in the bay and its tributaries, so you still have a lot of water to cover.
Start at either the lower or upper bay, depending on where stripers are in their migration at any given time. Look for places where the main shipping channel intersects with other structures, like creek mouths, reefs or bridges.
Trolling right along the channel edge is often a good starting point. Striped bass commonly pursue schools of menhaden along the channel in the fall, and bigger stripers often suspend within 20 feet of the surface, with smaller schoolies feeding above them.
Pack packs of stripers also commonly break off and feed on shallower flats and weed beds adjacent to the main shipping channel. Think of following the channel as a way to lead yourself to good fishing spots, not necessarily as a spot in and of itself.
Chesapeake Bay Striper Fishing Tactics
Anglers deploy various techniques to catch striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay at different times and situations. Striper fishing can, ultimately, be as simple or as intricate as you want it to be. Some of the best approaches include:
Fishing for stripers with live bait is one of the simplest methods and also one of the most effective and widely used.
Common baitfish include spot, menhaden (or bunker), and eels. All of the above are great for fishing for stripers around bridges and rock islands.
The basic rig is a 30- to 40-pound test fluorocarbon leader ending in a size 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook or octopus hook. Spots and menhaden are best hooked through the nose or jaw, while eels can be hooked through the tail to prevent them from balling up and tangling your line.
Live baitfish are also great for surf and pier fishing. In these situations, a fish finder rig, which includes a sinker, works best. Use a bank sinker to let your bait move naturally with the tide or surf or a pyramid sinker to keep it mostly stationary.
Other live baits, such as clams, bloodworms and crabs, can also be excellent when stripers are actively feeding in shallow water. However, these latter baits mostly catch smaller stripers under 10 pounds.
Many anglers use topwaters or shallow-diving lures when the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are warmer, and stripers feed actively on the surface. These lures work well around bridges and tunnels and are great choices when schools of stripers are visibly busting baitfish on the surface.
Various chugger/poppers and crankbaits are effective in these situations, as well as soft plastic jerkbaits like Zoom Flukes.
Some anglers fly fish for stripers near the surface, casting large Clouser Minnows on 8- to 9-weight fly rods.
Jigs are great options any time stripers are feeding a little deeper. Anglers can jig over structure like reefs and oyster bars, as well as around bridge pilings and piers.
In some cases, larger stripers will suspend below smaller schoolies that feed on the surface, and this is another situation in which jigging can be a great choice to target bigger fish.
Bucktail jigs are tried-and-true lures that have a place in every striper angler’s tackle box. Jigging spoons, including Diamond Jigs and Stingsilver Jigs, are excellent too. Jigs may also be tipped with live bait.
Trolling for striped bass is the best tactic in many situations, particularly when searching for fish or when you’re out to catch true trophy stripers, which tend to be solitary by nature.
Trolling also allows anglers to run multiple baits and lures at a range of depths.
In spring and fall, many anglers troll around the bay’s bridge spans and tunnels.
Trolling is also effective in open waters along shipping channels and in the mouths of rivers and tributaries. The ideal speed is usually between 2.5 and 3 miles per hour.
Storm lures, bucktail jigs, and a wide range of spoons are effective trolling lures.
Many anglers also troll with live baits, including bunker and eels.
Umbrella rigs have multiple blades to mimic a baitfish ball and are very popular for trolling on the Chesapeake Bay.
Coastal Striper Fishing
In addition to the Chesapeake Bay itself, ocean-facing areas along Virginia’s Atlantic coast offer excellent striped bass fishing at various times of the year, particularly when migratory Atlantic stripers are on their way into or out of the bay.
Key areas include the barrier islands that form the Virginia and Maryland coast north of the Chesapeake Bay (of these, only Assateague Island is accessible from land) and the area of coastal Virginia south of the bay, which includes Virginia Beach.
Trolling offshore waters for migrating stripers is a popular tactic, especially for local fishing guides who want to connect their clients with trophy-size fish.
Surf fishing is also a great way for anglers to catch quality stripers. Virginia Beach, in particular, is a striper hot spot in December and January and offers a public pier, fishing jetties, and several miles of publicly accessible beach.
Stripers often patrol sandbars and hunt right along the break line, putting them within easy casting distance of surf fishermen. A variety of typical striper lures and jigs can be effective, though live bait is more commonly employed.
More: Check out our best tips for catching stripers in the surf by a longtime angler.
Landlocked Stripers in Virginia
Striped bass have been successfully stocked in several freshwater lakes across Virginia, providing excellent angling opportunities. Although stripers don’t usually reproduce naturally in lakes, stocked fish can still reach impressive sizes.
Here are a few of the best lakes for striper fishing.
Smith Mountain Lake
Located near Roanoke and spanning 20,600 acres, Smith Mountain Lake has been stocked with striped bass since 1963 and has been nationally recognized for its excellent fishing. Striped bass are second in popularity only to largemouth bass here.
Striped bass in Smith Mountain Lake are highly mobile, often following schools of shad in open water. Deep areas in the lower main body of the lake are best in summer when stripers seek deep, cool water.
Fishing can be better in coves and creeks during the cooler months. Some of the best fishing occurs when a warming trend draws baitfish into the shallows between late fall and early spring, and stripers invariably follow.
Casting soft jerkbaits and plugs is most effective during the cooler months while trolling with plugs and umbrella rigs is a better approach in summer. Live shad are excellent bait in all seasons.
Access to the lake is available at Smith Mountain Lake State Park, as well as numerous public boat ramps and privately owned marinas.
Anglers are encouraged to keep their catch, especially among larger stripers, in summer due to high mortality during hot weather.
Buggs Island Lake
Straddling the border between Virginia and North Carolina, Buggs Island Lake spans 48,900 acres at full pool, making it Virginia’s largest lake. Buggs Island Lake is also known as Kerr Reservoir, and stripers have been stocked here for quite some time.
This lake is unique in that it’s one of the few places where landlocked stripers are known to reproduce successfully regularly. Every spring, they stage a spawning run from the upper end of the reservoir into the Staunton and Dan rivers.
The upper part of Buggs Island Lake is best throughout the colder months, particularly the stretch from Goat Island to the Clarksville Bridge. Occoneechee State Park provides boat ramps, bank access and camping.
Recent surveys have shown that 19- to 20-inch stripers are most common, and some fish grow to 10 pounds. As in most lakes, stripers stick to deep open waters in summer. Therefore, the best summer fishing is closer to the dam.
Stripers have ample forage in Buggs Island Lake, including gizzard shad, threadfin shad, alewives and blueback herring.
Trolling is effective along the river channel, across creek mouths, and over submerged points and humps.
Buggs Island Lake is a fantastic fishing lake for multiple species, including some of the best crappie fishing water you’ll find in Virginia.
Lake Anna is a 9,600-acre reservoir about an hour northwest of Richmond in Central Virginia. The lake is regularly stocked with striped bass and hybrid stripers, which are sterile hybrids between striped and white bass.
Both species thrive in the lake, although Lake Anna tends to yield smaller stripers than some other reservoirs. Stripers show excellent growth through their first three years but tend to slow after they reach about 20 inches, perhaps due to a lack of suitable habitat.
All the same, fishing for these modest-sized stripers is excellent, especially in spring and fall.
Trolling gizzard shad or blueback herring (both of which are found in the reservoir) is the tactic of choice. Anglers commonly use planer boards to help cover a wider area.
The colder months often offer a good topwater bite as well, when stripers and hybrids blitz shad on the surface, and the resulting commotion is often easy to spot. Casting topwaters and spoons into the melee can be great fun when conditions are right.
Lake Anna is accessible through Lake Anna State Park and via several privately owned marinas and campgrounds. At present, there is no free public launch on the lake.