Eel Alley / Chesapeake Bay, Virginia
By Ric Burnley
No one knows more about eeling for striped bass than Virginia Beach's Capt. Max King. Drifting live eels at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, King and his crew have caught hundreds of stripers over 40 pounds, dozens over 50 and two monster bass over 60 pounds. Live eels have also won King and his team a dozen major fishing tournaments and thousands of dollars in prize money.
He has produced a how-to video and given countless seminars on this surefire tactic for catching trophy stripers. But it's more than fame and glory that attract King to eeling. "It's simple, easy and more fun to fight one of these big fish on 20-pound tackle," he says. Call 757-650-3176, or visit captainmaxking.com.
Look at a nautical chart of Virginia's Eastern Shore, and you'll notice a deep slough running down the Chesapeake Bay side of the peninsula from Plantation Light 15 miles to the tip of Fisherman's Island. At the mouth of the bay, the channel turns outward into the Atlantic Ocean and continues up the eastern side of the peninsula 20 miles to Great Machipungo Inlet. That slough is Eel Alley, King's favorite place to fish.
Each fall, millions of striped bass return to Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, millions of American eels leave the bay on their way to the Sargasso Sea. Like a perfect storm, these two migrations collide at Eel Alley, and Max King is there to meet them.
King calls the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas "prime time. It's game on from the moment the water temperature hits 56 degrees until it drops below 46."
Several factors affect where along Eel Alley he'll drop his baits. First, the weather: The best day for eeling features calm conditions ahead of an incoming cold front. "A steady southwest wind turns on the fish," he adds. "Northeast turns them off."
Since the peninsula serves as a windbreak, King can find places to fish no matter the conditions. But fishing in the lee helps him locate the clearest water - a major factor in eeling success. "If I can't see the eel a few feet under the water, then neither can a striper," he says.
Finally, he calculates how he can use the wind and tide to carry him through the most productive fishing grounds. "You can chase the wind and tide to find the perfect conditions," he says, explaining that the current can be completely different from one side of the peninsula to the other or from one end to the other.
"I try to set up my drift so I'm moving down the slough at a speed that keeps my lines straight up and down," he adds. If he's moving too fast, he deploys a drift anchor; too slow, he looks for more current or wind.
King subscribes to the keep-it-simple school. He lines the downwind gunwale of his boat with 12 rods, alternating between free-lined eels without weight and downline eels below an egg sinker. He avoids bobbers, because they make it tougher to set the hook before a big striper swipes the eel. "The free-lined eels have produced all of my big fish," he points out.
His eel rig also is simple: He starts with a black or red 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. He snells the hook to 3 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon that's tied to an 80-pound-test barrel swivel. For his free-line rig, he ties the swivel directly to the 20-pound mono from a medium-action spinning outfit. To add weight to the rig, he slides a 1½- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the running line ahead of the swivel.
King alternates the free-line and weighted rigs along the down-current side of the boat. He drops the baits so the eels swim a few feet above the depth where he's marking fish. "The stripers are below, looking for the eel silhouetted by the sun," he explains. "If the bait is too deep, the fish will never see it."
When the water's dirty, King adds a small, silver spinner blade to the leader ahead of the hook.
After hundreds of hours on the water and hundreds of stripers in the boat, King has proved his method. "It works and I'm not changing it," he insists. "That's what I really like about eeling for stripers. I know more about it than the next guy."
About the Author: Ric Burnley - son of contributor Eric Burnley - is a teacher, writer and photographer based in Virginia Beach. Visit his new webzine at www.fishcrazy.info.