Return to Back Bay

by Chris McCotter

When I first fished Back Bay in 2009 I was intrigued by what I experienced – a vast shallow water fishery behind Sandbridge featuring thousands of acres of weedy bays, islands, creeks and canals. While I didn’t catch many bass, I caught enough and saw enough to have great hope this fishery was on the way to returning to what it once was some 35 years past.

In the 70’s and early 80’s Back Bay and the attached Currituck Sound was considered to have the best largemouth bass fishing in the world. But after a near total collapse of the fishery due to saltwater intrusion and the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation only the rivers feeding the bay held bass for many years.

Fast-forward to some time in the early 2000’s when the weeds began returning to the bay and the water began to clear up, and you have the setting for a great comeback story.

While it’s not yet giving up 200+ citation bass per year like it did in it’s hey day, Back Bay has once again become a good largemouth bass fishery with fish up to seven pounds common.

VDGIF District Fisheries Biologist Chad Boyce has been actively managing Back Bay for 10 years now. His first major step was an experimental stocking of 70,000 F1 hybrid largemouth bass in 2009 to see if a full-scale stocking would be worthwhile.

Monitoring revealed submerged aquatic vegetation growth continued to create conditions conducive to largemouth bass reproduction so Boyce ordered up some more stockings of those hearty, fast-growing hybrid bass.

“From 2012 to 2014, we stocked 125,000 F1’s per year (375,000 total). The full-scale stocking was aimed at bolstering and/or augmenting the excellent natural reproduction that was going on in the bay. Little did we know that the years we stocked we also were going to have excellent natural reproduction!  

“All in all, the stockings were a success. The stocked fish generally contributed at least 10% and up to 17% of the year classes of bass in each of the stocked years,” Boyce told W2.

The fisheries biologist continues to monitor the growing bass fishery with yearly sampling to evaluate survival of the stocked bass as well as documenting the natural reproduction.  

“We are going on about 9-10 years of continually increasing bass abundance.  Specifically, the catch per effort (a standardized way of evaluating bass abundance through our electrofishing surveys) has gone up every year since 2009.  That’s great news! 

“Additionally, the bass catches by recreational anglers continue to increase. I have been conducting a roving creel survey for the past 3-4 years and the increased bass abundance we see when sampling is echoed in the angler catches as well.”

My family and I visited Sandbridge July 7-12 this past summer and I trailed the Anna’s Marine Center TRACKER Grizzly 2072 CC so I could check on Back Bay’s progress each morning.

Powered by a 115 hp Command Thrust, Four Stroke Mercury and a Minn Kota iPilot Ulterra with linked Humminbird electronics, I had the ultimate shallow water fishing machine at my disposal – a far cry from the kayaks I fished out of in 2009.

Base camp was the Outdoor Resort at Sandbridge. We used their ramp a couple times and launched once from North Bay Shore Campground and twice from Bob’s Fishing Hole on the Northwest River.

To understand the fishing here it’s key to note that Back Bay water levels are affected by wind direction and speed. There is no tidal flow. The water blows in with a southerly wind and blows out with a northerly wind. The fish bite best when the water is moving, preferably falling water from high water.

During our stay we had high water to start, then an east wind pushed in and dropped the water about six inches over night. A southerly breeze and nighttime rainfall brought it back on our final day. We fished from about 7:30 am to noon each day.

On Day 1 we fished the North Bay section of Back Bay behind Sandbridge, hiding from a northeast wind blowing in from the ocean.

I was tossing a 3/8 oz Johnson Silver Spoon with a white Fitt Premium Lures River Darter trailer on a 7’6” Berkley Vendetta medium heavy casting rod and retrieving it over grass growing in 1-2’ of water at the mouth of canals. I was catching bass up to two pounds blowing up on the spoon as it wobbled over the milfoil.

We also fished a place known as Woods Broad, accessed via the famous “Snake Ditch” only when the water is up. The 99” wide Grizzly was awesome here as it drafted hardly any water and the Spot Lock on the Minn Kota Ulterra held us in the wind and never once bogged down in the weeds.

It appeared the key to this pattern was fishing weed-filled shallow areas that offered bass refuge from the wind and clear water. My son caught several fish here using an Egret Baits Vudu mullet swimbait.

On Day 2 we launched out of Bob’s Fishing Hole on the Northwest River and made the 14-mile run down to Tull’s Bay. The water was flowing into the creeks and every bit of isolated wood we pitched ZOOM Ultravibe Speed Craws to produced at least a bite. The fish here weren’t big but the cypress trees and duck blinds were plentiful. I know this area of the Northwest had been on fire earlier in the season and was glad to finally fish it.

On Day 3 we fished out of North Bay Shore Campground, launching the Grizzly in their canal and fishing our way out into Muddy Creek. My son caught the first fish of the day, a 20” derp that engulfed his Vudu swimbait not far from the launch point in the creek.

From there we began exploring the many “ponds” along the western side of North Bay, trying to get out of a pretty stiff southwest wind. We found some amazing places that offered shelter, clear water, milfoil and feeding bass.

Our go to baits in these secluded areas included a weedless, five-inch swimbait and my trusty spoon. We could see where most of the bass were as they swirled on or chased small minnows in the open spots among the grass.

On Day Four we returned to Bob’s Fishing Hole on the Northwest and fishing the upper portion of the river, finding very little aggressive except for chain pickerel that would hammer spinnerbaits and chatterbaits. We later found out there was a good post-frontal bite for those using drop-shotted stickbaits around deep shoreline wood.  

All those fish we found in the isolated “pond” got me wondering and I asked Chad about them. Boyce shared some interesting data he’s gleamed from tracking studies conducted over the couple of years in conjunction with Old Dominion University.

“[The project] has tagged approximately 850 bass between eight inches and 24 inches long and was focused on learning more about a oral leech infestation in the bass. We have gleaned some very valuable movement and distribution data from the proposal. The bottom line… These bass in Back Bay simply do not move any considerable distance.  

“If we tag a fish in Nanneys Creek, we re-capture those fish on Nanneys Creek. If we tag them in a marsh pond or cove, they may be found on opposite ends of the cove/pond pond but generally never leave the pond. They are very specific to certain marshes and creeks,” Boyd told me.

Another notable observation he’s made has been a considerable increase in larger bass (over 18 inches). Crappie numbers have exploded as well. Boyce said he is seeing a lot of larger crappie (over 10 inches), not just in the creeks but scattered around the bay.  

Finally, Boyce reports that overall, that crucial, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) is holding its own.

“This year we haven’t seen a huge expansion of grass but we haven’t appeared to have lost many acres either.”

This was easily our best trip yet to Back Bay and we explored a lot of new water. In four mornings we caught approximately 60 bass, a few white perch and some pickerel. Water temperature was 83-87 were we fished.

I’m already trying to figure out how to get us back in the fall and see if we can amass one of those 30-pound limits recorded this summer by tournament anglers fishing out of Bob’s Fishing Hole and whack some of the slab crappie we know live there, too.

When you’re considering a new place to fish because your old favorite has become too popular, consider Back Bay. During our stay we only saw one other person fishing North Bay and just a few other boats on the Northwest River. This is a massive fishery with decent access points and very little fishing pressure you’ll want to experience if you enjoy shallow water bass fishing.

Bob’s Fishing Hole is definitely bass fishing headquarters for the region. There’s really no other place to purchase tackle and James has an amazing selection of good stuff.

North Shore Bay Campground is an excellent option to use as basecamp. It offers basic cabins, pop-up trailers and tent sites, the boat launch and you’re about 10 minutes from some great restaurant options in nearby Sandbridge. North Landing Beach Resort is another option if you want to lower Back Bay, the North River and the Northwest River.

Your gear selection for a fishing trip to Back Bay can be pretty simple. Start by leaving the deep diving crankbaits at home. Weedless spoons, swimbaits, squarebills, soft plastic stickbaits, frogs, spinnerbaits, chatterbaits and soft plastic creature baits are all good here.

The new Berkley X9 braided line in 15- and 20-lb. test was very helpful cutting through the grass during the occasional snag and when we were fighting fish.

You’ll want to purchase the GMCO Pro Series North Landing River/Back Bay Pro Series map and study it before your visit. See page 9 to order.

Image courtesy of Visit Virginia Beach

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