Hampton Roads, Virginia

Bridging the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean

A flash of cobia, red drum, and crevalle jack snapped up the shrimp, squid, and smelt added to their tank at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News. It was feeding time at the museum's 30,000-gallon Chesapeake Bay Aquarium, and my daughter Helen and I were enjoying a special tour from Curatorial Director George Mathews, Jr. After the initial frenzy, the loggerhead sea turtle and other slower feeders played clean up. As we watched, George talked about the Bay's food web and the importance of Hampton Roads as a nursery for ocean fish. Nearby, a flounder, camouflaged in the sandy bottom of another display, made me wonder, "What's for dinner?"

The museum was the perfect place to start our two-day Hampton Roads visit. Exhibits there represent Virginia species from the mountains to the mouth of the Bay. Walking along the three-quarter-mile boardwalk loop through the outdoor habitats, we saw red wolves, beaver, racoons, and two adorable river otters. Inside the Coastal Plain Aviary, pelicans entertained us with their fish-catching skills. Indoor exhibit areas mimic Virginia's varied landscapes from the Appalachian Mountains to the Coastal Plains.

At the end of our tour, we said good bye to George and the aquarium's giant sea turtle and headed across the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel to explore Virginia Beach.

It was more than 400 years ago, in 1607, that the first English colonists landed in the same area aboard Captain Newport's Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. After some exploration of the enormous harbor, a settlement was established on an easier-to-defend island on the James River. "Jamestown" became the first English-speaking settlement to survive in the New World.

Today, along with Williamsburg and Yorktown, Jamestown is part of Hampton Roads' Historical Triangle, a popular destination that helps make tourism a mainstay of the area's economy.

Even bigger than tourism, port-related industries like shipbuilding and cargo transfer are a large part of Hampton Roads' economy.

But the biggest chunk—almost 80 percent of the region's economy—is derived from federal sources. The Hampton Roads area has the largest concentration of military bases and federal facilities of any metropolitan area in the world. Nearly one-fourth of the nation's active-duty military personnel are stationed in Hampton Roads.

The harbor also supports a thriving commercial and recreational fishing industry. In Virginia Beach alone, recreational fishing employs 2,856 people and brings in $218.5 million in sales and output annually, according to the last state study done in 2005.

Approximately 350 species of fish live in the Chesapeake Bay. Some fish are year-round residents, while others swim into the Bay from the ocean to feed, reproduce, or find shelter. Hampton Roads' location between the Bay and Atlantic makes it a natural interchange for catching migrating fish, like flounder.

The next day we were going fishing, and our aim was to catch summer flounder, a brownish, bottom-dwelling, flatfish with a series of spots and both eyes on the top side of the body. These fish visit the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay from spring through fall and are a popular recreational catch.

In Virginia Beach, at the mouth of the Lynnhaven, Helen and I stopped at Bubba's Seafood Restaurant and Crab House for a fishing report. Boats were still at the dock unloading their catch. Flounder had been good that day, but we got no promises for the next. So, I bought a lucky fishing hat and a pink flounder lure.

The next morning, Helen and I met CBF Hampton Roads Senior Scientist Chris Moore at the Lynnhaven Boat and Beach facility, just west of the Lynnhaven's Lesner Bridge. Although the sky looked threatening, we decided to make a run out to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, a popular fishing area. It was rough for our Carolina Skiff, but we were glad to have taken the chance. In the distance, we saw a few tall ships that had been in Norfolk over the weekend for OpSail 2012. It was a beautiful sight to see them sailing up the Bay through the gray haze.

Back on the Lynnhaven River, we passed Pleasure House Point, a 100-plus-acre piece of waterfront that CBF, the Trust for Public Land, the City of Virginia Beach, and the community recently saved. Water quality and habitat in this river have improved measurably after collective efforts by CBF, Lynnhaven River NOW, and the City of Virginia Beach. In areas around the property, oysters actually rise up from the water, as I had imagined from Captain John Smith's chronicles. To the south, the east and west branches of the river part ways.

Chris pulled the boat over near an oyster reef and gave us instructions on drift fishing with our bait on the bottom. Each of our rigs was different. I had "fishbites," a packaged bait that looked like strips of pink chewing gum. Helen had live minnows. And Chris graciously sported the pink lure.

Almost as soon as I felt my rig touch bottom, I had a strike. Lucky hat of mine! It's a spot. My grandfather used to catch these, and I loved when my grandmother would pan fry them for breakfast with eggs.

Spot are small, blueish-gray fish with a signature black spot near the gill. They are abundant from spring through fall in the shallow waters of the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay. These bottom-feeders eat bristle worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and plant and animal debris. Spot, in turn, are food for bluefish, striped bass, and weakfish.

Minutes after releasing the spot, I had a croaker on the hook. They actually croak! These silvery-pink fish are able to make noise by vibrating their swim bladders.

Atlantic croaker—another bottom feeder—also visit the Bay from spring through fall. But this species will travel as far north as the Susquehanna Flats. They move up the Bay in spring and exit in the fall to winter in warmer waters.

I was excited to get my hook back in the water. Soon, I was staring at fish number three—an odd-looking creature called a sea robin. To me it looked more like something from a tropical aquarium.

The northern sea robin has a mottled body, wing-like fins, and a flat, bony head. They visit the Bay from spring through early winter. Although they are most common in the lower Bay, they are sometimes seen as far north as the Potomac River.

I was having all the fun. I was barely aware that it was raining and that Helen and Chris had not caught a thing. At this point, Helen asked to switch rigs with me. I took the rod with the live minnows, and Helen promptly caught two spot. I was still enjoying my hat and my first-ever fishing expedition with my daughter.

Well-known fisherman-journalist Charlie Fox said, "The angler forgets most of the fish he catches, but he does not forget the streams and lakes in which they are caught." On that day, on that river, I dared to say that Helen and I would remember both.

After one of my minnows disappeared, I added a strip of fishbites to my rig. We each caught two more croakers before we headed back to the pier.

We returned to the facility soaked, hungry, and without a single flounder. But Helen and I are resourceful and—after a big thank you to Captain Chris—we headed straight to Chick's Oyster Bar on the other side of the Lynnhaven.

The rain had stopped and we were starting to dry off a bit. From the deck, we had a great view of our new fishing hole—and a tasty plate of flounder.

Loren Anne Barnett

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