Catch a Batch of Sea Bass
May 24, 2020
Four charter captains share their advice for scoring more and bigger black sea bass from Cape Cod to New York. By Tom Schlichter
Seven years ago, I was snorkeling along a stretch of sandy beach in eastern Long Island Sound when I saw something ususual. It was July, and the waters were clear, warm and teeming with dozens of small, olive-checked fish.
“Those look like baby sea bass,” I thought, although it seemed unlikely, given the species’ affinity for rocky bottom. But sea bass they were, and their numbers kept increasing. There were hundreds of them the following week, and uncountable numbers by the start of August. A giant swarm of so-called “sea biscuits” had invaded the inshore waters of eastern Long Island!
In the Black
It was the beginning of a sea bass explosion in the Northeast. Within three years, the famed Block Island fluke grounds were crawling with two- and three-pounders, while New England’s bays and sounds saw catch rates swell to unprecedented levels during spring and early summer. In Maine, lobstermen were catching so many incidental sea bass that the state opened a commercial fishery for the species.
Fisheries managers confirm that sea bass stocks are at sustainable levels, are not overfished, and that the species is expanding its range. It’s as rosy an outlook as you’ll see for any food or game fish species these days, and will hopefully lead to more liberal season, size and catch limits over the next few years.
Buzzards Bay Bonanza
“It’s as close to ‘can’t miss’ fishing as I’ve ever seen—and it’s likely to get even better!” says Captain Eric Morrow of the Bounty Hunter Fleet based in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. “We’ve got tremendous numbers of fish here in Buzzards Bay. Big fish, too. Many are in the three- to five-pound class.”
“The season kicks off in late May,” Morrow continues. “The fish initially show up to spawn over mud bottom in 12 to 35 feet of water before moving to deeper areas with more structure in late June. During that early-season period, try the waters off Bird Island, north of Cleveland Ledge and off Scraggy Neck. Just follow the fleet and you’ll find some fish.
“There’s not much current here, so you can get away with your favorite freshwater bass outfit—either spinning or baitcasting. I like to fish 20-pound-test braid with a 10-pound-test top shot of mono or fluorocarbon.”
Morrow favors small Crippled Herring jigs, Ava 007 diamond jigs and bucktails. “You’ll rarely need more than two ounces in these waters, except in very windy conditions. With the metal jigs, free-spool them to the bottom, crank up a few turns at a moderate speed and repeat until you get smacked. With bucktails, keep them on or near the bottom and keep the rod tip moving to give them action.”
A bit farther north and east, Captain Mike Bosley of Dragonfly Sportfishing calls the spring and early-summer sea bass fishery in Nantucket Sound “spectacular.” “Sea bass love structure,” explains Bosley, “and we have tons of it.”
Nantucket Sound contains scattered rock piles, along with several artificial reefs. Just last year, in fact, the concrete rubble of a local school-demolition project was distributed over a well-defined area now known as the Harwich Artificial Reef. “There’s your sea bass honey hole,” laughs Bosley. “The GPS numbers are right online. It’s a big area and no secret. Nearby Yarmouth Reef is another great spot.”
From late May through mid-July, Bosley targets sea bass up to six pounds in 15- to 40-foot depths. Since currents in the Sound are a bit stronger and the fish tend to hold slightly deeper than in Buzzards Bay, he prefers to use a larger reel filled with 20- to 30-pound-test braid and a 30- to 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. His lures of choice include a one- to three-ounce chartreuse or green-over-white Spro bucktail jig tipped with Berkley Gulp! or a small strip of scup belly, usually adding a high hook with another piece of Gulp! or squid for bait. If the bite is hot, he might switch to small diamond jigs, which also “serve as a good handle for lifting sea bass out of the water.”
Catching is easy these days, notes Bosley, so it’s okay to be selective. With so many three-pound-plus fish around, there’s no justification for keeping anything much smaller. “We don’t keep anything less than 18 inches long on my boat,” he states, “and no one gets short-changed on fillets.”
The waters of Long Island Sound are also loaded with sea bass, but the fishing here has a split personality. The best action occurs to the west off Clinton, Bridgeport and Norwalk from late May through June, while fishing from Niantic to Fishers Island and the Race peaks from August into September.
“Sea bass catches have been phenomenal the past few seasons,” says Captain Jack Bucchi of the charter vessel Priority One out of Clinton. “We drift for them in 100-foot depths over a mix of sand and gravel bottom. We actually avoid structure so we can get in a long drift and keep fish coming over the side.”
Fluke rigs baited with strips of squid are all you need, notes Bucchi, but to make things more interesting, he recommends a five-ounce Williams Yabi jig or Shimano Lucanus jig. If the current is running strong, you can tie a foot of 30-pound-test mono to the bottom eye of the jig and add an appropriate sinker. That will get your offering down to the bottom while ensuring the lure stays just above the rocks. Tip the jig with a piece of squid and keep it bouncing.
In the eastern Sound, from Niantic to Fishers Island and across to Long Island’s North Fork, the best sea bass action runs from August through September. Here, however, standard high-low rigs and squid baits are favored for fishing over wrecks, rock piles and submerged boulder fields in depths of 80 feet to over 100 feet.
Rocking the Block
If there’s an epicenter to the recent sea bass explosion, it’s probably the waters surrounding Block Island. “There’s obviously a ton of fish here,” says Chris Willi of Block Island Fishworks. “How could all those boats from Montauk, Connecticut and the Rhode Island mainland be wrong?”
All kidding aside, Willi notes that the rocky bottom surrounding the island is covered in mussels, making the area a sea bass dreamscape from late May right into August. Combine that with the ecosystem developing around the recently installed wind farm southeast of the island, and there’s an even greater draw.
You’ll find plenty of fish holding over and around structure in this area, but Willi adds that some of the best action occurs over patches of open bottom. On the south side of the island, for example, there’s a large, sandy stretch that gradually slopes from 40 to 70 feet deep. It’s a favored spot for doormat fluke, but flounder anglers catch plenty of huge sea bass there as bycatch.
“I love working that stretch, because it gives up big fish and you don’t lose any rigs,” explains Willi. “I’ll rig up with a Hogy Sand Eel jig tipped with Berkley Gulp! or Fishbite products and score almost at will. All you have to do is get your lure down to the bottom and keep it hopping along. The sea bass, some topping five pounds, will take care of the rest. Just be careful to avoid the gillnets in this area.”
Tons of sea bass over sandy bottom? I think I’ve seen that before, even if only on a very small scale near a very special beach!
Sea Bass Charters
Block Island Fishworks
Long Island Sound:
Priority One Charters