Back in the Black
June 11, 2010
Black sea bass may not garner the same amount of attention as striped bass or tuna, but they’re a lot of fun to catch and are great to eat. Their range extends from the North Shore of Massachusetts down through Florida, and they weigh anywhere from 1 to 7 pounds, although anything over 4 pounds is considered a trophy. (The world-record black sea bass weighed 9 pounds, 8 ounces and was taken off the coast of Virginia.) Perhaps best of all, sea bass are relatively easy to catch, which makes them a great target for kids.
Sea bass can be taken throughout the season over virtually any patch of rocky bottom or wreck, but the best time to target them is from late May to mid-June, when the large adult fish congregate to spawn in depths of 15 to 40 feet. Once you find a bunch of sea bass over a patch of hard bottom, it doesn’t take long to catch dinner.
Sea Bass Rods, Reels and Line
Catching sea bass isn’t rocket science, and doesn’t require expensive or heavy gear. I use a 7-foot rod with a light, sensitive tip and rated for 15- to 30-pound line. I match this with small conventional reel filled with 30-pound-test braided line. Braid is great for this type of fishing because it has no stretch, which makes it easy to feel the jig tapping bottom, as well as any subtle strikes. Braid is also thinner than mono of the same breaking strength, so it’s less affected by current in deep water. I tie the main line to a small barrel swivel, followed by 3 to 4 feet of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
Sea Bass Lures and Rigs
While a strip of squid fished on a plain 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook works well for sea bass, you may end up hooking a lot of searobins, skate, dogfish, cunner and scup. That’s one reason why I prefer to use lures. One of the best sea bass lures is a bucktail jig. I use a Spro bucktail “sweetened” with a 3- to 4-inch, pennant-shaped strip of fresh squid. I split the end of the strip to give it more action and to keep it from snagging on the hook during the jigging process. Sea bass aren’t too fussy about color, but I’ve had the best luck with pink-and-white, chartreuse-and-white and blue-and-white patterns. A 3-ounce jig is ideal when fishing in 30 feet of water in moderate wind and current. Faster drifts and deeper water may require jigs of up to 4 ounces, but I don’t like to go heavier than that.
Diamond jigs also work very well on sea bass, and you often don’t need to add any natural bait to the hook if the fish are thick. Simply lower the jig (2 to 3 ounces is usually ideal) to the bottom and hop it up and down and you drift along.
It should be noted that anchoring also works, especially if you find a concentration of fish.
Another productive and popular rig is the high-low setup. This rig features a heavy jig or bank sinker tied to the end of the leader, with a second hook (3/0-5/0 Octopus style) attached to a dropper loop roughly 1 foot above that. The upper hook is baited with a long strip of squid or a small bucktail jig sweetened with squid.
Sea Bass Spots
Locating a likely sea bass hotspot is usually easy. In my local waters—Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts—I look for a large section of fairly flat, hard bottom in 20 to 40 feet of water. I prefer to drift rather than anchor, because drifting lets me cover more bottom to find a concentration of fish. I try to pick a calm day with moderate current. The slower the drift, the easier it is to keep the fishing line as vertical as possible and the jig close to the bottom. The latter is critical, because sea bass won’t usually leave the bottom to chase a jig (although I have caught them on trolled lures aimed at bluefish and striped bass). If strong winds are pushing the boat too fast, making it difficult to keep the jig on the bottom, a sea anchor or even a 5-gallon bucket tied to the boat can help slow the drift.
Once you’ve positioned the boat upwind or upcurrent of the area you want to fish, freespool your jig to the bottom, reel in one or two turns and start jigging. Holding the rod tip close to the water and making sharp, short, 6-inch lifts of the tip is most effective. The idea is to make the jig look like a small fish or squid darting or hopping just above the bottom. Many times a sea bass will hit the jig as it free-falls toward the bottom, so be ready to set the hook with a quick lift of the rod if you feel a slight tap or tug on the line. Once you hook up, mark the spot on your chartplotter or toss out a marker buoy, as there are sure to be more fish in the same area.
If you don’t score on your first drift, move to a new spot. This is where the track feature on a chartplotter comes in handy, because it lets you cover the bottom systematically. If you don’t score after a few drifts, pick up and try shallower or deeper patches until you find the fish. In sea bass fishing, as in many types of fishing, it pays to fish and move.
It should be noted that anchoring also works, especially if you find a concentration of fish. In this case you’ll need to drop the hook well upwind or upcurrent of the hotspot and drift back over the fish. If you don’t hook up in the first 5 minutes, reset the anchor or let out or take up anchor line.
As mentioned, May and June are the prime months for sea bass fishing in the Northeast. In summer, the bigger fish move out to deeper, cooler water (60 feet or more), where they take up station over wrecks and rockpiles. Smaller sea bass can be caught inshore through the summer, in water ranging from 20 to 50 feet deep, but most will be of sublegal size and will need to be released.
Of course, large sea bass can surprise you from time to time—such as the 5-pounder I hooked a few years ago while trolling a swimming plug for bluefish in late August. It seems that black sea bass refuse to be ignored, and they sure have my attention.
Filleting a Sea Bass