Think beyond “bottom fishing” and enjoy the sport in spring sea bassing.
“Here we go!” Russ shouted over the classic rock satellite radio station playing Thin Lizzy at a louder-than-necessary volume. I looked up from the tip of my rod and followed his gaze to a spot a hundred yards off the port side of the Contender where a flock of hovering and diving seagulls had materialized in the middle of Vineyard Sound. Lines up, engine started, and we were headed toward the activity, trying to guess what was causing the small splashes on the surface. Too subtle to be bluefish…could it be small stripers? An early school of bonito?
Russ pulled back on the throttle, launched a cast with a Deadly Dick and we quickly had our answer in the form of a 3-pound black sea bass. Glancing at the helm’s Simrad display, I saw that we were over open, sandy bottom in 30 feet of water, well upcurrent of the structure where we had been trying to bottom fish for sea bass just moments earlier. The screen was loaded with bait and fish. Instead of hanging on the deepwater wreck where we expected to find them, a school of sea bass was chasing small baitfish all the way to the water’s surface! Over the next hour, they popped up several more times, and eagerly hit anything we threw at them. It wasn’t an isolated event; over the next few weeks, other anglers had similar encounters with black sea bass behaving nothing like a “bottom fish.”
Rethinking Spring Sea Bass
Black sea bass are members of the family Serranidae, which also includes groupers, the often-solitary, structure-loving reef fishes of temperate and tropical waters. Like groupers, sea bass have been lumped in the bottom-fish category, and decades of fishing articles have laid out the formula for catching them: fish on the bottom, where they orient to structure like wrecks, reefs and rockpiles, and use squid and other natural baits. Unfortunately, because of this reputation, black sea bass are regarded by most fishermen in New England as having more value in their flesh than in their fight, and stout conventional tackle is the gear typically used to lift them off the bottom and get them into the cooler.
Black sea bass are certainly deserving of their bottom-fish standing during the cold-weather months. As summer turns to fall, they move to deeper water and eventually spend the winter on reefs and wrecks in the 240- to 600-foot depths south of Long Island. But in the spring, they migrate north and inshore to southern New England, traveling into the relatively shallow waters of Vineyard and Nantucket sounds, Buzzards Bay and Block Island Sound by mid-May. May through June is spawning season, and it appears they are content to spend this time spawning and feeding with abandon in the 20- to 40-foot depths common throughout these waters. They certainly orient to structure in these (relative) shallows—many wrecks and reefs are well-known spring sea bass hotspots—but they can also be found on sandy shoals, along channel edges, and over areas of scattered hard bottom. It’s during this period that they become particularly aggressive and start acting less like bottom fish and more like sport fish.
I learned a lesson in the sporting quality of black sea bass on an early weekend in late June last season. Taking advantage of a calm morning, I launched my Hobie kayak in Buzzards Bay, planning to target a couple of rockpiles with bucktail jigs to catch a few eating-size sea bass. The action at the first spot was slow, with only some undersized sea bass and scup, so I decided to move toward the fleet of boats bottom fishing a popular ledge off Wings Neck. As I was pedaling along the edge of a channel, the fishfinder side of the split screen on my portable Lowrance unit marked what looked like a pile of rocks rising 8 feet off the bottom in 30 feet of water. Thinking I had stumbled upon an unknown piece of structure, I doubled back over my GPS track. However, instead of finding an undiscovered shipwreck, I marked a clear ball of bait and fish. It turned out to be a big bunch of sea bass shadowing a school of sand eels. I switched to my schoolie-striper spinning rod, and every drop with a sand-eel-pattern Epoxy Jig was met with a quick strike. The sea bass ranged from 10-inchers to 2-pounders, and every one I brought to the surface was shadowed by three or four others. I stayed with the fish for an hour as they moved with the tide along the edge of the channel, keeping a couple and releasing a couple-dozen, enjoying the bend the bigger ones put in a medium-weight spinning rod.
The Sea Bass Boom
So has the sporting quality of black sea bass been underestimated by anglers, or has something in sea bass behavior changed in recent years? I think it’s likely a combination. After being declared overfished in 2000, the black sea bass stock in the Northeast has been rebuilt, thanks to improved reproduction and strict regulations that reduced fishing pressure on the stock. In fact, despite management constraints, recreational harvests have risen dramatically in the past few years, which fishery scientists believe is due to a significant increase in abundance. But don’t take the fishery scientists’ word for it—just ask any angler who has fished the waters of southern New England in recent years, and they’ll tell you that black sea bass are around in greater numbers and in more locations than just a few years ago.
In fact, black sea bass have noticeably expanded their range. Cape Cod used to be considered the northernmost limit for sea bass, but over the past three to four years they have gone from being a noteworthy catch in the waters of Boston Harbor to being available in areas like Hull Gut in targetable numbers. Sea bass are even being caught as far north as the Piscataqua River on the border between New Hampshire and Maine.
Besides allowing more anglers in more areas the opportunity to fish for black sea bass, the increase in abundance might also mean that anglers are more likely to encounter sea bass behaving out of the ordinary.
The biological description of black sea bass in the book “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” describes them as bottom dwellers that feed upon a variety of benthic invertebrates such as crabs, squid, worms and clams. And if sea bass numbers are low, it would make sense that they would orient to their most-ideal structure, and feed on the easiest-to-obtain prey items. But what happens when there are more black sea bass than can easily fit (and feed) on the prime wrecks and reefs? It’s easy to consider that when competition increases, they might venture out in search of other food sources, like baitfish, in less protected open water. Perhaps it is increased competition and a sense of safety in numbers that has led to increased reports in recent years of schools of black sea bass roving open waters and thrilling unbiased anglers.
Whatever the reason, it’s a phenomenon that light-tackle fishermen who might have overlooked black sea bass shouldn’t ignore.
Adapting Tactics for Spring Sea Bass
While the old paradigm of bottom rigs and squid strips will always work on sea bass, the method has some drawbacks. First, thawing out a frozen block of squid and cutting it into strips makes a mess that most boaters would rather not deal with. More importantly, squid strips are likely to attract bites from nibbling bait-stealers like scup, tautog, sea robins and undersized sea bass that can tear the bait off your hook with one swing-and-a-miss. The more time you spend cutting squid and rebaiting your hook, the fewer chances you have to encounter a big lump-headed sea bass. Also, while bottom rigs and bank sinkers or 5-ounce bucktails might be necessary for tending bottom in deep water, you can lighten up when fishing in the relatively shallow spring sea bass habitat.
Lightening up your lures also means that you can put away the stout bottom-fishing rods and conventional reels and switch to your spinning gear. A 7-foot medium-weight rod capable of fishing 1- to 2-ounce bucktails and metal jigs will have enough strength to raise a big sea bass and you’ll actually be able to enjoy the drag-pulling, bulldogging fight of a 5-pounder.
You’ll have the best shot at connecting with a big sea bass if you increase your encounters—in other words, it’s a numbers game. The more sea bass you can hook, land and release, the better your chances of eventually connecting with the big ones. This is why drifting is often preferred over anchoring; you have a better chance of swinging a lure past a big sea bass if you cover some ground, and a better chance of finding the fish when they aren’t stuck tight to a piece of bottom structure. Also, because you are fishing above the bottom instead of dragging a bottom rig, you can drift over rocky areas without constantly snagging up. Remember that the biggest sea bass feed aggressively in spring and will rise up in the water column to attack your lure.
Speaking of lures, there aren’t many that a sea bass won’t strike. A Spro Prime Bucktail jig with a soft-plastic or Berkley Gulp trailer is my first choice. To be specific, I like the 4-inch Gulp shrimp because it stays on the hook better than longer, thinner Gulp baits. Jigs like the Kastmaster XL, SI Epoxy Jig, Crippled Herring, and Shimano Butterfly Jig in 4- to 5-inch sizes are effective as well when dropped to the bottom and then jigged back up through the first 10 feet of the water column.
It’s strange to think that their reputation as a good-eating bottom fish has limited the number of anglers who have enjoyed quality experiences tangling with black sea bass for fun. No matter how you catch them, they are still just as delicious, and if you break out of the “bottom fish” box and go after sea bass this spring with a lighter attitude, you’ll find that they are an aggressive, hard-fighting fish worthy of respect on the line, and not just on the plate.