Pictured above: Large cod hold over deep-water wrecks in the winter months.
Offshore bottom fishing in the winter may not be for everyone, but it is a great cold-weather activity during months with few saltwater angling options. In the winter, fish congregate on wrecks and rough bottom in 120 to 300 feet of water. Offshore sea bass are different from the ones we see mixed in with fluke and taken at the Shrewsbury Rocks in June; offshore fish often exceed 5-pounds and are voracious.
Though anglers can successfully fish deep-water wrecks off New York and New Jersey throughout the year, winter and early spring are particularly productive for targeting big sea bass known as “humpbacks,” fish built like miniature fullbacks that can exceed 5 pounds in weight.
The classic sea bass terminal tackle involves a two-hook dropper rig tied with 50-pound-test monofilament. Start with 4 feet of monofilament leader, tie a surgeon’s loop at the bottom of the leader and two dropper loops a foot apart in the middle. Loop a pair of 5/0 baitholder hooks to each dropper, and bait up with cut squid, clams or mackerel strips. All three of these baits are excellent sea bass enticers, though it is wise to have multiple options on hand. There are days when sea bass will show a strong preference for one bait over another.
Add an 8- to 16-ounce sinker (depending on depth, current and drift speed) to the surgeon’s loop and tie a 150-pound-test ball-bearing swivel to the top end of the rig. Some anglers add a bucktail skirt or little rubber squid—usually red or chartreuse—above the hook. The claim is it gives the bait a larger profile and keeps the hooks floating so they don’t get tangled on the main line.
The weapon of choice is normally a 6- to 7-foot, heavy-action boat rod. To quickly retrieve the rig and hooked fish from the bottom, most anglers prefer high-speed conventional reels. I use a pair of old Pro Gear reels and fill them with 50-pound-test braided line, which allows me to feel every bump of the bottom and every tap from a sea bass. To protect the braid from rubbing against the structure, attach a 15- to 20-foot shock leader of 50- to 80-pound-test abrasion‑resistant monofilament to a foot of doubled main line.
Deep-water sea bass fishing can also be productive with jigs. Sometimes the jigs will produce bigger fish, but because constant motion is needed, they are vulnerable to getting hung up in the structure. Losing some gear is part of the price of admission, but casting far away from the boat tends to enhance the likelihood of getting snagged. Generally, it’s best to keep your gear as vertical as possible. Also, sea bass will swim along the outskirts of structure and above them as well, so you don’t need to fish deep into the wreck itself.
Though sea bass are the primary target, large pollock and cod can be mixed in. You’ll need bigger hooks, 16-ounce Norwegian-style jigs, and—particularly for pollock—bucktail flies. The fly is tied via a dropper loop about two feet above the jig and can sometimes out-produce it.
It’s important to have as much prepared as possible before leaving the dock. Tying rigs in sub-freezing weather can be very challenging. And speaking of weather, do not under estimate the amount of clothing you should have on hand. Start with a good base layer and then build upon that with a turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, and waterproof jacket. I’ll often add a fleece for even more warmth. The top layer should be a rugged pair of oil skins that will keep you dry and provide additional warmth. A winter hat that covers your ears is essential. A pair of insulated, waterproof commercial fishing gloves will help keep your hands warm but will make it impossible for you to tie knots. Wear a pair of heavy wool socks and rubber boots with a grippy sole. Don’t skimp here. Mediocre soles lacking solid traction can result in bruises and breaks if you slip on deck. And for the socks, it’s advisable to have at least one spare pair. Wet socks in the middle of winter can be a painful ordeal.
It’s a good idea to contact the captain 2 to 3 days before your intended sailing date. Winter weather is dicey, and while the handful of captains running offshore sea bass trips are rugged men, they are not irresponsible and won’t sail if conditions are forecast to be particularly rough.
The real attraction to winter bottom fishing is the chance to fill a cooler with jumbo sea bass. The cold, snow, and choppy seas just add to the adventure!