Black sea bass numbers are rapidly increasing in New England inshore waters. Get in on the action this season.
Most of us believe climate change is a bad thing, and it’s affecting many fish species in the western North Atlantic. According to NOAA Fisheries, as saltwaters warm, populations are shifting northward. Temperatures are pushing northern species farther north, and as a result, southern New England fishermen are experiencing a decline in cold-water species like herring, tautog, cod, pollock, winter flounder and even lobsters.
For bottom anglers, however, this warming trend has meant a significant increase in black sea bass numbers, which were most prevalent in the early 1990s off North Carolina, but are now most dense from New Jersey to southern Massachusetts, and they are appearing regularly as far north as the Gulf of Maine, which has warmed faster than 99.9 percent of the world’s oceans over the last 30 years — an increase of 3 to 5 degrees.
THE GOOD NEWS
“The good news,” said Capt. Q. Kresser, manager at River’s End Tackle in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, “is hot bottomfishing in our area is now focused on sea bass. We’re seeing numbers and sizes of these fish like never before. Beginners and pros alike are targeting them with great success, which comes at a perfect time when other bottomfish species are declining. Sea bass are aggressive, fight well and are excellent eating.
“Almost any deep structure from eastern Long Island Sound through Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts is a potential sea bass jackpot. Sharpies closely guard their hotspots because a bunch of boats on a patch of ground can pick it clean of big fish. But the other good news is there are hundreds of productive spots in southern New England, and many are seldom fished. Your best bet is to locate your own sea bass hangouts. Don’t just join a fleet.”
Although sea bass occasionally suspend in the water column and will eagerly pursue a lure up from the seafloor, they are true reef fish that love structure. The pros find them concentrated on rock piles, reefs, ledges, wrecks and shoals from mid-May through September.
WHAT ARE SEA BASS?
Black sea bass (Dissostichus eleginoides) shouldn’t be confused with other species of saltwater bass. Unlike striped bass, they don’t migrate into estuaries to spawn. Inexperienced seafood diners ordering and receiving a thick, white fillet of “sea bass” in restaurants, are most often served Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), which is marketed as Chilean sea bass — or commonly just “sea bass” — a large and ugly fish with an equally unappetizing name, found only in the sub-Antarctic, which are currently overharvested. The name “Chilean sea bass” was randomly invented in 1977 by a fish wholesaler trying to make the species more appealing to the finicky American market. You don’t always get what you ask for.
Our species of true sea bass is technically a type of grouper (Serranidae family), which inhabits coastal waters from Maine to Florida and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Although they can range offshore to depths of over 400 feet, they are most common in waters of 25 to 130 feet deep.
In local waters, sea bass typically weigh about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, and any specimen of 5 pounds or more is noteworthy. Pros call large sea bass “humpbacks” or “humpies” because big ones grow a significant hump behind their head. Although sea bass are basically black, their color fluctuates, and they sometimes appear a dark olive brown, depending on their habitat.
HOW TO FIND THEM
“When targeting sea bass,” said Capt. Ned Kittredge of Westport, Massachusetts, “I use Furuno MaxSea Planner software for locating specific areas to fish. Generally, I look for deep-water rock piles in the 25- to 100-foot range that are surrounded by a sandy bottom. I’ll also cruise along contours like steep gravel banks looking for clusters on the fishfinder. But you can use a paper chart, too. The secret is finding a new place that hasn’t been fished hard.”
Searching for sea bass hangouts on paper charts is fun and easy. Look for steep contours rising from a flat bottom. Probably the best paper charts for locating hotspots are made by Captain Segull’s Navigational Fishing Charts (captainsegullcharts.com, 888-473-4855), which are in full color, laminated for water protection and highlight all known productive fishing areas along the coast.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
In southern Massachusetts, Buzzards Bay is a sea bass haven. A good place to start here is Cleveland Ledge, a popular hotspot with an easy reference point of Cleveland Light. The light sits in shallow water on the eastern side of the two halves of Cleveland Ledge, which is excellent sea bass terrain.
Cleveland Ledge is large and no secret, and you’ll find a fleet here almost any day during peak season. But pros like Kittredge seldom anchor with the fleet, preferring to find their own productive locations. For trophy sea bass, Kittredge recommends several other hotspots, too, such as around Cuttyhunk’s outer rock piles, where he routinely wrestles up 5-pounders well into August.
“The prime sea bass areas are loaded with lobster and gill-net gear,” he said, “and I think that helps keep the party boats away. Usually, any spots marked with lobster buoys are good areas to try.”
Kittredge also recommends Devil’s Bridge off the northwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard. Devil’s Bridge protrudes a mile along the bottom of Vineyard Sound. The submerged spit is prime sea bass habitat that starts as a shoreline boulder field at the base of Gay Head cliffs and tapers to 18- to 35-foot depths of rugged terrain flanked by about 60 feet of water on either side.
“You’ll do well there later in the season,” said Kittredge. “Sea bass leave the shallower spots like Cleveland Ledge in Buzzards Bay in late June and stage on the deeper water rock piles into July and August. I’ve done well in 35 feet of water and also out at the boulders near G “31” at the end of Devil’s Bridge in about 60 feet as late as August. Once again, look for lobster gear, and you’ll know you’re in the right spot.”
Heading west or south in Buzzards Bay, there are many other structures that hold sea bass all season. Kittredge suggests the 30-foot rock piles just outside of Westport, which produces sea bass to 4 pounds, and the rock piles west and north of Penzance Point near Woods Hole.
“Try some of the boulder fields around Weepeckets (three tiny islands north of the Elizabeth Islands),” he suggested.
Other top spots in the bay include areas of hard bottom off Angelica Point and Nye Ledge. West of Buzzards Bay off Rhode Island are the outstanding waters surrounding Block Island, especially the deep-water boulder fields off the south side.
Continuing west, Long Island Sound has numerous sea bass structures and hotspots along the eastern Connecticut coast. On the south side of Falkner Island off Guilford, is a series of rough bottom ridges called Cinder Bottom where you can make drifts, and east of the island is Kimberley Reef. Clinton and Westbrook have many sea bass structures off their shores ranging from 25 to 50 feet deep. East of the Connecticut River is another stretch of sea bass rock piles off Old Lyme. Other reefs are scattered off Niantic towards the Sluiceway between Millstone Point and Plum Island. One of the favored spots is called the Bloody Grounds at the 60-foot hump. If you fish here, however, come prepared for the swift currents in this region.
Rips form when a current sweeps over a reef, ledge or boulder field, and most of these structures hold sea bass all season. Once you arrive at promising high spot during a moving tide, motor up-current of the rip line while watching your depthfinder. At the point where the reef levels off, stop the boat and let the current pull you back toward it. Immediately drop your offering overboard and start working it by maintaining a slight, snapping yo-yo motion as close to the bottom as possible without dragging and hanging on the rocks. Continue this action until you reach the crest of the reef or rip line. In deep, strong-current areas, plan your trips within an hour of either side of slack tide. Rips are easier to fish properly, and sea bass continue to feed during slow currents.
Black sea bass make excellent sport fish because they’re opportunistic feeders, strike aggressively, fight hard all the way to the surface and are great eating. Their varied diet consists of crustaceans, seaworms, small fish, squid and even bivalves.
Although not true schooling fish, experts find sea bass in large clusters on structure during spawning, staging and migration periods, so anglers’ experience with regard to timing impacts their results. Adults migrate inshore and northward as water temperatures rise in the spring. The northern population of black sea bass spawns from mid-May to July between Massachusetts and New Jersey, although the spawn may last into August in cooler areas. This is when to try spots ranging from 25 to 90 feet deep. The fish then slowly return to deeper waters in late September, moving south and offshore as ocean temperatures drop in autumn.This is the time to try spots from 100 to 200 feet deep, using appropriately heavier weight.
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Because sea bass are so aggressive, successful fishing methods vary. A common shallow-water technique is to anchor over structure and use a chum pot to draw fish to your boat. But for deeper water and swifter currents, pros drift.
“I don’t anchor but choose to drift,” said Capt. Kittredge. “The reason is if a spot is unproductive, or inundated with sand sharks, it’s quick and easy to run to another place — I’m not burdened with anchor setting and hauling. Not anchoring also allows me to run back up current to retrieve snagged rigs and repeat productive drifts over a school or to try different spots on a large reef. You’ll know right away if you’re on fish because the bites come fast and hard.”
Catching sea bass is as simple as using a high/low rig baited with clams, squid or baitfish. A typical rig features a suitable sinker to tend bottom, which can be anywhere from 4 to 16 ounces, depending on current, wind and depth. Come prepared with a variety of weights, and expect to lose a few on the rugged bottom. Use a size 2/0 baitholder hook, but if you’re expecting big humpy sea bass a 3/0 or even 4/0 hook is preferable. Tie these on one, two or three droppers spaced 6 inches up and apart.
Bait your hooks with squid or clams, and keep the sinker tapping the bottom by means of a slow yo-yo motion.
“The key,” Kittredge said, “is to keep the rig as vertical as possible; otherwise, your hooks hang on the structure.”
An advanced technique is to replace the sinker with a diamond jig ranging from 4 to 8 ounces, which sea bass will eagerly strike. Tie in a dropper 8 above above the diamond jig and rig a 3/0 hook from it threaded with a soft-plastic lure or bucktail teaser, which can be sweetened with a squid strip. Fish this rig by bouncing it off the bottom with a brisk, yo-yo rod-tip-snapping motion.
Experts match medium-weight, fast-action boat rods to small conventional reels, like a Shimano Tekota 300 or 500. They spool their reels with 200-plus yards of 50-pound braid backing followed with a top shot of 150 yards of 15 pound braid. The thin line allows you to fish with the lightest weight possible in the current and maintain excellent feel in deep water. Leaders can be mono or Perlon in 30- to 60-pound test and 18 to 36 inches long.
Due to increased fishing interest, state regulations for black sea bass change frequently. As of this writing, the 2018 limits were not determined, but last year saw Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts with a 15-inch minimum length and a bag limit ranging from 3 to 6 fish. Maine allowed a 13-inch fish minimum with a limit of 10. Be sure to check your local regulations before heading out.