Black Sea Bass: Enjoy Now, Worry Later - The Fisherman

Black Sea Bass: Enjoy Now, Worry Later

john
The Fisherman’s John DeBona unhooks a black sea bass caught on a traditional high-low rig baited with clam.

Reap the harvest rewards early this month, before the summer squeeze.

When fluke and porgy limits were modified earlier this year, a lot of folks were wondering if the black sea bass regulations were being updated as well.  The answer of course is no; or at least, not yet.

Fisheries managers are actively assessing the status of the black sea bass population during the month of June, and according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) this 2024 management track assessment will provide updated estimates of stock status using data through 2023.  Ultimately, information about the status of the 2024 spawning stock biomass will be the basis of any potential regulatory changes in both the commercial and recreational fisheries for the 2025-2026 seasons.

New Jersey’s recreational black sea bass fishery reopened on May 17 and will run through June 19 with a 12-1/2-inch size limit and 10 fish bag limit.  From July 1 through August 31 it’s a one-fish bag limit, reopening again with a 10 fish bag in October and a 15 fish bag from November 1 through the end of the year.

In Delaware, regulations are a little more hospitable with an open season from May 15 through September 30 with a 15-fish bag limit and 13-inch minimum size, reopening again on October 10 and running through the end of the year.   In New York waters, the size limit is a whopping 16-1/2 inches with a three fish bag limit from June 23 through August 31, and a six fish bag limit from September 1 through December 31.

BUCKTAIL
A Spro bucktail tipped with Gulp or Fishbites makes an enticing meal opportunity for keeper sea bass.

Simplicity Sake

Black sea bass fishing can be as simple or as challenging as you wish to make it.  For simplicity sake, a 6-1/2- to 7-foot conventional setup with 30- to 50-pound braid and a top shot of 30- to 40-pound leader with a high-low rig and 3/0 hooks is all you need.  Fresh squid or clam baits with an appropriate sinker (prepare for 6 to 10 ounces) is ideal when working the New Jersey, Delaware artificial reef sites where these “biscuits” can be found.  When fishing a head boat lined with fellow anglers, you can rent this same equipment or bring along your own; typically, all the cut baits are available for your use.

For a shot at upping the score with bigger sea bass, you may want to add colored beads and other bling to your rig, but just keep in mind that sometimes bluefish or even dogfish can get turned on to that concept pretty quickly.  Other baits to incorporate into your carry-on arsenal for targeting black sea bass are Gulp Swimmin’ Mullets or Fightclub by FishBites in the 3- to 4-inch size.

Various bucktails also provide a great presentation above the reefs and wrecks, and some of the bigger sea bass I’ve caught have been using a Spro on the bottom with a bit of Gulp or squid, with a teaser and 3/0 hook with the Gulp swimming mullet.  If you’re thinking of colors, white and chartreuse for sure, but I always felt that when squid are around anything in pink should get the nod.

FATHER-AND-SON
The one-fish bag limit on sea bass during the months of July and August make for a nice “bycatch” allowance while fluke fishing as Mike and Mike Hedrzak of Royerstown, PA found last summer aboard the Big Mohawk.

Pitch & Reel

Depending on the depth you’re fishing and the amount of current, Ava 27 to 87 jigs and varied size diamond jigs have always been popular wreck fishing tools when fishing either convention or spinning.  However, in recent years the “slow pitch” style of jigging has become a lot more popular due to the lighter gear used in this method of fishing.  The technique was brought over from Japan several years ago and makes use of a moderate action rod, thinner braid and more compact, lightweight reels (conventional or spin) that make for comfortable, all-day fishing.

A lot of manufacturers are designing slow pitch rods now due to the popularity of this jigging method; Tsunami had their white Slim Wave models released a few years ago which were of the slow pitch style that I use now for a lot of different light tackle fisheries, although they also offer their more specified Trophy Series Slow Pitch rods as well.  I have a 6-foot, 8-inch PENN Battalion slow pitch specific rod as well that’s rated for 20-pound braid and 3.5-ounce lure matched to a low profile PENN Squall which is really fun to fish.  The Battalion has that unique split-grip design, which a lot of anglers prefer when slow pitch jigging because of the comfort against your arm, as well as tucked under the armpit.

slow-pitch
Slow pitch style jigs slice through the water column in a more horizontal fashion, staying in the feeding zone for longer periods of time on lighter tackle.
BY THE NUMBERS
According to data shared by the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) shown in graph 1, commercial black sea bass harvest has seen a steady increase since 2009, whereas recreational harvest limits have remained mostly flat in efforts to constrain angler harvest over the past several years.

graph-1

Graph 2 shows the most recent “peer-reviewed” stock assessment in 2021 that found that black sea bass stock north of Cape Hatteras was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring as of 2019, but a new management track assessment this year will provide updated estimates of stock status using data through 2023 and will be used by fisheries managers to potentially adjust management measures for 2025-2026.

graph-2

Citing the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) used to monitor angler harvest, ASFMC stated “total live recreational discards from Maine to Virginia were 35.40 million fish in 2022. Assuming 15% hook and release mortality, estimated recreational discard losses in 2022 were estimated to be 5.31 million fish, equal to 54% of the total recreational removals (harvest plus dead discards).”

Slow pitch jigs incorporate assist-style hooks, with some coming pre-rigged and others requiring you to do it yourself; most shops where you’ll find the slow pitch jigs themselves will have assist hooks by the likes of Mustad, Owner or Gamakatsu as all the major players are well-entrenched in this style of fishing here in the U.S.  The slow pitch jig itself is center-weighted and a little wider in the middle, which allows the jigs to flutter and slice through the water column on the drop.  If you think of the “slicing” aspect, rather than bouncing its way to the bottom the slow pitch jig cuts a more horizontal profile on the way down allowing it to be in that strike zone longer once you find where the sea bass are feeding.

Once at the bottom of the drop, it’s a quick, short lift, and thank a crank of the reel, and continue.  For folks who prefer spinning over conventional, I think the slow pitch style is really right up your alley; once your rig has hit the bottom and the bail reset, pull your rod hand up once just a few inches, and then drop back down as your reel hand takes a quarter turn of the spinning reel.  You can vary that retrieve until you find what works, but all this light tackle and relatively simple motions makes jigging the slow pitch style much more comfortable to do for longer periods of time. If sand eels are on the sea bass menu, a slow pitch jig in that color pattern is highly effective, and spending more time deeper in the zone closer to the bottom can lead to drop and reel action.

We’re blessed with a pretty robust artificial reef system in New York, New Jersey and Delaware waters, which provides the structure (and food) to keep those sea bass in good supply.  On a bluebird day with minimal current, drifting over top or along the structure is just as effective as anchoring.  And while my current bag limit here in New Jersey stands at 10 fish through June 19, the single-fish bag limit from July 1 through the end of August provides a nice bonus when fluking.

Head boat operators along the entire length of coast anxiously await the black sea bass season to get passengers onboard to line the rails; I personally prefer to fish on these “inspected vessels” to leave the anchoring to a capable captain with the best “numbers” dialed into the machine, while having friendly mates who are happy to clean and bag my catch at the end of the trip.  Just don’t forget, these crew members (much like bartenders and wait staff) count on tips to pay the bills.  The filets they send you home with are about the tastiest fish you’ll serve on the table this season, and with a vacuum-sealer you’ll probably save enough in the freezer to get you all the way through until the fall limits increase again.

Catch ‘em up!

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