The fall fishery for black sea bass can be totally out of control if you hit the right wreck during the pre-winter migration.
Black sea bass (BSB) is one of the most important recreational species along the mid-Atlantic coast, the NJ shore, the NY bight and much of the New England coast. With the ups and downs of other inshore species like weakfish, fluke and stripers, there’s been a lot of added pressure on BSB in recent years. They can be relatively abundant, always seem to be looking for something to eat and are relatively easy to catch if you can get to the structure that they prefer like wrecks, reefs and rock piles. But like any other resource, overfishing sea bass stocks can compromise this precious species and set it back for decades. As the fall season is upon us, and the sea bass migration to their offshore wintering grounds is in full swing, let’s take a closer look at centropristis striata, where and when they migrate and the best methods of finding and catching this great tasting fish.
Movements & Migrations
Knot head enthusiasts everywhere should consider reading NOAA’s September 1999 technical manual published by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, MA, Black Sea Bass Life History and Habitat Characteristics. It is fascinating reading and explains just about everything you need to know about this extremely popular and valuable resource.
According to Woods Hole scientists, black sea bass is a warm temperate species that is usually associated with structured habitats, such as reefs and shipwrecks, on the continental shelf. It occurs from southern Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy to southern Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, however, it is uncommon or occurs irregularly in the cool waters north of Cape Cod. The species exists as three populations or stocks, specifically northern, southern and Gulf of Mexico. Temperature, not the availability of structured habitat, appears to limit black sea bass distribution north of Cape Cod, although their range has continued to expand northward in recent years. In the Middle Atlantic Bight, black sea bass are usually the most common fish on structured habitats, especially south of New Jersey where the abundance of cunner declines. These structured habitats include shellfish (oyster and mussel) beds, rocky areas, shipwrecks and artificial reefs.
As coastal waters cool below 55 to 57 degrees in the fall, the northern BSB population begins to migrate south or east offshore to wintering areas in deeper waters between south of Long Island and central New Jersey. They typically stop just short of the edge, and I have a few sea bass wreck numbers in 350 to 400 feet of water where intrepid anglers can reach out and touch these groundfish through the end of December. As bottom waters warm above 45 degrees in the spring, the population migrates inshore into coastal areas and bays of southern New England and the Middle Atlantic Bight. Larger fish are commonly found in deeper waters and are usually associated with rough bottom. Black sea bass typically mature as females and with increasing size, change sex to males. In the Middle Atlantic Bight, they grow to over 24 inches total length, can weigh up to 8 pounds and live up to 20 years. The largest and oldest fish are almost always males.
Closures and Openings
According to NOAA’s 2018 recreational guidelines for federal waters (which start past your state’s 3-mile limit), the following rules for black sea bass apply:
- There’s a 12.5-inch total length minimum size.
- The possession limit is 15 fish per person per trip.
- Open season is from May 15 to December 31 (There is no longer a closure period from September 22 to October 21).
Each coastal state has its own rules that apply when targeting black sea bass within the 3-mile limit. Your state’s regulations appear every week in The Fisherman, or you can find them at thefisherman.com. The regulations frequently vary from federal to state agencies, creating some disparities as to when and where you can fish for BSB, their bag limits and their minimum sizes. It’s a great idea to check with your local state agency to determine how this overlap works, so that you are not on the wrong end of an unplanned boarding party experience that could get very expensive.
I recommend that my charter clients use a self-imposed 16-inch minimum size when taking black sea bass, so that there will at least be some meat on the bone at the fillet table. If you’ve ever spent some time cutting these fish up, you will probably agree that the smaller 13- to 15-inch fish don’t make much of a meal. Of course, some folks will scale and gut them and cook them whole, which is probably the optimum way to relish the downsized members of these delicious fish. When it comes time to preparing BSB, my favorite tool to get the job done is Penn’s recently introduced 7-inch titanium coated stainless steel fillet knife. These are reasonably priced (under $20), offer a positive non-slip grip and hold a great edge. As I am writing this article, I just used this tool to fillet a couple of dozen fat sea bass that were caught on two very successful charters over the Labor Day weekend, so it’s fresh in my mind.
Where to Find Them
If you want to find BSB in October and November, the solution is simple, just head to a near-offshore wreck. I find that the bigger fish tend to migrate first and by the end of September are definitely on the move heading either south or east to the edge of the shelf. My log activity tells me to fish the 90- to 100-foot wrecks from mid-September to the end of the month, the 120- to 150-foot wrecks for the first few weeks in October, and then the 180- to 210-foot wrecks from mid-October through mid-November. After that, I’ve usually had enough of a beating going 30 to 40 miles offshore in smaller outboard craft and it’s time to hitch a ride on something more substantial, like the party boat wreck trips that sail through the end of December, when the federal and my NY state seasons close.
Tackle and Techniques
As I have intimated in past articles, my tackle choices continue to morph to outfits that are stronger, lighter and easier to handle. I tend to intersperse a few old favorites like my Penn International 975 and 955 baitcasters, and Penn 320 LD levelwind lever drags into the mix, but my current arsenal of tackle includes some of the latest gear. Recent additions to my sea bass hardware include Maxel OceanMax 06 and 09 narrow spool single speed lever drag reels, which offer silky smooth operation with eight ball bearings and a 4.5:1 gear ratio that features the perfect blend of high speed retrieve and the power to lift a stubborn sea bass off the bottom in deep water. I have also added a trio of Avet’s latest G2 SX 5.3 lever drag mighty mites. These next-gen Avets feature a stronger drag (12 pounds at strike/20 pounds at full), additional line capacity (400+ yards of 40-pound braid), plus a click-stop/ratcheting drag lever that stays put where you set it. I am totally amazed that some of the better and higher cost lever drag reels do not have this mandatory stay-in-place, click-stop ratchet lever feature. Those reels that don’t can experience an untimely bird’s nest when traveling to or from your favorite fishing spots in agitated seas, where the drag lever can either slip during the bouncing or if one of the crew inadvertently bumps it during normal cockpit activities. The G2’s click-stop ratcheting drag lever totally eliminates this problem. At only 14 ounces, the SX 5.3 handles and casts like a dream, with a 5.3:1 gear ratio that is fast enough to quickly crank up your baits or lures from the deep yet is strong enough to pull up a triple-header of big knot heads from a deep water wreck. I buy these over the counter and usually wait for my local tackle shop to put them on sale during the season for 10 to 15 percent off, which is a great deal.
I spool most of my reels with Western Filament’s TUF-Line in hi-vis yellow, with a 10- to 15-yard top shot of either ocean blue Berkley Pro-Spec 40-pound mono or Hi-Seas Quattro Plus camo line. If you have a level wind reel and are forced to add a shorter topshot to prevent jamming up the splice knot when you cast, I recommend going into stealth mode and typically spool my level-wind reels with a dark green braid, to which I add a top shot of 6 feet of the aforementioned mono.
For strong and durable black sea bass rods, I find that Penn’s Rampage Jigging series, specifically the 6-foot, 6-inch 30- to 80-pound, and the slightly beefier 6-foot, 2-inch 50- to 100-pound sticks, are affordable and stand up to the everyday rigors of working the sticky structure where sea bass tend to reside. These fiberglass/graphite composite rods endure dragging 12-ounce sinkers on the bottom while working with triple hook rigs that can haul up 12 to 15 pounds of angry sea bass all going in different directions to escape the icy brine of your cooler. The Penn Rampage rods are also equipped with a soft rubber notched gimbal cap that is easy on your lower extremities when not wearing a fighting belt, along with a trigger grip reel seat that gives your hand some additional purchase when working the rod in rough or wet conditions. I have seen more than one outfit slip overboard courtesy of a strike when the angler least expected it. OceanMax also offers some great fiberglass composite jigging/bottom rods, and I have a few of these in the 6- to 6-1/2-foot range. I usually limit the max rod lengths on my 228 EdgeWater to 6-1/2 feet, since anything longer will typically whack into something hard, like my extended T-top railing, overhead rocket launcher, antennas, cockpit lighting, etc. If you have a boat with a wide open cockpit or no overhead obstructions, you can put the 7-foot or longer sticks to better use.
At the terminal tackle end, simple is always a good idea. I usually tie my own from a tag end bulk spool of 40- or 50-pound mono. I cut off a 5-foot section of mono, tie in either two or three 6-inch long dropper loops and add a 3/0 or 4/0 bait saver or octopus hook that can be either looped or tied to the dropper with a simple Palomar knot. A perfection loop goes on the top end, while a basic overhand knot creates a loop at the bottom end to slip on a sinker. If your sinker gets snagged, the overhand knot will usually break free and save the rest of your rig. I connect this leader onto a 75-pound snap/swivel that is attached to my rod’s mono topshot and this allows for a quick change of the entire setup if the need arises. If you want to get creative, you can add swivels and squid teasers onto each hook, but be advised that when wreck fishing or working sticky bottom with a lot of snags, you will lose a bunch of rigs to the deep. If you have a limited tackle budget, learn to tie your own rigs and keep the hardware to a minimum.
Preferred baits for sea bass include the two usual staples, fresh clams and squid. This is where baitsaver hooks can be useful, especially if the migration pattern of the sea bass in the fall includes swarms of big porgies. BSB also respond to spearing, sand eels, bay anchovies, snappers, etc. so if you have these baits in your freezer and don’t want to chill them out all winter long, put them to good use on your next wreck trip. It pays to match the hatch, so check out the stomach contents of the first sea bass brought up from the deep. If they are spitting up crabs or baby lobsters, treat these like gold, scoop them up and put them on a hook and send them back down—and be ready for an instant strike as soon as it hits the bottom. The largest sea bass that I have caught in the fall have been on diamond jigs just off the wreck edge and suspended 10 to 15 feet off the bottom. The past two seasons I have been snap-jigging some really large knot heads using a 1-1/2-ounce Spro jig with a Gulp minnow threaded on the hook. I have both a Penn 955 baitcaster and a Penn 4000 series spinning reel set up with 20-pound braid just for this purpose, and it is an effective technique for culling out the larger fish from the swarms of smaller BSB.
Yet another tool that will help promote the conservation of the smaller fish is a stainless steel ice pick, like the Shipmate manufactured by Lyman Metal Products in Norwalk, CT. I use this to pop the air bladder on fish coming up from the bottom in waters deeper than 90 feet. If you don’t puncture this balloon-like sack that protrudes from the mouth of the smaller BSB, they will have a tough time making it back down to the bottom and will likely die and/or be picked off by a predator like a gull or something from down under.
The fall fishery for black sea bass can be totally out of control; hit the right wreck at the right moment in the pre-winter migration. You’ll probably experience a bycatch of porgies and summer flounder too, since these three species usually travel together to the edge of the continental shelf. Be sure to stay in touch with your state’s seasonal closures and bag limits. Please respect the BSB resource, take only what you can use, release the smaller fish as carefully as possible to survive another day and watch the weather, as fishing offshore in the fall is not without its perils. Be safe out there.