Head Boat Bass: Knockin’ Out Knuckleheads - The Fisherman

Head Boat Bass: Knockin’ Out Knuckleheads

While you may find yourself traveling to find the best regional opportunities, late fall into winter sea bass action is prime party boat fare.

Time to get this party started! 

Coming from Jersey, that title is appropriate, but the knuckleheads I speak of this time are the humpbacked black sea bass that populate the mid to offshore grounds from November to December throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

Many marinas with private boats throughout our region require a haul out at the end of October or mid-November, and that stinks because prime time sea bass opportunity abounds through the end of the year. But there’s another option – party boats. The head boat packet will always be sailing, and their dedication allows anglers of all makes and models to hop on board for either a 3/4-day or sometimes a 24-hour excursion to the deepwater sea bass grounds.

Size, season and bag limits may change from state-to-state, but just about every state in The Fisherman’s readership area – except notably Massachusetts – is open for black sea bass business this month.  For Mass anglers willing to travel, and those private boat owners who’ve hauled out for the year and are still looking to load up, here’s how to get the party started.

Slow pitch jigs have been a huge hit with sea bass anglers along the Atlantic Coast, for added enjoyment on deployment and hookup, and often some bigger knotheads in the box. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Head Boat Essentials

Though head boats will be running from ports up and down the coast, spots fill up quickly and are often “reservation only” as demand is great with no access to your own boat or a friend’s boat. That said, book early and reserve your spot soon.  For details on who is sailing and from which port check out the Fishing Reports section at TheFisherman.com; folks who provide regular reports to The Fisherman typically have their own dedicated page at the website so you can learn more about daily fishing schedules.

Of course, you can bring all your own gear, but most party boats can and will provide rods, reels, rigs if you don’t have any of your own to bring on board. Generally speaking if you bring your own party boat gear, go with a 6-1/2- to 7-foot medium to heavy moderate action conventional or spinning rod, and nothing over 8 feet as the swing ratio on a party boat is hampered with longer rods, especially when bringing a fish up from the water to swing it up on deck, so shorter the better. Size 12 to 16 reels are optimal such as a Shimano Torium or Avet that can hold plenty of 50-pound braided line, which you may need as depths fished can run near 250 to 300 feet later in the season. Hook sizes I’ve had mucho hookset ratio success with are 3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks or 5/0 Mustad #92641 Baitholder hooks.

Bring an assortment of bucktails from the likes of Spro and Berkley, as well as the Gulp and FishBites, whenever you’re heading out in search of black sea bass. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Party boats will provide all the bait that’s been working including but not limited to clams, squid, bergall strips, crabs, and the like, but it’s always good to bring your own special secret baits, of which mine are clams and bergall (cunner) strips shucked and soaked in FinEssence Oil, as well as a wide assortment of Berkeley Gulp 4- to 6-inch Grubs or 4-inch New Penny Shrimp. The FinEssence pre-cut strip baits are lights out as well. While bait fishing will get you a ton of hits, many anglers will target even larger fish with the use of 2 to 4-ounce bucktails or dropping hammered 8-ounce diamond jigs.

When bait fishing, tie up a three hook dropper on a 48-inch 40-pound leader for maximum hook up ratio. If you feel a bump and set the hook, leave it down there for another 10 second as you will usually get hit again and reel up three sea bass instead of one. When jigging, don’t sweep the jig in long strokes, but simply maintain contact with the bottom and tap bounce the jig off the bottom.

The mates on deck work their butts off to do all the dirty work during a head boat excursion, and they’ve seen it all before on the grounds; let them work with you to find better success this season. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Join The Rail Gang

What I take away from party boat sea bass trips is first off, the camaraderie of the anglers on deck who are all out in frigid cold temps, sometimes even during a blizzard, to fill coolers with delicious fillets and have fun doing it. You will no doubt make new friendships that can last a lifetime. After that, all the dirty work is done for you. While many anglers are proficient enough to haul up, fillet their catch, bait their hook, take fish off the hook, net their fish, cut up bait, and perform every other function of angling, many others may not have that capability. That’s why the mates on deck work their butts off to do all the dirty work for you.

And finding the right spot? Have no fear. The captains of any party boat you jump on do it for a living, year round. They know where the fish are and where they’re going to be, shifting around spots to dial you into a full stringer.  You name the party boat at the Jersey Shore in particular, and I’ve undoubtedly fished it for sea bass; up and down the coast, wherever you go, these captains and crews all take their fishing seriously for their fares. Cool thing is you also have a solid shot at catching numerous other species like big scup, pollock and cod at the far-reaching wrecks, as well as winning some serious cash in the pool, which usually on those trips runs upwards of $300 or more.

Just don’t forget to tip the mate! Many anglers go for 20% on the tip which is standard, but when the mates work hard for you, slide them a little bit more, especially if you win the pool.

With a high-low rig baited with clam, expect more than a few double-headers on the drop. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Head For The Deep

If you aren’t privy to sea bass migratory habits, know that during the colder fall and winter months, they move offshore and can be found anywhere from 30 to 80 miles at the end of the year, the further range the closer you get to Christmastime. The deep water and usual long runs mean you better be prepared and suit up accordingly. It’s not summertime fishing the shallows in sunny weather. Always overpack as you can take layers off if needed, but can’t put anything else on to warm up or stay dry if you don’t have it. That said, a pair of Grundens slicks and foul weather waterproof top is mandatory as they both keep you warm and keep the wetness and bait gunk off of you.

Quota managed species like black sea bass allow individual states along the Atlantic Coast to implement conservation equivalency regulations tailored to that state’s fishery.  For the 2023 season, the following state-by-state regulations for black sea bass are in effect.

Massachusetts:  The black sea bass season closed on September 4.

Rhode Island:  Open through December 31; for private anglers there’s a three fish bag limit and 16-1/2-inch minimum size through December 31, with passengers aboard party/charter boats getting a six fish bag and 16-inch minimum size.

Connecticut:  For private vessels and shore-based anglers, the fishery is open until December 1 with a five fish bag limit and 16-inch minimum size. In the for-hire community, sea bass season is open through December 31 with a seven fish bag and 16-inch size limit.

New York:  The season is open through December 31 with six fish bag limit and 16-1/2-inch minimum size.

New Jersey:  There’s a 12-1/2-inch size minimum limit and 10 fish bag until October 31, with a 15 fish bag in effect starting November 1 and running through December 31.

Delaware:  The season is open through December 31 with a 15 fish bag limit and 13-inch size limit.

Maryland:  The season is open through December 31 with a 15 fish bag limit and 12-1/2-inch size limit.

Layer up with insulated underwear, heavy socks and waterproof boots like Grundens Deck Boss boots, as many times it may not be raining but the spray from mates cleaning off the deck can soak you if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. A hooded sweatshirt will allow you to cover the back of your neck where most of your heat escapes and no doubt a winter sock hat is required. I even shake up some hand warmers and stick them in the back of my hood and under my hat to keep me warm. Fleece lined Neoprene Glacier Gloves keep your digits warm, just be sure to go with the fleece lined as Neoprene alone, when wet, will get cold and clammy and uncomfortable.

After you put in long hours on a sea bass trip, reeling in fish after fish, having them filleted for you and a long run back, it’s always a relief to know that you can find a place to rest your head on the way in either on reserved bunks, or in the galley on a couch seat. Add to that the fact that most party boats have a fully equipped galley serving not only hot coffee to keep you energized and warm, but egg sandwiches, hot dogs, and even smoked fish if you’re friendly with the mates! And if you don’t want galley food, you can always pack your cooler with plenty of provisions you need to keep you going, just make sure they are separated in another pack cooler and not your fish cooler lest you’ll be eating soggy, sea bass and clam soaked food.

However you roll during sea bass season, know that the party boats are here for you from soup to nuts. Hop on a trip this year and enjoy the winter fishing season!

Among the party boat essentials during the fall and winter sea bass season, don’t forget the cooler. You may be storing your catch onboard, and once back at the dock the mates can restock that box with fresh filets.



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