You’ll know it’s a sea bass when it makes runs to the side, and you know you have a large one when you struggle to gain line.
Anglers enjoy a long season for sea bass (June 23 to December 31) and a reasonable minimum size of 15 inches. However, a closer look shows us that the seasonal opportunities vary from place to place. In mid and western Long Island Sound areas the season is actually shorter, especially if your fishing style leans towards shallow water and light tackle. This article explores shallow water sea bass fishing.
Light Tackle Binge
For some of my regular readers it may appear that I’m on a light tackle binge, and truthfully, I am. From the time I was 5 years old and my father took me fishing for flounder, I’ve fished primarily for fun, and for a good seafood dinner second. Fishing for pure joy without regard to what you bring home or don’t bring home is a pleasure that I regret some anglers have not yet been able to appreciate. So, as a 5-year-old fishing with the stout tackle of the day I asked my dad if there was a rod that was more fun to fish with. One day he brought home a rod made of metal and it was very flexible. He called it a “fencing foil” rod.
In those days there was little choice in reels and my old conventional PENN did a great job save for the fact that it didn’t have a star drag and I was forced to use thumb pressure on a leather patch that in turn put pressure on the line. A few years later we took up the habit of trolling from our 14-foot runabout at the Idlewild Airport piers (Jamaica Bay) for striped bass and large late season snappers. Again, faced with the same issue of stiff tackle I requested something lighter. This time, my dad brought home a blue baitcasting rod and reel combo. I remember it was blue but don’t remember the brand and it was perfect for the 1-pound snappers we were catching on feather jigs. Well, on one trip I hooked something much bigger. I was doing fine although the outfit was strained to its limit and then seemingly, disaster struck.
The fish made a hard run, I pulled back sharply, and the reel came off the reel seat. I remember thinking, oh boy, this is bad. Okay, I have the reel in my right hand and the rod in my left and no idea what to do. Dad urged me to stay with it as best I could and try to turn the reel handle. Somehow, I managed to make some progress and finally brought a quality striper to the net.
Now here’s the point. You might think after that experience I’d ask my father for a heavier combo, but I didn’t. Instead, I sat on the cross seat in the boat, admiring that fish, and thinking what fun was that! So, the seeds for light tackle angling were planted in me a long time ago and I’ve had the pleasure of teaching my sons to fish that way, too.
Sea Bass Options
Many anglers get the chance to jump start their sea bass season on June 23 by hopping on a party boat that can ply deep water structures and wrecks around Long Island. Others, charter boats out of places such as Montauk and Orient Point for the same reason. There are also independent anglers with larger boats out of these ports, and in the Sound, fishing in 50 to 80 feet of water. For the most part, light tackle people don’t find deep water fishing to be much fun. They prefer to wait until late summer and early fall to get a light tackle shallow shot at sea bass.
It wasn’t always that way and may not be that way this year or next year or ever, because the distribution of fish depends on how many fish there are and how much food is available at various places. In fact, I’ll bet if we get a big spring sand eel showing, like the years we had in the mid-70s and mid-90s, sea bass will follow the porgies down the Sound much earlier. However, that’s nothing more than conjecture, and we’ll need to wait and see.
When I was young; not even a teenager yet, spinning reels had just arrived in the United States from France. My first reel was a Langley, matched to a 7-foot medium power spinning rod that I received as a birthday present. I was able to keep both rod and reel alive for decades by diligently keeping up with cleaning and oiling, but eventually both succumbed to time and use. The combo caught snappers, white perch, yellow perch, pickerel, and catfish, but I never dared use it for stripers and blues, or bottom fishing for that matter: it just didn’t have the guts for the job. Today, that’s all changed. Reels with titanium, stainless steel, and other alloys not only stand up to saltwater, but also the power of bigger fish. Rods are made of graphite and provide us with a detailed feel of lures, bottom rigs, and fish bites. Of course, around 1990 braided lines entered the picture, and today’s choices are great.
So, here’s my gear! Nowadays, I suggest that anglers put their money into the reel first and, the rod second. Let’s face facts, not everyone has a bottomless bank account that could also accommodate a top-notch rod. Although I insist on custom rods for my surf fishing for a variety of reasons I’ll skip over now, boat fishing isn’t as demanding. Sure, we need good tackle, but we don’t need top of the line gear. You need to spend some time shopping and examine each rod carefully for power, tip action, broken guides, and cracks before buying it. Always have the reel you will match to it in mind when you study the rods.
I have 7-foot rods of medium power with fast or extra fast action tips. I attach any number of good quality reels in the 2500 to 3500 size range and spool them with 10- to 15-pound test Sufix Performance Braid. I never use a line-to-line knot because they all fail sooner or later. I know, some anglers swear by them, but I prefer a 50-pound SPRO swivel between the braid and whatever leader or bottom rig I’m using. This tackle combo is ideal for me because I’ll never cast a lure heavier that an ounce and a half, or bottom fish with sinkers heavier than 3 ounces.
Why the commitment to light tackle? Well, first as noted above, it’s just plain fun! Second, trips to the fishing grounds are shorter. Third, we can chum more effectively, and fourth even a 15-inch sea bass puts up a darn good stink on light gear. I always enjoy the surprise of battling a good-sized sea bass, especially if I’d been tussling with chugging porgies for a while. Porgies are dogged fighters, but they don’t run, yet a sea bass will strip line off light tackle like a striped bass. Watch out for the chum pot line!
True, there is a downside, and we don’t catch a lot of 5-pound sea bass, and if that’s your target you’ll likely be disappointed. However, back at the marina we noticed that the bigger boats coming back from deep structure hadn’t caught any sea bass bigger than ours, and we used up a lot less gas. Suggestion: want a “bump head,” get on a party boat or charter boat.
Although sea bass and porgies run together, there are differences in bottom preferences. I’ve caught plenty of porgies drifting on flat sandy or gravel bottom, but catch only a few sea bass there, so when we target sea bass, we look for more rugged bottoms that include reefs, wrecks, and thick boulder clusters. Yes, you’re right, anglers will lose more rigs in the kinds of bottoms that sea bass really cling to. In that way, they are more like blackfish than porgies.
We have our list of way-points, but they don’t all produce every day or every year. Therefore, we begin the season, and sometimes, each trip, by cruising from way-point to way-point and examine them before we set up and fish. We are looking for any signs of life, such as bait balls over the structure, or the stippling that usually indicates porgies, and although sea bass rarely register on a depth recorder, they often gather where porgies feed because that’s where the food is.
We believe that chumming is essential as long as you don’t fish in a spot with a strong current. The chum is carried away in strong currents and isn’t effective. Perhaps there’s a pile of fish feeding on the chum a half-mile down current, but that doesn’t help the boat-bound anglers. Some anglers put an entire log in the pot, but we carve the log into quarters. This is especially important when the water is warm. In warm water, the log melts quickly and the chum is lost quickly. However, if you use a quarter of a log at a time and check the pot frequently, a continuous chum line can be established. Yes, it’s a little more work, but doing so allows us to sustain the catch.
Sea bass may run like stripers and weakfish, but they don’t often bite like them. They bite more like a porgy than a striper, so the angler should delay a bit before setting the hook sharply. You’ll know it’s a sea bass when it makes runs to the side, and you know you have a large one when you struggle to gain line. As always, there’s nothing absolute in fishing. I’ve caught seas bass just about anywhere one can catch them, and I’ve noticed their reaction to a baited hook is different from a bite on a bucktail or diamond jig. They hit lures hard and begin to run immediately. Sometimes when caught on bait you have to wake them up a little before they put up a sea bass fight.
This is an age of heightened angler conscience when it comes to how many fish we keep and the care we take when we release them. Give a little extra thought to what you keep and what you release, by keeping only what you can eat and releasing the others, large and small, carefully. If you haven’t joined the masses who are enjoying shallow water light tackle bottom fishing, now is the time to give it a whirl.