Sleigh Bells & Sea Bass - The Fisherman

Sleigh Bells & Sea Bass

paul
Paul Nilsson shows off his December bounty caught southeast of Block Island.

Head south of Block for sea bass action that will have you thinking it’s Christmas is July!

Not too long ago, the black sea bass wasn’t abundant enough to consider labeling it a fishery. Newcomers to fishing may not be aware that the species was primarily a bycatch during the spring, summer, and fall for anglers targeting fluke, porgies, blackfish, and cod. Most were caught in the fall by fishing around the artificial reefs, wrecks, and rocky bottoms. Then around ten years ago, ‘pin’ sea bass in the 6-inch range started showing up across the Northeast in incredible numbers, which continued the pace for five years before keeper and jumbo sea bass fishing exploded. They showed up in mass quantity and quality throughout Long Island Sound and along the New England coast. The fishing has remained phenomenal for the past six years. Incredibly, with such an abundance of black sea bass and the ultra-modern engines pushing many open, charter, and private boats at high speed these days, it allows anglers to fish the offshore grounds and enjoy the bounty of monster biscuits through the December 31st closure.

Jumbos Throughout December

Black sea bass are top targets throughout much of the region southeast of Block Island from the fall into the winter months. Not only are sea bass primo table fare, but they are also quite spirited fighters, especially when you run into 3-pound plus fish with the possibility of specimens upwards of 8 pounds. As sea bass migrate offshore to the deep water south of Block Island from the wrecks and reefs of their seasonal homes inshore, they have also spread anywhere from the 10- to 30-mile range along most pieces of obstructed bottom on the 20- to 30-fathom lines.

What makes the region that surrounds Block Island a winter sea bass aquarium is their migratory path confluence by the Labrador Current, which brings together cold water from the North Atlantic and warm waters from the Gulf Stream. These currents make the region home to a wide variety of species. The perfect example for the effects of the Labrador Current are the waters southeast of Block Island, such as Coxes Ledge, which is where the water temperatures remain steady year-round. And it’s just a short run from Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut—don’t forget that sea bass is closed in Massachusetts.

During December, boats from Point Judith, Newport, New London and Niantic Bay will make the run to the 145- to 160-foot depths south and southeast of Block Island. Miles upon miles of rocky bottom attracts great masses of groundfish that include jumbo porgies, green codfish, an occasional slob tog, and of course, many giant sea bass from 3 to 5 pounds with that occasional 6-plus pounder. As the winter progresses, these groundfish, except for codfish, move closer to the warmer waters of the Gulfstream near the Continental Shelf and the wrecks lying in 250 to 300 feet.

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Big sea bass are common on their offshore wintering grounds, south of Block Island.

Stay Comfortable

First off, staying warm is paramount to maintaining concentration when fishing in cold or inclement weather. Dressing properly will keep your mind focused on hooking and battling big sea bass and porgies rather than shivering and wishing you would have dressed accordingly, which often equates to spending too much of the day inside the cabin.

Therefore, your base layer is your first level of clothing that serves two purposes: to insulate your body’s natural heat and keep it from escaping. The second consideration is to wick moisture away from your skin to the outside of the fabric so it can evaporate. The moisture-wicking process is relevant if you begin to sweat and it dries on your skin or saturates your clothing. This, in turn, will hinder your ability to stay warm.

Thick thermal underwear and a good pair of insulated socks make for a good base layer. Speaking of socks, since your feet do not move much while fishing, they can get quite cold. As with the base layer, the moisture-wicking capability of your socks is essential to staying warm. A good option is to have a thin liner sock that wicks moisture away and a thicker sock to insulate your feet. The mid-layer is meant to keep your natural body warmth in while keeping the cold out. For me, the mid-layer is usually a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. I prefer polyester sweatshirts rather than cotton because polyester has much better water resistance than cotton. Lastly, the outer layer’s primary purpose is to keep the wind and cold out, which comes from waterproof PVC raingear.

Armed & Ready

shimano
The Butterfly Flat-Side jig from Shimano is a great sea bass option

Fast tapered graphite rods in the 6- to 7-foot range equipped with conventional reels in the 3/0 to 4/0 class filled with 30- or 40-pound braided lines are best suited for the task. Braided line is essential over monofilament these days due to the braid’s sensitivity and strength. In addition, you may have to deal with strong currents, which will make you appreciate the thin diameter of the braided synthetic. It will help cut through the current, which will allow you to reduce the weight of sinkers or jigs, making it easier to feel the most subtle hits in deep, moving water.

While the braided line has many advantages over mono, groundfish species are known to have sharp eyesight and can be quite line shy. Therefore, a 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, 8-feet in length tied to the mainline of braid via an Albright Knot, should eliminate any apprehension on the part of the fish. For some reason I can’t explain, I find that an 8-foot shock leader of 30-pound pink Ande mono often out-produces fluorocarbon; take it for what it is, but that’s been my experience.

Rigging & Baiting

doris
Doris Elio loved to pursue these Block Island Beauties every December. Unfortunately Doris passed on in July. Her friends and family will continue to fish in her memory.

Since I’ll assume your boat is now winterized and shrink-wrapped until next season, your December adventure will have to happen aboard a party or charter boat. Therefore the choice of employing rigs or jigs will depend on whether the captain decides to drift or anchor over a chosen area. My preference for fishing these grounds is to drift (versus anchoring), at least until the captain can narrow down a batch of fish to work on.

The number of other boats on the spot might determine whether or not drifting is even a consideration. Should the time tested hi-lo rig be more your forte, a simple rig consisting of super sharp 5/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks set 12 and 36 inches above the sinker via a pair of dropper loops works great. This allows the bait to lay naturally with minimal line twist. There are dozens of great tutorials on YouTube showing how to tie a hi-lo rig and you can adjust the rig to fit your needs. When using this style rig, keeping the baits on the smaller side will make it easier to detect the lightest taps.

As for bait, skimmer clams are commonly used. However, they must be fresh and unsalted; salted clams just aren’t as effective as the fresh ones. Fish baits such as freshly stripped-down cunners or whiting (which seem to be making somewhat of a comeback) will also satisfy a black sea bass’s voracious appetite.

Remember, you can always avoid natural offerings and tradeoff for artificial baits, particularly Berkley Gulp. Sea bass love Gulp, and I’ve done very well with the Gulp Sand Eel, Swimming Mullet, Shrimp, Grub, and Minnow. Impale them onto the hook, and you’ll catch many bottom dwellers on the same bait before having to change it out. If the Gulp isn’t doing the job for some strange reason, you can always fall back on natural bait.

Jig Magic

Many lures have come and gone over the years. Some are long forgotten, while some have stood the test of time and are as popular today as they were 50 years ago. Modifications and advanced innovations have balanced and cosmetically refined these lures to the point that some are virtual baitfish clones. Some have unique features that may deviate from the norm yet still grab the attention and curiosity of any predator, especially jumbo sea bass and scup.

bucktail
Take a look at the Raging Rattler from S&S Bucktails if you want the added attraction of built-in rattle to make your jig stand out from the crowd.

One of the more common and widely-used options that produces incredible results is the good old diamond jig. When conditions permit, such as a slow drift, 2- to 8-ounce AVAs jigged along the bottom produce well and are cost-effective, should one or two fall victim to the strewn bottom. The Marathon Diamond Jig by Bimini Bay Outfitters is also a wise choice. It’s made with a sleek aquadynamic design and a durable triple chrome plating that results in a long-lasting, bright silver finish. They’re also available in a holographic finish. Top-quality Mustad hooks round out the jigs. If you enjoy a little shake, rattle, and roll, then consider the Raging Rattler bucktail from S&S Bucktails. The Raging Rattler has a full glow head and skirt, as well as an internal rattle. Curiosity often gets the best of sea bass, and the rattle draws their attention. The Octopi and Flutter Jigs are also in the S&S line, which are popular with those who take jigging sea bass seriously. Let’s not forget Shimano’s lineup includes Butterfly “Flat-Side” Jigs, which have been innovatively designed to perform the best while vertical jigged from a drifting boat. The rear/center weight balance design lets the Shimano Flat-Side Jigs fall to the bottom quickly with a swinging motion. The offset eye position allows for the use of two different hooks for an overall better hook-up ratio. Both lures come in a variety of colors and sizes to 7 ounces. These jigs are designed explicitly for deep water fishing on rocks, reefs, and wrecks. They have repeatedly proven their effectiveness on jumbo sea bass and giant porgies, including many pool-winning fish.

When it comes to working your jig, there are times when just a snap of the wrist will work as well as any slow or fast retrieve, but over the long run, the snap-jigging technique, a wildly exaggerated hard jigging motion, will outfish most other retrieves. The negative side to snap jigging is it becomes tiring, and it can be challenging to keep up the pace during a lengthy stint on the water. For that reason, I suggest using a mix of both retrieves and leaning toward the most productive as the day progresses.

Regardless of how you work your jig, it is critical that you maintain contact with your lure throughout the retrieve and also develop a feel for the bottom. If you are not making consistent but brief contact with the bottom, your catch rate will suffer.

Think of December as the Fourth of July as you bail humpback porgies and humpback sea bass. Yes, it may be a cold December, but the action should be as hot and spectacular as July.

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