Most relatively small bottom fish don’t get much respect. One exception: the black sea bass. Up and down the East Coast, just about everyone loves catching these fish. You might argue it’s because they’re often present in large numbers relatively close to the docks. Or, you might believe it’s because those black bass are usually willing to bite numerous baits with abandon. But anyone who’s filled a cooler with black sea bass knows the real reason: When it comes to table fare, these fish simply can’t be beaten. Their firm, white meat is akin to that of a grouper’s, and it’s just as sweet as any fish gets. In addition, black sea bass freezes exceptionally well.
These five tips are sure to help you catch enough to fill your freezer and have ready to defrost when snow drifts start forming around your boat this winter.
1. Fish baited jigs, not bottom rigs. Sure, bottom rigs are effective. They also get snarled in the wreckage or reef bottom where black sea bass are found, causing you to lose precious fishing time rerigging after break-offs. And as a general rule, bottom rigs with chunks of bait produce fish that are smaller, on average. You’ll usually catch a much better grade of fish if you use a 4- to 8-ounce jigging spoon, which, in combination with the bait, makes for a much larger target.
You can catch bass on unbaited jigs, especially when they’re acting aggressively. But most of the time, the numbers will be higher if you give them some extra enticement. A fish strip, a chunk of squid or a clam will work.
If you’re in an extra-snaggy zone, use a jig with only a top-rigged single hook, baiting with something rugged so a missed bite won’t force you to reel in and rebait every time you have a nibble. When snags aren’t as big of an issue, a jigging spoon with a top single and a bottom treble gives you the option of presenting multiple baits at the same time.
2. Don’t stick to one spot. Spot-hopping is the way to go. Quite often, for whatever reason, the bass on one wreck will be more or less dormant while the fish on a different wreck just 5 or 10 miles away might be snapping like crazy. There’s really no telling when and where those fish will be biting, so stay on the move unless you’re on feeding fish.
3. For big fish, make long runs. Many anglers pick over wreck and reef areas close to home. Making longer runs takes you to areas where a crowd hasn’t pounded the fish. As a result, you’ll often find a much higher quality of fish. By the same token, don’t feel like you absolutely must focus on a wreck or artificial reef site. There’s more “live bottom” out there than most folks think, and if you can find some that’s out in the middle of nowhere, then you’re much more likely to encounter some real monsters.
4. Carry a wide assortment of bait. Squid strips and clam chunks are the norm, but sometimes in some places, peeler or soft crab, fish strips or even bloodworms will be the ticket. The bottom line is that sea bass sometimes focus almost exclusively on a bait that’s readily available to them.
5. Use the right braid mainline. No matter how you rig up, use braid mainline with at least 4 or 5 feet of heavy (40-pound or thicker) monofilament leader. You want a braid mainline because its no-stretch nature makes it much easier to feel the strikes and set the hook. But don’t forget that sea bass live in and around structure. You’ll likely be dragging your line over and around all kinds of sharp edges, and abrasion tests have shown that monofilament is as much as 20 percent to 50 percent more abrasion resistant than other options.
Here’s a bonus tip: If you opt for fishing with a baited bottom rig, then try not to set the hook when you feel little nibbles. Instead, just lift the rig off the bottom, suspend it for a few seconds and then drop it back down. Sea bass tend to inhale their food whole and really don’t nibble much. Those tiny pecks you feel are likely from other, smaller species of bottom fish. So, just take the bait away from them for a moment before redeploying. Don’t worry too much about those little nibblers. Bigger sea bass will bully them out of the way when they realize there’s a meal to be had.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.