Strategies for Black Sea Bass - 2023
In Massachusetts, Black Sea Bass season starts this Saturday, May 20th. As in years past, the date and anticipation of going after these 'biscuits', is high in my family and seemingly in the entire region. I have caught seabass while Tautog fishing the last two weeks. We landed some in the 18" range, which is great to see.
These fish make their way to the bay to spawn and it's an opportunity to target and catch a trophy class jumbo sea bass from a small boat in shallow water. The fishing for sea bass becomes an entry point for young or new anglers to the great sport of fishing. The aggressive feeding habits, large numbers, ease of access, and wide range of gear and techniques makes them a target for those looking for fun, great table fare, or sport.
For me personally, black sea bass fishing has allowed me to introduce my children and other family and friends to fishing. Above all else, this is why I love black sea bass fishing. In this blog post I am again gathering some tips and information on Black Sea Bass fishing that I hope people will find informative.
Below: Tim Whitman with a quality Black Sea Bass taken in Nantucket Sound in August of 2022. Photo Courtesy of MyFishingCapeCod on board author's boat.
1. When to fish for them?
Fishing for Black Sea Bass in Massachusetts is legally allowed sometime in mid or late May depending on the year but people catch and release them in early May depending on the water temperature. These fish migrate in from deeper water towards the shallows in the spring to spawn. During the spring they are particularly aggressive and concentrated in certain areas that makes them very attractive for a day of fishing.
As the waters warm in mid to late June, the masses begin to disperse and the black sea bass head to deeper waters, wrecks, reefs, and other structure. During the early spring a range of 25'-40' is a good place to start the search. After the spring, they are a bit more difficult to find, but when located, they make quick, fun fishing on relatively light tackle. The fish move into deeper waters and one should gradually increase the search from 50' and up.
In the late summer, fall, and winter, the black sea bass are targeted in Rhode Island, New York/New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. It's not uncommon to find black sea bass and target them in water up to 100' and beyond. For many further south of Massachusetts, targeting black sea bass in the winter is similar to going on a head boat for Cod. Many people do it as a way to pass the winter and to fill the freezer. Important, as always, to check regulations as they are different up and down the Northeast coast.
2. Where to target them?
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have a boat on a trailer and fish many different areas of New England and below are my favorite areas to fish for Black Sea Bass:
Nantucket Sound Near Shore
Deepwater North of Nantucket
Deepwater Vineyard Sound
Buzzards Bay warrants touching on a little bit. There are very few guarantees in fishing, but for those that venture into Buzzards Bay to attend what I call the Black Sea Bass 'convention,' the fishing can be anywhere from good to incredible. There are a half dozen known spots that include Cleveland Ledge and its surroundings, but in the spring locating them in Buzzards Bay and targeting them is fairly simple for anglers and boaters of all abilities.
3. Find Structure
The importance of structure becomes self-evident when fishing by boat and you come across quick changes in contours and the screen lights up with marks. Around the above mentioned Cleveland Ledge, there are lots of inclines and drop offs that will hold Black Sea Bass.
Once the summer comes and the fish move into deeper waters, the need to find structure is even more important. I have fished steep drop-offs in Vineyard Sound and off the shoals of Monomoy where the change in contour is steep and drops from 30'-80' and the drop is lined with black sea bass and the hooks ups are immediate.
Often times, black sea bass won't be the target species of a trip, but as we drift or are in a search mode, we will pass over a hump or a hill and the screen will light up. We stop and drop a few jigs down and sure enough, there are times where the black sea bass will be hanging around in the same areas we intend to striper fish or fluke fish.
The below clip from the 2022 season Episode aired this year from MyFishingCapeCodTV by Ryan Collins illustrates the advantages of using jigs and teasers over wrecks to target Black Sea Bass.
4. Bait Optional
As the topic suggests, its not necessary to use bait for these fish. A soft plastic, a jig, a bucktail, or a combination of those can produce. Of course, when fishing with children or those without a lot of fishing experience, tipping your hook(s) with a bit of squid can greatly increase the action. Bait isn't necessary and for those targeting the larger fish, the absence of bait can actually help you.
5. Presentation Matters
I have found the most effective presentation of bait or an unbaited setup is a vertical presentation. You can be on the bottom or just off the bottom, but I have found that in a drift, if my line is scoping out away from me, the fish seem less interested.
In you are able to anchor, this problem is pretty simple to solve.
However, on most days, I don't like to anchor because I want to cover ground and find the pockets of larger fish, so I am drifting. If the drift is quick, I have two options. First is to go with a heavier weight. The second option is to cast up tide, allow the bait to sink down as you drift and hold that vertical presentation for a few counts as you drift along with your rig. After a short time, you will begin scoping out and you may have to reel up and start the process again.
5A. Slow Current or Slow Drift
Rigs for black sea come in all shapes and sizes. They can all generally work as often times the sea bass are willing participants. They do however become picky from time to time on color and size. There are also moments where the drift conditions are such that the type of rig you use can go against what the fish may be looking for and may not even be able to reach the productive zones of the water column to target them.
In a slower drift of .8 - 1.2 mph a more vertical presentation can be very effective. High low rigs or single dropper rigs can reach the fish easily and as you work the rod tip up and down, the presentation of the baits can be quite natural and draw strikes on upper and lower rigs.
In these scenarios I often begin with a very simple two hook, high low setup with smaller 3" B2 squids as the teasers. I start with either a weight or a bucktail jig on the bottom. In terms of colors, I often start with white or pink and swap out from there. Usually, the hooks are tipped with squid or some other bait just to get some scent in the water.
5A. Fast Drift
There are a lot of occasions in the early spring when the wind and current create conditions resulting in a drift faster than 1.2 mph and holding bottom no matter the weight is difficult. The duration of time in the optimum strike zone is diminished and your line starts scoping out and the fishing gets difficult.