In Massachusetts, there's no better time to target Black Sea Bass than Late May through June. At the time that his blog is being published, we are probably past prime time as the water temps have reached 68-70 degrees and that is usually when the exit to deeper waters and less concentrations happens. The fishing can still be quite good in the popular spots and deeper down in channels in the path of the migration to their summer homes.
In recent years the bite in Buzzards Bay has rightly generated huge interest to target these feisty bottom dwelling fish. These fish make their way to the bay to spawn and its 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, their 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. Below are some thoughts and tips I have gathered over the years about this wonderful species.
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.
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.
In these situations, I swap over to a trailer rig. The trailer rigs often involve a three way rig of some kind and the teaser is a single teaser that is behind the main line by 24"-30". The fish are seeing this trailing action and responding. The rod tip action is a bit different in this setup. The rod tip is still moving up and down to bounce the bucktail/weight, but there are times where you can be still or slowly bring the rod tip in the direction of the line and drop the teaser back to the fish.
There were times this spring where I found swapping over to a trailer setup very effective in getting the larger seabass to hit.
6. Consider Jigs and Vertical Jigging
Jigging for black sea bass or most any other fish has in the past come with the image of a larger, heavier setup that is cumbersome and difficult to use. It's not the case and I have come to greatly enjoy jigging as a method of fishing for all bottom fish. Many people jig with diamond jigs, ball jigs, and bucktail jigs which are all very effective and will certainly produce.
In addition to the above, I also always carry with me slender profiled, knife jigs. These jigs are more dynamic in the water, require less weight in deeper water applications, and best of all produce some of the best strikes.
There is really nothing like dropping your rod tip thinking your jig is simply going to return down to the bottom and it simply goes slack. In that moment where the angler sets the hook and the fish takes off, the drag on your lighter tackle will be put to the test as an 18"-22" knothead heads for the bottom. I encourage everyone to try it.
7. Big Bait Big Fish Mantra?
Before going deep into this topic, I will first say that a black sea bass will eat and more specifically inhale just about anything. The larger specimens have a mouth when opened that could probably inhale a squirrel. With this being the case, does the traditional statement of 'big bait, bit fish' hold true in the seabass world?
When fishing within a fleet of boats dropping a setup or jig that stands out from the crowd can certainly get noticed and in all likelihood will help increase the general size of your catch. I have however on my trips had situations where a medium sized jig in a particular size, shape, and color has out performed a large presentation. Perhaps there is the black sea bass version of the 'DOC' that someone deploys with incredible results. What I consider 'medium' sized as a jig or a bait would include a 3"-4" long jig, a 3 ounce ball jig, like a Flukie from JoeBaggs, or a rig that deploys a 3" squid like your classic B2.
8. Soft Plastics and Matching the Hatch
Over the years of fishing, I think most of us have become 'scientists' examining closely what the fish we catch are throwing up on the boat or on the way up during the retrieve. In the case of the black sea bass they are dining on some pretty premium choice baits below. I have used a variety of colors over the years depending on light and water clarity, but there are a few colors I gravitate towards.
I think the above colors are a good place to start, but like with all things fishing, experiment. What works one day may not work the next day. On one particular day, a pink jig may out fish everything else, and another day, a high low rig with a pair of soft plastics on it, may take double keepers.
9. Consider Conservation
The males in the black sea bass population are quite easy to identify. They have a pronounce knot on the top of their heads and they are a beautiful blue on parts of the head and fins. The females are less colorful and don't have the same flare.
In the spirit of conservation, I have adopted the practice of only keeping the males and throwing all the females back. In the spring when the fish are plentiful, I will further limit myself to males over 18". I recall getting the evil eye from my father when I threw keepers back. It was hard for him, but in terms of the preservation of the species, I think we all need to do our part.
If you intend to harvest these fish are fantastic table fare. To get the best quality white, chunky meat out of them, consider bleeding your fish right away. Cut their throat and bleed them out in a bucket right away. Once bled out, ice them. When you go to fillet the fish or cook them whole, the overall quality of the meat will be much better for it.
10. Bring a child with you
I realize at some level this is meant to be an article with tips and advise about fishing, so for that I apologize. The limit on black sea bass in Massachusetts is today five fish, which isn't a particularly tough limit to get, but there isn't a limit on the number of fish you can catch and release. For those with young children wondering how you can get your children, your nieces and nephews, or your neighbors kids away from their phones and the Xbox, this is it. There is no other fishery that is more accessible in terms of gear, distance, and fishability than the black sea bass fishery in the spring and early summer.