It used to be that we could count on good sea bass fishing in New York’s inshore waters in late may and early June. The last few seasons the fishing regulations in the NY area have changed and we don’t get recreational season opener for the black sea bass until early July. Even though the wait is longer a nice benefit has been the amount of decent sized fish we see during the first 2 -3 weeks of the season. By early august we fall into more of a pick with some good fish still coming up here and there through the summer leading up to a fall migration to the deep waters ending our easy reach of these tasty treats sometime in mid October .
I have spent time searching the drops on the Ab and Rockaway Reef looking for good marks of Sea bass, and sometimes they’re so thick you could just be any old place and drop down a line finding someone hungry. Other times you need to scour the area thoroughly … While there may be some constants with all reef fishing, Sea bass break tradition in a few ways which is why I have grown to like drifting & jigging. This is largely in part due to the fact that a sea bass is quite territorial; they won’t allow creatures they eat to come by their lair without attacking! Their natural territorial instincts play to our advantage making pin point accuracy less important than if targeting other species on the reef like blackfish, large fluke or porgies which usually will be off the high pieces to the sides more. None of the 'fore mentioned reef bottom fish are as likely to chase down a drifting bait as willingly as a sea bass.
When squid arrive the bouncing of a 3 oz bucktail jig baited with a strip of squid and spearing along with a teaser (either pink, green or white) 18 inches above baited with clams or squid work really well. You can go with the riveted bucktail teasers wrapped around a hook already, or go with a 3/0 octopus hook following a nylon skirt slid onto a dropper loop. For my Sea bass fishing Ill use a 6.5ft or 7ft 15-30lb class composite baitcast rod with fast action and medium power with either an ambassduer 5000 size reel or daiwa baitcast reel like the lexa pwr300. This kind of set up works well for drifting and jigging or sitting on anchor using bait rigs. While jigging I like to use a deliberate 4-6 inch lift and drop technique (much like when using a diamond jig for the sea bass offshore) allowing the rig to have further descent and jig it at a speed slower than you would use when bucktailing for fluke. While jigging in this matter expect hard strikes on the fall as well as the lift as you drift on the edges o f large pieces. You can also drift bait rigs with clams and squid on the hook to save on the terminal tackle should you get hung up a lot, but make sure you still bounce the rig off the bottom. Fish that strike a drifted bait rig may take a few seconds to hook as they need to eat the bait longer to reach the business end of the hook. Pay attention and hit them when the bounce with weigh is felt.
A positive development in the fishery has been baby sea bass working more into the Long island sound in the last few years which proves they stock levels are up as they are expanding their range to other areas particularly to the N/E, searching for food. Competition for food among fish is great when stocks are good leading to good aggressive hits when you find the fish. So now what do you do when you get that hit? More times than not when you are drifting you set up on the fish right away they just about hook themselves but hit them once quick with a flick of the wrist to make sure. I like 20-30lb braided line leading to a 10 ft top shot of 40lb mono while sea bass fishing and as such more of a hook set than that with the no stretch characteristics of braid isn’t advised. Most hits you will get jigging will be of the freight train variety rather than the tapping kind. These fish are angered and coming at you like a bluefish will attack a jig so it’s fun all around from the strike on!
While I like to drift, some days you just don’t have good conditions, you move too fast or not at all or you spin. That’s when looking through your numbers and sitting on top of a piece at anchor is best. If you get to your piece of choice and don’t see markings anywhere, don’t be hesitant to move on. On my older sitek color machine, sea bass appear as both white and blue scratches depending on size, and larger schools of smaller fish are almost always red blobs coming up in the water column … The new machines all depict fish differently, so it may take a trip or two to learn color and markings of sea bass on your particular machine, but once you do it shall aid you greatly making you a more successful sea bass fisherman. When you find the piece you want to fish at anchor which anchoring method you should use while seeking sea bass is personal preference. Double anchoring is the pros way and will allow you to more efficiently work the piece, though I don’t find it nearly as necessary while sea bassing as it has become while blackfishing and it takes a good crew usually to get it done right and quite a bit of practice to get good at it . You can drop a grapnel or single anchor if the wind and current are not hard against each other. A little swing won’t discourage the sea bass from feeding although a bit too much swing will drive you nuts and get you hung up more. If you set a single danforth and find that you are swinging to and from the fish, grab a second anchor, preferable a grapnel and when you swing into the fish drop it off the back of the boat to hold you in the spot better. This is only advisable if the sea conditions allow, we don’t want to be sitting broadside to large swells. Rigging for this kind of fishing calls for a traditional high low rig with one hook 4-6 inches off bottom and another one 18 inches up and your good to go. I like using octopus style hooks, but to be honest there is nothing wrong with using a bait holder hook size 3/0 -4/0 either , its personal preference as not many sea bass are likely to bend out a hook. I have had good success with mustad ultra point octopus and traditional bait saver hooks, old salt tackle octopus offset point hooks, and gamakatsu octopus and bait holder hooks. When possible forego the salted clams and shuck some fresh ones for the best results. The belly and soft ribbon portions of the clams always seem to turn on the larger sea bass. You can get some decent fish with the hearts but many of the fish taken on hearts turn out to be of the smaller variety. IF all you can get at the bait store is pre salted clams, don’t fret it will be ok, you just may have to change bait a bit more often. When working a piece at anchor, before making adjustments to the rode and drifting back more, try walking around your boat and fishing different spots. Many times you will find that there is good life only a few feet to the bow of where you are, or on the other side of the boat. Don’t hesitate to cast forward of the boat a bit or back a little off the stern either to see if that’s where they’re at. OF course these things take care of themselves if you’re fishing with a few friends that are stationed around the boat anyway giving you automatic feedback. I usually have a few hundred feet of rode stored in my boat even when fishing shallow 35 ft depths. I will have more like 600ft if fishing 65 ft depths (per anchor) If I don’t have life anywhere around my boat , forward or aft of it, ill drop back at least 2 boat lengths and start the process again. Many times you will be off by that little and never realize you didn’t have to pull anchor and reset. If you are using a single anchor you can pull in some rode or drop back, providing that the boat isn’t going to slide sideways off the piece, this is where the biggest advantage is to the double anchor system, you can compensate for slide when adjusting rode on each anchor. But as I said earlier, you should still be able to put together a catch if you go the single anchor route.
If you haven’t done any of this kind of fishing I suggest you give it a chance this year. It provides a nice change of pace from fluking and you can get some great tasting fillets from these scrappy fighting bottom dwellers. I’m sure once you make a trip or two you will be hooked making opening weekend something you look forward to year after year!