When it comes to bottom species, anglers have closely-held beliefs about which ones are the most challenging, the most fun and the best table fare. But one thing we can all agree on is that black sea bass are abundant, easy to catch and an epicurean delight. The species is widely distributed both in their geographical range and in the depths in which they are found.
Anglers from Massachusetts to Florida can enjoy fishing for them from near-shore waters to great distances offshore. In the Mid-Atlantic, small black sea bass can be found in bays and tidal rivers, while larger specimens tend to make their homes in wrecks and artificial reefs from 50-to-100 feet deep. In the winter months, sea bass of monster proportions (5 to 8 pounds) can be caught 50 miles offshore in over 200 feet of water. Anglers occasionally catch sea bass while deep drop fishing for golden and blue line tilefish in water as deep as 650 feet. Now that’s covering some ground.
Most sea bass fishing takes place on near-shore structure where they gather in great numbers throughout spring, summer and fall to feed.
They are a schooling fish so when you find a few, you’ve usually found a lot and that makes catching dinner pretty easy.
They are not usually picky eaters, falling for clams, squid strips and small baitfish. They even eat crabs dropped to the bottom by anglers trying to catch blackfish.
If you want to catch a mess of sea bass, grab a light conventional rod and reel with braided line and add a fluorocarbon leader. Tie two dropper loops about two feet apart, and put a 3/0 light wire bait hook on each one. You can add a bright-colored bead or skirt to it if you’d like, but the fish usually don’t care. Then tie a sinker loop at the bottom, about two feet below the bottom hook, and slide on a two- or three-ounce bank sinker.
Big sea bass like this 6-lb. male can be encountered offshore and occasionally inshore on structure. This one ate a large bucktail with a strip of squid on it for bait. If all that is too much work, buy some pre-tied “high-low” rigs at your local tackle shop and just tie those to the line, add a sinker, bait the hooks and you’re ready to fish. The most popular baits are small pieces of surf clam (the fresher the better) or strips of white squid. Position the boat over some likely structure—use your depthfinder to see if there are fish holding on it—and drop down.
If there are sea bass present, you won’t have to wait long for a bite. You can drift around the area, but if you find a honey hole with lots of fish, drop the anchor with the boat over the structure and stay for a while. If you want to have some real fun and up your chances of catching bigger sea bass, bring along an ultra-light spinning outfit with four- or six-pound test braided line and some ½-to 1.5-ounce bucktails in white or chartreuse. Add a squid strip to the hook, drop it straight down until it hits bottom, reel it up a turn or two and jig it gently. Bigger sea bass are very predatory and love a fresh fish dinner. The bucktail looks like a small fish to them. You will also have a lot more fun fighting humpback sea bass on the light spinning tackle. The nickname humpback is derived from the bump bigger males develop behind their heads as they grow.
Once you’ve managed to catch a bunch of sea bass, cleaning them is the next order of business.
They are a little trickier to fillet than some round fish and they have a few pin bones that need to be removed in the process. Here’s the easiest way to accomplish the chore and have fillets ready for the sauté pan when you get home. You’ll need a very sharp, stiff bladed fillet knife. Start by rinsing the fish with a hose to make them less slippery to handle and follow these instructions.
Make a diagonal cut that runs behind the head and pectoral fin as shown.
Turn the knife flat with the edge angled slightly down and start cutting toward the tail. The initial portion of the cut will be harder because you are actually slicing through the rib cage bones.
Cut all the way to the base of the tail fin, but do not cut through the skin at the end of the cut.
Flip the fillet over so it is still attached to the fish by the skin, then using the body of the fish to maintain your grip while removing the fillet from the skin with a gentle back and forth motion of the knife.
Turn the fillet over and cut the rib cage bones away.
Cut a thin “V” down the center of the fillet to remove the pin bones as shown. You can feel them with your fingers.
Repeat on the other side of the fish and you have two perfect fillets ready to be dredged in flour and spices and sautéed in hot oil.