- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Pelicans, gannets and gulls screamed excitedly while circling overhead. Wheeling low they hunted, then dove down by squadrons into the water. Schools of baitfish skittered across the surface in their panic to escape. But there was no refuge from the hungry predators of the air or from the enormous fish that drove them upward from the depths of the sea.
A fish tore a hole in the water’s surface, its silvery flanks flashing in the sunlight. Soon another fish boiled the water. This time, the distinct black horizontal stripes gave away its identity. A school of striped bass was on the feed, and it was a certainty that any lure remotely imitating a small fish would be attacked without hesitation if cast into the riot of gulls, baitfish and stripers that boiled the water like the inside of a washing machine.
When Atlantic stripers are feeding on schools of baitfish, these sizable fish will usually attack any lure thrown their way.
One cast and a couple of turns of the reel handle is all it took to initiate the battle. The lure was attacked before it could move 10 feet. Before that fish came to the gunwale, all other anglers on the boat had hooked up as well. Three rods were bent double with the strain of heavy striped bass that between 25 and 35 pounds each. The action continued all morning, with the fish still biting when we called it quits so our tired trio could head back into port to clean up the boat.
This scene took place in January at North Carolina’s famed Oregon Inlet. Over the past few years along the middle and northern Atlantic coast, fishing for striped bass has been picking up as management plans have been put in place to help protect ocean stocks of this fabulous game fish.
There are many places to catch striped bass inland, where they have been stocked and landlocked. However, for catching the wildest and largest striped bass, the briny deep is the place to search.
Most ocean stripers are caught within a mile or two of the beach. Indeed, surf fishermen and those who cast from jetties often find some of the hottest action. But boats give anglers more leeway in finding striped bass because they allow anglers to chase surfacing fish or scan the water with a depth finder to locate fish that are running deep.
In The Surf
When casting from the beach, anglers use long rods and heavy lures. Top-water plugs are top choices because they do not work the angler as hard as a swimming plug such as a bucktail jig or heavy metal spoon. Floating, popping-type plugs are cast into a school, or an area where a school has been spotted and is expected to resurface. They can be popped with the rod tip and left virtually in one place. Stripers are not picky and will strike the seemingly easy meal even when it is at rest.
Jigs and spoons work best where the water is deep, such as in a channel protected by a jetty. They can be allowed to sink below the surface and even jigged off the bottom when stripers are feeding in the deeper holes. These heavy lures are also the only choice when wind and waves make working top-water lures difficult and subsurface strikes are the only ticket to catching fish.
Live and cut bait such as menhaden, mullet, alewife and shrimp get the nod when artificials prove ineffective.
When the fish are deep or when ocean conditions prevent using lures, anglers also have good luck with live and cut bait. Stripers can be caught on menhaden, mullet, alewife, shrimp and most any other type of cut bait that is fresh.
From boats, anglers troll swimming lures, jigs and spoons to entice stripers. When the weather is cold, trolling is often the best option for keeping hands warm and dry. If a school is found on the surface or on the depth finder screen, or if strikes on trolled lures come from a specific location, a boat underway should switch off the motor and allow the boat to drift above or beside the school. Casting then is certain to draw strikes.
Some of the biggest stripers are caught using live or natural bait. A cast net full of whatever baitfish are in the area is a sure bet for getting action. Live baits are usually fished on a single hook with an egg sinker to take the bait down to the desired depth and to make casting easy. They can be slow-trolled or cast and slowly retrieved.
Another good bet is speed-trolling with frozen bait. Large ballyhoo or squid rigged for offshore trolling behind rubber or fiber trolling skirts are perfect set-ups for hooking large stripers.
Timing Is Everything
Between December and March is prime striper fishing time in the Atlantic, when stripers feed heavily to prepare for their journey to freshwater spawning streams.
Striped bass are anadromous fish and must travel from saltwater to freshwater rivers to spawn successfully. Therefore, the best time and place to catch seagoing fish is when they stage near the coast and feed heavily to prepare for the journey upstream.
This staging activity of huge breeding fish generally takes place between December and March, with January the prime month in most ocean waters. However, since they are inherently saltwater fish except during the spawn, seagoing stripers can be found near the beach at any time. Seawater temperatures in the low 50s mean that stripers have arrived near inlets and the mouths of coastal rivers. However, incidental schools can be found in water temperatures as high as 70 degrees.
The presence of schooling stripers along the beach attracts attention from birds and alert anglers who soon notice the activity. News spreads through tackle shops and fishermen that the fish have arrived. From the dead of winter on through early spring, striped bass are the premium game fish in many areas of the coast and give winter-weary anglers incentive to spend the day on the brine.