- 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.
The end of summer is a special time in southern New England. Tart Macintosh apples turn rosy, crickets chirp long into the night, and pumpkins swell on the vines. But best of all, large bluefish and hefty striped bass start their pre-migration feeding spree in our nearshore waters.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get in on the action is to climb aboard a local party boat working the big rips off the Northeast’s southern coast. Examples of two of the better-known rips are the Race and Plum Gut at the mouth of Long Island Sound. These massive tidal areas attract fish from surrounding waters and anglers from nearby states.
Heading home after a great afternoon on the water, a happy angler holds his first-ever striped bass, which was also the "pool winner" for the day.
“The Race and the Gut consistently hold one of the highest and most reliable concentrations of blues and bass on the coast,” says Matt Hillyer, a local expert and owner of Hillyer’s Tackle Shop in Waterford, Conn. “They’re two of the hottest spots in our area, and a party boat is one of the best ways to fish them. Especially if you don’t own a seaworthy boat or have enough experience to go there yourself.”
A seaworthy craft is needed because the leading edges of big rips are marked by large, standing waves created when the current rushes up and over reefs located far below. When a stiff wind opposes a strong tide, the seas along the “rip line” build and can be menacing. However, conditions that are treacherous for small craft are just business as usual for party boats.
Fishing on a party or “head” boat is one of the most carefree types of fishing anywhere. The captain does the driving and makes the decisions about the fishing. And the mates do the hands-on work, including rigging tackle, supplying bait, giving instruction, untangling lines, and cleaning fish. All you need to do is pay a fee, fight your fish, and enjoy the camaraderie.
But if you’re new to the party boat scene and want to be successful, as well as fit in with “the regulars” onboard, there are some things you need to know. Otherwise you, the mates, and everyone around you will soon become frustrated. So let’s start at the beginning.
Party Early Or Late
Party boats range from 60 to 120 feet long and usually offer two six-hour trips per day, with sailing times at about 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. Some outfits accept reservations, but most are on a first-come basis. That means you should arrive at the dock early, especially on weekends. After buying a ticket and boarding a boat expect a 45-minute to an hour ride to the grounds.
A typical bait rig consists of a 10-ounce drail sinker rigged to an 8/0 hook. The herring's head is held into the current with a clip to the sinker. The chain leader prevents cut-offs from sharp bluefish teeth.
The fee for a half-day trip is about $30 and includes your bait and terminal tackle. The mates may collect a $2 hook-and-sinker deposit, which you’ll get back at the end of the trip—if you don’t lose your rig. Additional set-ups will cost another $2 each.
You may bring a deep-sea rod or you can rent one onboard for about $5. If you bring your own outfit, you’ll need a 6 -foot, heavy-action boat rod and a substantial, conventional-style reel. Matt Hillyer likes a Penn 4/0 Senator loaded with 50-pound-test monofilament or superbraid. You may also bring your own hooks, sinkers and lures (8- to 12-ounce diamond jigs), if desired.
Party boats fish with different bait or lures according to the area and types of fish being sought. Off Maine, for example, heavy metal jigs may be used for cod and pollock. Off Rhode Island, green crabs may be used for tautog. And off Massachusetts, squid may be used for flounder, porgies and sea bass. But in Connecticut and New York waters, thawed herring is preferred for blues and stripers.
A typical herring rig consists of a 10- to 16-ounce drail sinker to which an 8-inch toilet-chain leader and 8/0 hook are fastened. The brass chain prevents cutoffs from razor-sharp bluefish teeth and is not a deterrent in the depths. A large snap is also attached to the sinker and is clipped through the baitfish’s mouth or eye sockets to hold its head into the current. The hook is pushed through the herring’s tail where most bites occur.
Once a head boat arrives at a rip the captain, watching his depthfinder, will locate a drop-off ahead of the rip line and turn the vessel broadside to the current before stopping.
An angler is all grins with this jumbo "slammer" bluefish, which tipped the scales at 17 pounds.
By now you should have selected an open slot along the rail and have your rod and baited hook at the ready. But wait until the captain sounds the horn—when the boat is at a dead stop—before free-spooling your rig into the depths. Feel for the sinker to bump bottom, which can be difficult to detect in a strong current. Quickly engage the reel and take three to five turns up to avoid getting stuck on the rocky reef.
The boat will drift up the shoal, across its crest, and down the backside. For the best chance at hooking a fish, you must keep your bait as close to the bottom as possible—this is where the fish are feeding. As the depth shallows you’ll feel your sinker bounce on the rocks. Immediately take a few more turns up. Under difficult conditions, however, such as during a moon tide or stiff winds, the boat may be pushed faster than your sinker or vice versa. In that case you’ll need to release line, rather than reel it in, to hold near the bottom.
If your rig snags in the rocks, hold the rod tightly and let the line part. Never grab the line and take a turn around your hand; that’s a good way to lose a few fingers. Reel in the broken line and buy a new rig from a mate.
When a fish grabs the bait, you’re in for a good fight and possibly some tangles as it darts around your shipmates’ lines. Don’t lessen the cinched-down drag to “play” the fish. This isn’t light-tackle angling—just winch it to the surface as quickly as possible. The more freedom you allow the fish the more snarls it creates. Once your catch surfaces don’t try to lift it. Call for a mate who’ll hustle over with a long gaff—or net if it’s a bass—and land the fish for you.
Action can be fun but chaotic when the bite is on. Here the mate gaffs and lands a bluefish while also dealing with the tangles of fish created during the fight.
At the end of each “drift” the captain sounds the horn again, and everyone immediately reels in his line. Don’t delay. The boat can’t run back up tide until all hooks are aboard. This procedure is followed until the last drift of the day, which the captain signals by blowing the horn several times in succession.
To make your trip more enjoyable bring a camera, sunscreen, snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, rain jacket, cap, sunglasses, motion-sickness medication, and wipe rag. You’ll also need some extra cash.
For a dollar you can buy a burlap sack to hold your catch while onboard. Another dollar enters you in the pool for the biggest fish. For about a dollar per fish, the mates will fillet, skin, wash, and bag your catch during the return to port. Boat rules prohibit you from cleaning your fish onboard, although you may carry them whole off the vessel. And when stepping off the boat, remember to tip the mates a few bucks each.
Party boat fishing is a great way to go deep-sea fishing for a minimal expense. You’ll almost always come home with fish for the freezer. And you’ll meet many interesting people who share a passion for southern New England’s hot autumn bluefish and bass run.