- 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 attraction is simple; the same fish-friendly formula that never fails to pack the house—food and shelter. Such scenarios are certainly found in reefs and wrecks many miles offshore, but no need to run that far when there’s plenty of action within a short ride from the boat ramp.
Yes, the true meccas of always-accessible action are the boat docks found in coastal rivers and residential canals throughout the Southeast. Reliable action spans the calendar, but cold and/or windy conditions make docks the popular option for comfort and convenience. Reason being that high seawalls, houses and trees create a windbreak and temperature insulation that keeps the water warmer and calmer than that of open bays and coastlines.
In abundant adjacency or stark solitude, these structures attract a mixed bag of residents, each with their own preferences and peculiarities. Docks in Southeastern waters regularly attract redfish, snook, seatrout, mangrove snapper, black drum, sheepshead and, believe it or not, keeper grouper. Seasonal species like snook, trout and redfish are more common in colder periods, whereas the others often take up permanent residence.
Sheepshead are a common dock target year-round and make for dependable action.
Most docks standing in saltwater have healthy accumulations of barnacles and oysters encrusting their legs, as well as the nearby seawall and any surrounding rubble. Crawling and slithering throughout these bivalve communities is a bounty of shrimp, crabs and invertebrates. Enhancing the dining opportunity is an ever-present cloud of baitfish such as scaled sardines, glass minnows, menhaden and pinfish.
As for the shelter part, docks provide shade when it’s hot and warmth in cooler times. Wooden docks are especially popular because they absorb the sun’s warmth and radiate this heat during chilly nights. Structures on the west side of a canal or river always warm up earliest as the rising sun greets their east-facing position first. Add a wooded boat dock the equation and you have one serious fish magnet.
And then there’s the whole predation thing. Some fish use dock legs as ambush points for snatching prey, while others hug the structure to avoid becoming someone’s next meal. Either way, dock life is a constant game of hide and seek, where attention and quickness mean another day in the neighborhood.
Any day, any dock can prove itself the top producer. However, certain characteristics distinguish heroes from zeros:
• Cleaning Tables: Carcasses and filet trimmings generally end up in the drink. Some dock species will forage on the scraps, but most are more interested in the crabs and baitfish attracted to the free chow.
• Lights: Night fishing is another tale in itself, but lights shining onto the water attract baitfish and shrimp, which in turn attract predators that hang around during the day. The tide pulls baitfish and crustaceans through the light rings, where sudden high visibility makes them easy targets.
• Solitude: A single dock bordered by long stretches of empty seawall can be a gold mine, because scouting anglers are more likely to work an area with several adjacent docks where they can fish down the line to find the good one. A lone dock is often overlooked.
• Big Boats: The heavier the propulsion, the deeper the furrow dug below the boat. Fish often lay in these depth variances.
Approach with care to avoid spooking the inhabitants of a promising dock.
Consider, too, a dock’s position relative to a canal or river mouth. Those closest to the opening get the strongest tidal action and the lion’s share of new, oxygenated water and food sources. The tradeoff is that these docks also see the heaviest boat traffic.
Best bet for fishing a promising dock is to shut down the engine a good 10 yards away, drift into fishing range (use a trolling motor if needed) and silently drop anchor. If tide or wind fiddle with your position, anchor at bow and stern to maintain optimal casting angles. Pick your side, nose up toward the dock and drop the forward anchor when the bow reaches the desired area. Scope out a few feet of rope, tie off and check how the wind and current swings the stern before dropping the aft anchor.
Various species respond better to certain specialized tactics, but for general dock success, jigs are tough to beat. In the standard application, bouncing a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig head rigged with a plastic tail or a slender jerk bait around the dock’s perimeter mimics a wounded baitfish and attracts snook, trout and redfish. However, a jig head also fares well for grouper, snapper, sheepshead and black drum with a live shrimp threaded tail first onto its hook. So arranged, the bait is easier to cast than a hook and sinker rig.
Other productive dock techniques:
• Plugs: Slow-sinking and diving lures with rattles are best for tempting or taunting dock fish. Topwaters can prove effective when trout, snook or redfish are feeding at or near the surface, especially in dock lights.
• Live Baitfish: Free line the indigenous bait with a short shank hook. Popping corks can be helpful if the bait consistently runs into a snagging situation.
• Trolling: Mostly a snook tactic, slowly pulling live baitfish, spoons or plugs past dock faces occasionally brings forth a hungry taker. Trolling is often used to identify productive docks.
For certain species, chumming can jump-start the action. When grouper and snapper top your target list, hang a frozen chum block off a spring cleat. As the block melts in the current, it builds a wafting trail of scent and tiny bits of ground fish. For redfish, sheepshead and black drum, toss fingernail-sized pieces of cut shrimp upcurrent and let the water bring the appetizers to the fish’s doorstep.
Docks will hold a number of inshore predators, including these snook that are poised for ambush.
If all goes well and rods bend, take a few moments to thoroughly revive a fish if catch-and-release is intended. Snook, trout, tarpon and reds generally require the most work, but make sure each fish has enough steam to swim off unassisted.
Fish With Courtesy
Unlike sprawling offshore spots where ample bottom structure can accommodate multiple boats, most docks are best fished by one boat at a time. Although it might seem feasible for two boats to work opposite sides of a sizeable dock, the bite can suddenly cease if the fish feel like they’re boxed in by double pressure. Obvious exceptions are lengthy docks where boats can work significant distances from one another.
Moreover, respect private property and avoid unnecessary confrontations that only succeed in spooking whatever action you might have found. While, waterfront residents don’t own the water or the fish therein, they have full claim to their docks and seawalls. No one’s defending residents who harass innocent anglers, but trespassing and inadvertent property damage are understandably upsetting.
To avoid potentially volatile encounters, just keep a respectful distance and exercise common courtesy. Avoid bumping docks or adjacent tide poles with your boat and never tie up to a private dock or step onto the structure without permission.
Even if the fish are hard to reach, avoid banging lures or sinkers off the side of boat hulls. Also, whenever you can reach a snagged hook or lure, remove it before departing. (If an errant cast carries your bait onto the dock, use a rod, push pole or net handle to remove it and avoid trespassing.
Finally, keep the noise level at a considerate level (and don’t use language you wouldn’t use in front of your mother). Likewise, teasing guard dogs is not only disturbing to homeowners, but you never know when the family pet has learned to jump from dock to boat. Angry canines in close proximity tend to stifle even the best fishing action.
When homeowners appear at their window, door or seawall, an angler’s best move is a polite wave and a compliment to the dock’s fine fishing. Put on your best PR smile and residents will often share a tip or two on effective baits and specific hot spots. Some folks build mini reefs beneath their docks, and such info is worth a little consideration.