- 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.
Years ago, I used to eagerly anticipate St. Patrick’s Day. Not, however, for corned beef-and-cabbage, green beer and leprechauns. In the Northeast, St. Patty’s Day was always the unofficial start of the flounder season. We would bundle up against the chilly weather and head out in small boats to catch buckets of flatties on sandworms in nearby harbors or bays. But like most good things, they didn’t last forever.
The flounder population crashed in the 1980s due to unrelenting pressure from commercial fishing. And, despite new regulations for both commercial and recreational interests, the fishery has never recovered. Until recently, southern New England’s coastal anglers have had nothing to get excited about in early spring.
But starting around mid April during the past few years, we’ve been treated to an exceptional run of small schoolie striped bass in nearshore rips. One of the top staging grounds is the north shore of Long Island Sound, and the fish stay here until hot weather drives them out in July.
The spring run doesn't produce many trophies, but schoolies serve up plenty of action, even on bitter cold early spring days.
Each year, increasing numbers of striped bass are wintering in Connecticut’s major rivers, including the Housatonic, Connecticut and Thames. As water temperature rise in early April, the bass migrate down river into the shallow waters of Long Island Sound where they stack up like firewood over reefs and ledges. Averaging from 16 to 28 inches these fish aren’t trophies, but they’re plentiful and a true blessing for those with cabin fever.
Where To Find ‘Em
To locate rips in your area scan a local chart. Target spots where depths rise and fall abruptly. Some reefs, of course, are marked by navigational aids, while others can be found with electronics. The best reefs usually appear as narrow or oblong strips rising from a depth of 35 to 55 feet deep to a peak of 15 to 25 feet deep.
While bass will sometimes hold behind reefs, most hang in the “sweet spot” of the rip, which is found on the up-tide side of the ledge where it slopes upward from a flat bottom. It takes time for the upwelling water to reach the surface as it moves down tide, so look for the sweet spot in front of the rip line, not directly beneath it.
Bass move from reef to reef depending on conditions and the presence of bait, and their feeding sprees turn on and off seemingly at random. That’s why it’s good to have several reefs to choose from in case the first one or two don’t produce. On some trips I may probe four or five reefs before stumbling on a bunch of bass.
The best times to fish rips are within an hour-and-a-half of each side of slack water. Schoolies are most active during slow water periods when they don’t have to battle a stiff current. They are also low-light feeders, which make early mornings and late afternoons the hottest times to fish. If possible, plan your trips in the morning or afternoon coinciding with a changing tide. If you’re fortunate and have overcast skies the action can be non-stop all day.
How To Catch ‘Em
Diamond jigs wobble seductively when retrieved at the proper speed. Go with the lightest jig available, depending on wind, depth and current.
The most effective lures to fish rips are simple diamond jigs. Their unique shape—wide in the middle and slender at each end—allows them to plummet into the depths yet produce an enticing wobble when retrieved.
Once you’ve found a reef, motor up current while watching your depth finder. When the reef flattens out, cut the throttle, and start drifting back toward the rip line. Drifting, rather than anchoring, allows the boat to keep up with the tide-swept jig, and you can cover the reef much more effectively on successive drifts.
To work a diamond, rapidly free-spool your jig until it bumps bottom, then immediately engage the reel. Retrieve the diamond about 10 moderately fast cranks, drop back down, and hit again. Continue drifting and jigging until you’ve cleared the hump and covered the down-tide slope of the reef.
Stripers will, of course, gobble lures as they’re retrieved. But they’ll also strike on the way down. That’s because they’re accustomed to hanging under schools of marauding bluefish and picking up leftover baitfish pieces as they settle. When free-spooling your lure, it’s important to do so as fast as possible. That will let the jig turn from a vertical drop to horizontal flutter, which looks more like a wounded baitfish. Be ready to set the hook if your diamond suddenly stops while en route to the bottom.
Precision pays off in diamond jigging. Each structure has its own personality and characteristics. Pay close attention to when and where you find fish on each reef. Once found, use triangulation, electronics or an anchored float to keep returning to the fish. (A simple marker buoy can be made from an empty, capped bleach bottle wound with enough twine to reach bottom and a brick.) Then shorten your drifts to focus on the productive “window” and avoid wasting time in fishless water.
Diamond jigging calls for a good medium-weight conventional outfit, which is plenty of rod to subdue fat schoolie stripers.
Diamond jigs range in weight from 1 ounce to a massive 32 ounces. Generally, use the smallest jig possible given the wind, current and depth. Throughout most of Long Island Sound, a 4-ounce diamond is enough weight to reach the reefs. And its size closely imitates small baitfish such as squid, herring, butterfish, and baby bunker found in this area. Other locales may dictate a heavier minimum jig weight.
Some diamonds come from the factory with treble hooks. These should be removed and replaced with 7/0 singles. Single hooks make catch-and-release easier, hang-up less on rough bottom, and are safer when unhooking flopping fish in a rocking boat. A single hook also has less water resistance, which lets it drop faster, and it doesn’t readily foul on the leader as it’s falling. If you get into big bass or bluefish later in the season, it’s best to switch to single 8/0s.
With schoolies, I’ve had better results using rusty hooks than new ones. But the hook points are always kept sharp. Bass have good vision and easily see shiny hooks, which, at times, is good. But when they are feeding on very small baitfish a shiny hook magnifies the appearance of the overall jig length. Rusty hooks aren’t seen well in deep water, and the jigs appear several inches smaller. I also never fish a jig with a tube over the hook. Though a popular trick later in the year, the tube makes the lure look too big for early season schoolies.
Any 20- to 30-pound-class line will do for bass on shallow reefs, but the new superbraids are far superior to mono because they have less water resistance and stretch. To the main line I tie on a black snap-swivel. My jigs are rigged with 3 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader, which reduces cut-offs from sharp gill covers or bottom structure. Tie the leader to the jig with a loop knot rather than a clinch to give the lure more action.
A good jigging outfit is a medium-action, 6 -foot graphite rod with a fast taper and stiff butt section. To that attach a medium conventional reel such as a Penn 310 GTI. While you can use a spinning reel for diamond jigging, conventional-style reels are much simpler, faster, more rugged, and more effective.
As springtime rolls around in southern New England there may be no flounder to catch. And the tautog season is closed until June 15. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit anxiously at home. Trailer your boat from winter storage and head to a nearshore reef for some hot early-season action on schoolie stripers.