Catching over 60 large black sea bass on one tide is enough to excite any angler. That’s exactly what my wife, Carol, 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, and I did with friend and sea bass pro Capt. Ned Kittredge late last May. The action, at times, was rapid-fire.
“Capt. Ned!” called Carol. “I’ve got one almost to the surface. Hey, it’s a double!”
“Be right there,” said Capt. Kittredge as he unhooked and dropped his humpback on ice. Meanwhile, Maggie and I had set up on our own hard strikes. Moments later Kittredge leaned overboard, grabbed Carol’s leader and deftly swung her pair into the cockpit. “OK,” he said, glancing at his electronics. “Get those fish in! We’re drifting off the spot and into the weeds. Time to run back up-tide.”
**Finding Hot Spots
**Although sea bass occasionally suspend in the water column and eagerly chase lures up from the seafloor, they are a type of grouper (Serranidae family) and are true reef fish who love structure. The pros find them concentrated on rock piles, reefs, ledges, wrecks, shoals and shell beds from mid-May through September in southern New England. But real experts refine their search even further.
“When targeting sea bass,” says Kittredge, “I use Furuno MaxSea Planner software for locating specific areas to fish. Generally I look for deepwater rock piles in the 50- to 100-foot range that are surrounded by a sandy bottom. I’ll also cruise along contours, like steep gravel banks, looking for clusters on the fish finder.”
Our exciting trip began from Mattapoisett Harbor, in southeastern Massachusetts, and we made the quick three-mile run across Buzzards Bay to one of Kittredge’s favored black sea bass locations. This one happened to be on the west end of Cleveland Ledge, a popular hot spot a short distance from Cleveland Light, where the bite was strong. The light sits in shallow water on the eastern side of the two halves of Cleveland Ledge, excellent sea bass terrain.
The area is large and is no secret, and you’ll find a fleet here almost any day during peak season. But pros like Kittredge seldom anchor with the fleet, preferring to find their own productive location. For trophy sea bass, Kittredge recommends several other hot spots too, such as around Cuttyhunk’s outer rock piles, where he routinely wrestles up 7-pounders well into August.
“The prime sea bass areas are loaded with lobster and gill-net gear,” he says, “and I think that helps keep the headboats away. Usually, any spots marked with lobster buoys are good areas to try.”
**Conventional wisdom holds that anchoring over structure and chumming is the proven formula. But Kittredge prefers another style.
“I don’t anchor but choose to drift,” he says. “The reason is if a spot is unproductive or inundated with sand sharks, it’s quick and easy to run to another place. I’m not burdened with anchor setting and hauling. Not anchoring also allows me to run back up-current to retrieve snagged rigs and repeat productive drifts over a school.
“You’ll know right away if you’re on fish because the bites will come fast and hard. It’s unclear to me whether or not one specific spot will give up multiple bull sea bass, but in my experience, each spot holds only one or two true trophy fish. It seems like a king-of-the-hill scenario.”
My family and I ended our spectacular day on the water with the sea bass still biting. The sun was low on the horizon, and we had plenty in the fish box.
“I’ve never experienced sea bass fishing like that,” I remarked as I hosed the deck and Kittredge fired the outboards. “It’s hard to believe how many big ones we landed.”
“Yeah,” he said, kicking the motors into gear, “over 60 fish, and I think we only measured three.”
**Catching sea bass can be as simple as using a high-low bottom rig baited with clams or baitfish chunks. Kittredge sometimes uses a 3- to 4-ounce metal jig tipped with squid, often with a skirted dropper hook above it, fished near the bottom with a slow yo-yo motion, as we did on our trip. But he has perfected another red-hot technique for filling limits with bruiser humpbacks.
“The rig I’ve found to be singularly the most effective,” says Kittredge, “is the codfish sabiki teaser rig made by Colman’s Squid Jig Warehouse, which is the strongest I’ve tried by far. I use the glow-orange type, which I tip with 3- to 4-inch ‘unwashed’ squid strips.
“Although these tough rigs are made with a 50-pound main leader and 40-pound branches, I still tune every rig with Goop adhesive. I remove each rig from its package, slide each plastic squid skirt up the branch line and apply a bead of Goop to the snell before repositioning the skirt. I also untie the loop knot at the top of the rig and use a uni-knot to attach a small swivel. From the swivel, I run a 3-foot section of 30-pound mono, which I later tie to the braided main line with a double uni-knot.
“Identification of the ‘top’ of the rig is important,” he says. “With the rig hanging by its main leader, I want the branch lines exiting the knots in an upward direction, perpendicular rather than parallel, so they fish more effectively and are less likely to snag the main leader. I then attach a snap to the bottom of the rig by means of the existing loop. The snap allows for a quick and simple sinker size change. Once the tuning is done, I repack each rig into a small reclosable bag for easy storage.”
Kittredge prefers a flat bank sinker or no-snag sinker because the structure is often rugged, and these types minimize hang-ups. Depending on depth and current, he uses sinkers from 3 to 8 ounces and fishes his sabiki with the sinker tapping the bottom by means of a slow yo-yo motion. “The key,” he says, “is to keep the rig as vertical as possible; otherwise the hooks hang on the structure.”
For weight on the sabiki rig, 3- to 8-ounce bank sinkers 1 work well, or you can clip on a 3- to 4-ounce metal Bridgeport, Halco or diamond jig 2 to do double duty as attractor and weight.
New England Black Sea Bass
Black sea bass are opportunistic feeders that strike aggressively, fight hard all the way to the surface and make excellent eating. Their varied diet consists of crustaceans, sea worms, small fish, squids and even bivalves.
Pros find sea bass in large clusters on structure during spawning, staging and migration periods, so timing is key to success. Adults migrate inshore and northward as water temperatures increase in the spring. The northern population of black sea bass reportedly spawns from mid-May to July between Massachusetts and New Jersey, although some experts say the spawn may last into August in cooler areas. The fish then return to deeper waters, moving south and offshore as ocean temperatures drop in the fall.
What: Black sea bass.
When: Mid-May through September.
Where: Southern New England, Rhode Island, Buzzards Bay, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island.
**Capt. Ned Kittredge
Kittredge matches lightweight fast-action rods to small conventional reels spooled with heavy braid and 150 yards of lighter PowerPro braid. The thin line allows him to fish with the lightest weight possible in the current and maintain excellent feel even in deep water.
When buying bait, he prefers “unwashed” squid from a local market. Calamari squid, which is usually supplied in tackle shops, is mainly intended for human consumption. It’s processed ashore and washed in fresh water, with bleach added to whiten the flesh and remove the ink. Conversely, unwashed squid is processed at sea and is rinsed only in salt water before frozen. Most of the ink, which adds scent, remains in the squid.
Rods: Lightweight fast-action rods suitable for bottomfishing in 100 feet of water with 4 to 8 ounces of weight.
Reels: Small, quality drags matched to rods: Shimano Tekota 300, Penn 975LD or the like.
Lines: 50-pound braid with 15-pound braid top shot.
Lures: Cod sabiki rigs and diamond-style jigs.