Year-Round Sea Bass Fishing in Cape May
By Paul Kerlinger
Fresh black sea bass may be the best eating fish in the western Atlantic. Until you’ve eaten one that is fresh off a reef or wreck, you haven’t tasted great sea food. Its delicate, white flesh can be cooked in a variety of ways and it freezes well.
Not only are sea bass culinary stars, but unlike most other fish in South Jersey, they can be caught year round.
Sea bass are in the same family as groupers, and despite the similar names, they are not closely related to striped bass. Sea bass have the bizarre ability to change sex, with females becoming males as they age or grow to larger sizes.
Although a single fish can weigh as much as eight pounds, most “keeper” fish in South Jersey waters are in the one to two pound category.
Sea bass migrate inshore and offshore, depending on the season. To get in on some of the wonderful sea bass fishing here in Cape May, Wildwood, Avalon, and the rest of South Jersey, you need to understand when and where to fish for them.
Fishing for sea bass picks up on the near shore reefs and wrecks as water temperatures drop in September-October through November/December.
Being bottom feeders, sea bass can be found swimming with blackfish (tautog), porgies, and even cod, ling, and pollock.
As the weather gets colder, inshore fishing spots slow down.
Some of these wrecks are up to 30 miles from shore and require 12 hour trips, although 8 hour trips are also successful.
During the winter (December through March), sea bass reside mostly in waters that are far offshore. Your best bet for winter sea bass fishing is to jump on one of the party or charter boats that make the long haul out to the offshore reefs and wrecks.
These boats must travel for several hours and go out to 50-60 miles from the beach. These trips aren’t for the faint of heart.
On these winter offshore trips, sea bass generally are larger than those caught inshore with many fish in the 3-6 pound range, with a few even larger.
An eight pound test world record for women was caught on the Atlantic Star out of Wildwood Crest in 2007. That fish was about 7 pounds. (Photo below.)
The Atlantic Star party boat from the Starlight Fleet in Wildwood Crest runs special 18 hour trips that are by reservation only. These boats leave the dock at 2AM. In the dead of winter, such a trip will virtually guarantee you big sea bass and a good number of them, if the weather cooperates. The weather can blow these trips out, although if the boat sails you will likely be rewarded.
Winter trips to offshore grounds can provide some interesting catches. Cod, Pollock, bluefish, and even tilefish to 20 pounds keep things very interesting. One early spring trip on the Atlantic Star resulted in dozens of tilefish in the 10-15 pound range being caught. All of these fish are great eating.
By about April, the sea bass migrate inshore to the artificial reefs and wrecks that can be found from a couple miles to more than 15 miles offshore.
In April and May, and again in late September through early December, fishing the near shore reefs and wrecks can be done with relative ease.
Party and charter boats regularly visit these fishing areas and fishing can be quite good. In addition to sea bass, these boats often score on blackfish and some other species. The Starlight Fleet and Miss Avalon are two South Jersey boats that schedule these trips.
Some of these fish are present at the same reefs throughout the summer and into fall, although many move farther offshore again as the waters get warmer in June through September.
There are even small sea bass that invade the back bays during summer. These fish inhabit the deeper holes that are only a few yards from the sod banks or in the depths of channels.
Most of these fish are small and not large enough to keep. They are also targets for marauding striped bass when menhaden and other bait fish are scarce.
Summer fishing for sea bass is not quite as good as spring, fall, and winter, although mixed bags that include fluke, croaker, bluefish and others are generally the rule. Half the fun of these trips is not knowing what you will reel up next.
Regulations for Sea Bass
There is a 25 fish bag limit for sea bass and each has to be at least 12” in length.
Tackle for sea bass varies depending on depth of water and current. For example, you can get away with light spinning tackle to catch the small (less than 12”) sea bass in the deeper holes of the back bays. These are often caught when fishing for fluke in the deeper holes. You might only need 1-2 ounces of lead and a small 1 or 1/0 hook. I’ve even caught them on a fly rod with fast sinking line.
For most fishing on the inshore reefs (40-70 feet of water), use a 6-7 foot boat rod with a conventional reel holding 100-200 yards of 20-30 pound test line. Spinning gear can work, but if you need a 6-8 ounce sinker, you are better off with a conventional rod (and reel) that doesn’t bend as much as most spinning rods.
For deep water fishing (more than 100 feet), a solid 6-7 foot rod with a conventional reel capable of holding plenty of 30-40 pound line is necessary. You may have to go as deep as 150+ feet. Sinkers in the 6-16 ounce range are necessary, along with high and low hook rigs (size 1/0-3/0). If you are fishing deep water, a fast retrieve reel will be really helpful.
A different, and often productive technique is to use diamond jigs (4-12 ounces), with a couple of inches of squid or clam attached to the terminal hook. I’ve had success using bucktail flies tied to the line above a jig or a conventional baited high and low hook rig. The fly flutters in the current as the bait is held closer to the bottom. The teaser is about 2-4 feet off the bottom. That teaser has also caught weakfish, fluke, bluefish, and other fish that are feeding around or above the sea bass on inshore lumps and reefs.
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