It’s December. It’s cold, bleak, and the days are dreadfully short. Many saltwater anglers have stowed away their gear. Marinas have most boats shrink-wrapped and sitting on blocks, awaiting the first warm days of spring. However, the rumble of diesel engines and exhaust hung in the late December afternoon air around the docks in Point Pleasant. There, anglers eagerly boarded vessels for overnight trips, one of the last fishing opportunities of the year for diehard anglers to fish offshore wrecks of the New York Bight for jumbo black sea bass.
“Jumbo” is the appropriate term for this unique offshore fishery, where most of the sea bass are over 3-pounds, with some approaching 7-pounds.
Captain Greg Carr, of LBI Fishing Charters out of Barnegat Light, has made this an annual trip with friends and his two children. They usually book 1-to-2 trips in December aboard headboats from Point Pleasant south to Cape May after Greg’s chartering season ends.
A Black sea bass inhabit inshore and offshore waters of the Atlantic from Maine to North Carolina. Tagging studies indicate black sea bass inhabit that sea bass generally migrate north and westward to inshore areas in the spring, whereas in the fall, the migration is typically south and eastward to deeper, offshore areas. Sea bass are structure-oriented species that inhabit wrecks, rock piles, and reefs, places where they find sanctuary and feeding opportunities.
The large sea bass that winter on offshore wrecks off New Jersey are the same fish that spent the summer close to shore in New England.
Scientific studies have shown that sea bass are “sequential hermaphrodites,” which means they are all born female and then change into males in years 1-to-8. Scientists are still unsure why or what triggers the change, but it could be related to the ratio of males to females in the population, ocean temperatures, or environmental factors.
Spawning generally occurs between April and October throughout their range, but off New Jersey, it usually occurs from mid-July through October. Eggs hatch in 2-to-3 days and offspring begin their lives in estuaries where they have prime safety and feeding opportunities.
The importance of migration data is that most of the fish targeted off New Jersey in December are the fish that spent summer off New England. These fish are larger than your typical sea bass encountered off New Jersey in the summer. The sea bass we caught during fluke season had migrated south and east to sites off Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia by December.
Like most “wreck” fish, black sea bass are opportunistic feeders and will devour a variety of prey items including crabs, worms, shrimp, small baitfish, and clams. They are schooling fish and position themselves in areas with structure for feeding and defensive opportunities.
Males exhibit bright blue, almost turquoise hues in displays for females and intimidation of rival males during spawning times. Smaller sea bass aggressively hit prey, lures, or rigs before the bigger, older fish, trying to outcompete, and there are usually greater numbers of them. By understanding this principle, which also holds true for shallower inshore wrecks, you can effectively target bigger bass when fishing for winter jumbos.
Underwater currents can fluctuate with the moon phases and weather, so having a variety of weights is good practice.
Because most of the action occurs at the wrecks in the 160-to-220 foot range, heavier gear is needed to handle the weights needed to hold bottom. Rods that are good for tog fishing around deep-water wrecks are usually enough to handle the rigors of offshore sea bass.
Heavy to medium-heavy rods able to handle braided lines in the 40-to-65 pound range will do fine with the heavier weights. Lamiglas and G. Loomis make some quality rods capable of handling these conditions, and most party boats sailing for jumbos recommend bringing lead sinkers from 10-to-20 ounces. The rod should have good feel to it, but also have plenty of backbone to hoist the fish and the weight.
Underwater currents can fluctuate with the moon phases and weather, so having a variety of weights is good practice for dialing in on the correct weight once you are fishing. It’s also a good idea to check with the mates since they are out there each trip and have a better feel for the conditions.
Fishing reels should be spooled with 40-to-65 pound braid, which is similar to the setups used by most hardcore tog fisherman. Accurate, Penn, or Avet Reels provide enough drag and line capacities for this type of fishing. Most anglers prefer to use a 40-to-50 pound fluorocarbon or monofilament topshot leader attached to the braid. The topshot provides a good shock absorber from the heavy weights, and makes it easier to unravel the inevitable tangles that occur while party-boat fishing.
Sea bass as large as 7-pounds are possible on winter wreck trips.
On these trips, filling a limit is rarely an issue, but getting the 5-to-7 pounders takes a little more angling skill. The water is cold, and even though bites often come rapidly once the bait hits bottom, bigger bass take a little more time to get to the baits.
The best way to target true jumbos is to allow the smaller fish to hit or play with the bait, which means not setting the hook at the first bite. Gently and slowly raise the rod to allow the smaller fish to move off, and then drop back down. This gives enough time for the bigger bass to move in. The hit from a jumbo is unmistakable—it will wallop the bait or jig, and double-headers are not uncommon. In addition, you may encounter some pollock and bigger porgies.
When you clean some of the sea bass, there will likely be crabs in their stomachs, which is why some of the jigs on the market mimic the shape or color of deep-water crabs. Some anglers favor the Shimano Lucanus over the traditional two-hook sea bass rig.
When fishing an artificial jig like the Lucanus, it is important to slowly reel the jig back once the fish bites. The fish tends to work its way off the jig and will eventually be hooked by the small trailer hooks mixed in the tentacles. It is very similar to using a circle hook – do not swing to set it; instead, reel tight until the fish is on. Capt. Carr said he usually lands bigger humpheads by jigging compared to using bait.
The bait of choice on most of the headboats is clam on a traditional double-hook sea bass rig. These fish are not picky eaters, but the best fishing seems to occur once the sun is up—there usually isn’t much of a night bite.
I can’t tell how important cold-weather gear is, especially when 50-to-70 miles offshore. Anglers are advised to pack for the weather and bring plenty of layers. All the headboats have heated, dry cabins with plenty of bunks for sleeping when the vessel is in transit. The aim is to be fishing from the time the vessel stops to the time it blows the whistles.
I recommend a duffle bag packed with a sweatshirt or two, socks, pants, gloves, and a few winter hats. It’s great when we have mild December days but, it’s generally pretty cold, especially when on open water offshore. Grundens bibs and some type of windproof/water-resistant jacket are highly recommended. Warmth and being dry are keys to successful winter fishing.
Food is another staple, as high-calorie and dense foods are good for keeping you full and gives your body plenty of calories to burn. I prefer high-protein bars along with water or Gatorade and, of course, some pretzels or Combos. Many anglers opt for Wawa or Jersey Mike’s sub, some chips, and a few cold ones. Take whatever makes you the most comfortable out there—it’s about fishing and the experience.
Regardless of what boat you choose, the mates, captain, and crew want you to catch fish and will do whatever they can to make your experience a good one. Most of the mates get paid, but tips help make the job worthwhile. Be sure to tip the mates who untangle the lines, help with baiting, tie rigs, give you pointers, and clean your fish. Don’t be afraid to pick their brains since they have a wealth of knowledge, but make sure the timing is right—they are working the entire trip. By the time this issue hits newsstands, I’ll be pouring sinkers for my trip this December. I can’t wait to get out and load the freezer with some jumbo winter sea bass.