Amy stopped and turned her head slightly, listening. “Hear that?” We were drifting along in 15 feet of water, casting for mackerel. Sure enough, the familiar crackling of bottom critters could be heard. Perhaps our aluminum boat helped amplify the bottom noise or maybe we were just hearing things, but we lowered our jigs and spoons and instantly were bowed up, as they say along Florida’s Big Bend. Two black sea bass with arguably the tastiest fillets of any bottom fish in the Gulf were quickly brought aboard.
Immediately, we deployed the anchor and worked our lures close to the structure in every direction around the boat, and caught perhaps 30 fish—fast action compared to those long drifts on shallower grass flats. That very evening my recipe of beer-battered fish fingers had our guests licking their lips and begging for more.
Smaller than their Atlantic cousins but just as feisty, Gulf sea bass will attack plugs bigger than the attacker.
Sea bass and I have a long history that dates back to the late 1990s when I kept a boat in Steinhatchee. The locals often returned to the docks with large coolers full of these tasty fish, mostly caught by anchoring 20 miles offshore and dropping fresh bait to the bottom. I often witnessed hundreds of fish brought in and unloaded into wheelbarrows, with most hauled back to Georgia judging by the profusion of peach license plates in our sleepy little fishing town.
Cutting squid for bait and cranking up small fish all day on heavy tackle wasn’t my cup of tea, but I soon discovered you could catch a whole bunch of these tasty fish by simply drifting over patchy bottom and tossing feathered jigs and flashy spoons with not much more than light trout tackle.
Structure oriented fish preferring areas of live bottom, sea bass are greedy as piranha and readily available along Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. In the Gulf we catch them as shallow as five feet while drifting for trout over grass beds, however rocky limestone bottom in 15 to 30-feet provides far more action. During the summer after snorkeling for scallops we often head offshore a couple of miles and load up on sea bass. The trick is finding a promising locale, but once you’ve landed on the mark it shouldn’t take long to get connected. We’ve found that a dinner of fresh scallops and fried sea bass rates pretty high and fortunately both are easily acquired by early afternoon.
Such consistent action is in stark contrast to Florida’s Atlantic Coast, when last year saw the first recreational seasonal closure ever on black sea bass. With fisheries managers outlawing the harvest of many prized game fish, it’s tough being an angler along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. In an attempt to prevent overfishing, black sea bass harvest was closed October 2011 and reopened June 2012. While the bag limit was decreased to five per harvester per day in federal waters, in state waters of the Atlantic the limit remains 15 per harvester per day.
Sea bass on the Gulf Coast are just as greedy and fearless as their cousins in the Atlantic that roam all the way up to New York and beyond, but unfortunately they don’t grow as large in the Gulf. Jack Rudloe of Panacea, started the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories and has worked with just about every conceivable sea critter in that area for 40 years. This is what he has to say about the Gulf’s selective sea bass limit.
“It’s a shame these guys don’t grow bigger like the Atlantic fish. A Gulf parasite grows in their throat, effectively blocking them from eating before they can even reach two pounds. The offending little marine bug looks very much like sea lice, and is something I had only seen before in a few menhaden’s throats, again in the Gulf,” added Rudloe.
Smaller than their Atlantic cousins but just as feisty, Gulf sea bass will attack plugs bigger than the attacker. They are certainly ambitious, but on the fish intelligence scale just about the opposite from gray snapper or gag grouper. On a few occasions we’ve had at least half a dozen sea bass follow a hooked fish to the surface in 25 feet, which is pretty high in the water column for any structure oriented bottom dweller. And if you whip anything in the water, the fish will attack it. A bare leadhead jig without any sort of trailer is often enough to seal the deal.
During the winter and spring when they’re spawning and males sport a blue-green knob on their heads, they will attack a 2 oz. lead weight on the bottom in 30 feet, and cling to it until they’re swung into the boat. This has happened to me twice on the same day. I’ve never heard of that happening with any other species, fresh or salt. And of course, many grouper trollers in our part of the Gulf have caught sea bass that were completely dwarfed by the large-lipped diving plugs intended for much larger targets.
Not too smart but quite plentiful, these fish are tasty beyond belief and provide incredible opportunities for anglers willing to target these small statured game fish. With plentiful numbers, spending a couple of hours sea bass fishing is like taking out a fish-fry insurance policy.
Because they are feisty and eager to please, a host of tactics will help fill your cooler. Making it more enjoyable is the fact that you can employ your favorite technique. Jigs, plugs and soft plastics work well, but practically anything you present will get their attention. If you choose to fish with natural bait, cut squid is the go-to offering. While you can score with single hook rigs, multi-hook dropper rigs will certainly increase your score.