Many anglers view black sea bass as the scourge of the ocean, mainly because they are so plentiful and eager to bite when anglers are targeting different fish, but others view them as a good source of entertainment — as well as table fare.
Instead of trying to avoid these fish, some anglers seek them out, but they use tactics that give them a shot at good-sized fish instead of bait thieves, and they purposely fish for them rather than encountering them as a by-catch when fishing for other quarry.
Rob Bennett of Lowcounry Inshore Charters in Charleston likes to target big black sea bass this time of year, and he said it’s not difficult to target keeper-sized fish if you know what to look for. Bennett’s No. 1 tip for catching table-worthy black sea bass is to avoid artificial reefs.
“Livebottom is what you want to fish when looking for big black sea bass,” said Bennett. “The artificial reefs are covered up with so many small fish that it’s just not worth fishing those areas. Livebottom has higher concentrations of good-sized sea bass, so that’s where you want to spend your time.”
Tip No. 2 is to find livebottom. These areas are not difficult to find, especially for anglers who are skilled at reading depth finders. Good charts are also a big help, and that is what Bennett recommends.
What is livebottom? These are simply areas that have living plants that occur naturally on the sea floor. It could be a combination of sponges, coral and weeds, just weeds, just coral, sponge, or any combination of those living structures.
Bennett’s third tip is to use bigger bait than you normally would.
“The small ones will tear up your small baits,” he said. “A black sea bass will bite a baitfish that is almost as big as itself, so the smaller your bait, the more likely you are to catch small sea bass.”
Bennett’s fourth tip also deals with bait.
“You can catch black sea bass on just about any bait. Cut squid is a popular bait, but again, you’ll catch just as many small sea bass as big ones on squid,” said Bennett (843-367-6875). “When I catch big sea bass, no matter what I am using for bait, I will often have the big ones coughing up Spanish sardines — which closely resemble cigar minnows — once I get them on the boat. I mean, these bigger sea bass are just so full of these sardines that they can’t keep them down, and they still bite my hook.”
Once Bennett saw that, he began using cigar minnows when he could find them and larger mud minnows when he couldn’t. He immediately began noticing catches of bigger sea bass, especially when using the biggest minnows.
Another tip Bennett offers is for anglers not to stick around too long at a place that is either being unproductive or that is giving up only small fish.
“These black sea bass are so plentiful all up and down South Carolina’s coast, so there is no reason to waste time in one spot if it’s not giving up good numbers of quality fish. I won’t typically sit in one spot for more than 20 minutes if I’m not happy with the numbers and sizes of fish I’m catching. Livebottom is abundant, and not difficult to find with the right charts and electronics, so stay on the move until you find a spot that you’re getting good bites on,” he said.
And even when you are into good fish, Bennett said anglers need to be cautious of something they may not think about until it’s too late.
“Don’t start chunking fish into the cooler as soon as you get on a hot bite. The limit for these fish is only five per person, so be selective in what you keep. You are bound to get into some black sea bass that will surprise you in terms of their size,” he said. “Four- and 5-pound fish are not uncommon when fishing these livebottom areas, so don’t throw too many in the cooler that are just barely over the minimum-size limit.”
Bennett said that his bigger black sea bass come out of livebottom in 60 to 90 feet of water, typically a 10- to 15-mile run on a nice day — and there are plenty of them in late November and through December.
Buddy Bizzell of Edisto Palmetto Charters agrees with Bennett on black sea bass being worthy of more than by-catch status. He likes to target these fish on the same type of livebottom. Some of his favorite spots are livebottom near the Edisto 40 reef, and he also finds sizable black sea bass in one area that is much closer to the Edisto beaches.
About a mile off the beachfront is a place locals call “The Rocks” — an area made up of very small clusters of submerged rocks that are spread out over an area the size of several football fields.
“There aren’t any huge piles of rocks out here. It’s a lot of clusters of small piles of rocks, and they barely show any relief on your electronics, so you have to know what you’re looking for,” said Bizzell (803-603-2781), who also targets these fish with live bait, and the bigger, the better.
Anglers need to use fairly stout gear. Medium-heavy rods with 3500- to 4000-series spinning reels are par for the course, and 40- to 60-pound braided line is standard. This helps anglers get these fish in quickly to keep them from tangling in the weeds and other bottom structure, and it is also necessary when you inevitably hook into a shark, bull redfish or something more unexpected, like one of Bizzell’s anglers did last year.
“We were catching black sea bass pretty steady on livebottom near the Edisto 40, and we hooked into something that we were sure was a shark. Turned out to be a 35-pound cobia, and thankfully, we had the right gear to reel it in. Even when you’re on a good black sea bass hole, on this body of water, you never know what you’re going to catch,” he said.