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Sea bass: the other grouper.

It's a bit surprising, actually. It's not often that you hear a fisheries manager telling you that they want fishermen to catch more of a species. But that's exactly the case with black sea bass in Florida Atlantic waters. And on the Gulf, well, the current 100-pound bag limit (10-inch total length) per angler should be enough--for most folks, anyway.

Back in 2011, the sea bass stocks in Florida Atlantic waters were put on a rebuilding plan. The recreational bag limit was cut from 15 fish to 5, the size limit was raised to 13 inches, and the fishing seasons were severely restricted. But after a 2013 stock assessment deemed the black sea bass stocks rebuilt, catch quotas were raised.

By no coincidence, part of the rebuilding plan included restrictions on the commercial fishing for sea bass, including limiting the number of endorsements and the number of traps. In 2012, it was required that commercial trappers must bring in their traps at the end of every trip, instead of the previous practice of leaving them in the water for extended periods, a rule which has reduced the impacts to sea bass habitat.

Black sea bass are still regulated under catch quota numbers. The season begins April 1 each year and runs 'til March 31 and would be closed if those numbers are met, but the last couple years have been stellar off Northeast Florida. Now managers are in discussions to raise the bag limit again, and a decision on that should be made by this month.

"What we want to do is let people catch all the black sea bass they can," says John Carmichael, Science and Statistics Program Manager for the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. "The population was rebuilt, and rebuilt as planned, so it's a success story for us. There are a lot available and we want to make sure that people can catch them and keep them."

Winter is when the minions of the grouper clan come on strong.

"Black sea bass are cooler water fish," Capt. Scott Reynolds says. Reynolds operates two popular party boats in Jacksonville--The Mayport Princess and The Majesty. "The fish show up off Northeast Florida around the Christmas break. We fish for them all the way through the spring, until the water warms and we can get some other species out farther. Typically, they're in a little more shallow water than the vermilions. We get the sea bass in 50 to 70 foot, all the way out to 100-foot depths. That's about 15 to 20 miles out. We'll still catch them closer to shore, but it's tougher to get the bigger ones. By the time June 1 comes around, you can still find some good pockets of fish, but we're on to other kinds of fishing. I think sea bass numbers are really strong. The numbers of bigger fish that we are seeing are up," Reynolds adds. "The last couple of years have been banner years for us."

Due to water temperatures and terrain, sea bass numbers are better in the northern half of the state, where they inhabit broad expanses of natural live bottom with low-profile ledges and coral or limestone outcroppings, gently rolling slopes of low-relief hard bottom, and artificial structures of modules, rubble or pilings, especially in 50- to 100-foot depth. (The very young will be closer to shore, often seeking shelter in estuaries.)

Those broad expanses of the Gulf of Mexico's gently-descending sea floor are prime sea bass habitat, from roughly Sarasota north. Members of the Hubbard family, who run the popular Hubbard's Marina Party Boats out of Johns Pass, can document the sea bass fishery over decades.

"Our family started fishing here in the 1920s," says Dylan Hubbard, "and all through the '50s, they always caught the seabass close to shore, a mile offshore, right off the coast, and farther offshore too. Any hard bottom off the coast we could get them. But by the '60s, the fish traps had about wiped them out. The shrimp nets on the beaches and in the estuaries also caught all the juveniles. When the sea bass disappeared, we then mostly got Key West grunts in those depths. Then in the early 70s, they started to restrict those traps and it took by the end of the '80s to pretty much phase them out. The fish started to come back. Now we catch more and more every year, and we're getting bigger fish, too. But it's still not like it was before the traps.

"When it's cool, the sea bass get active and feed aggressively. We catch the biggest ones on our 10-hour trips in the 60and 90-foot range, but beyond that we don't see them," Hubbard says. "On the half day trips of five hours, we catch them in the shallower water, 30- to 50-foot. We do get a lot of keepers. Most of the black sea bass we catch are in that range. We catch more of them, more often on bait shrimp. We really like it when people bring shrimp for bait on our boats, because that helps them to catch a lot of sea bass and a lot of hogfish."

Captain Ralph Allen of the Kingfisher Fleet, based in Punta Gorda, echoes those observations--except that he hasn't witnessed such a comeback. "When I started fishing here in the 1970s, we used to catch them pretty much every trip offshore," Allen says. "We never caught coolers full of them, but having half a dozen in a day wasn't too unusual. These days, we catch very few sea bass. So few, that when one does come back to the fish cleaning table that it's an oddity. I think I've seen two or three this year."

Party boats like Hubbard's and Reynolds', mentioned earlier, speak well for sea bass fishing, because the species is one of the biggest crowd pleasers in Florida winter fishing--perfect for the big boats with lots of anglers. Sea bass are renowned for their quality as food--tender, mildly sweet fillets. They'll hit just about any bait, and they are very aggressive. They practically throw themselves on the baits. They're also easy to haul up--not too much of a fight for anyone, young or old, inexperienced or not. So maybe they're not that sporty--but they're fun. As Scott Reynolds says, "Their numbers add up quick. It's a great family fish, and you can't find a better eating fish.

"We'll catch them up to 3 'h to 4 pounds," Reynolds says, "and those are big, chunky fish. It's tough to say that you're going to get them up near 5 pounds. I haven't seen a lot that size, though they do seem to get a larger grade fish up in the Carolinas.

"The double hook rig, the chicken rig, does work. We use three feet of leader, 100-pound test, because it's a little more forgiving. And they'll bite that and it will handle a big fish, too," he says. "It does seem that you'll catch a bigger grade of fish if you use a single, lighter leader, as is true with other species." But on his boat gear, he stays with the most productive, 100-pound leader rigs.

Keep in mind that those are party-boat rigs that must not get tangled or break with the slightest nick or a big fish. For private angling, go as light as you like--12-pound fluorocarbon leader would be fine on a jig-and-bait, which is a simple, surefire method to attract sea bass bites when conditions are right, as long as you can take the risk of losing a bigger snapper or grouper on that leader. For more rigs, see sidebar.

"Squid, cut grunt, cigar minnows, they'll hit them all," Reynolds says. "They are also one of the few fish offshore, along with the mangrove snapper, that will eagerly hit finger mullet live or dead. They love 'em."

For that matter, scented baits like Gulp! are also good for seabass. When the scented artificials stay on the hook well, you can get a few fish out of the same bait.

"We're fishing 50- to 55-degree water off Mayport, and the higher 50s. That's normal for sea bass. Most of the snapper and grouper won't bite under the 60-degree mark. If it's an abnormally warm year, the big numbers of bigger sea bass might not make it down much past Daytona," Reynolds says. "Sometimes they'll go much farther down the coast, too, all depending on conditions that year."

By David Conway, Managing Editor

"Trapped" In a Time Warp ...

The removal offish traps from South Atlantic federal waters in 1991 was a pivotal moment in reef fish management. Conservationists, recreational anglers and even a great many commercial fishers pushed for the change following years of documenting the devastating impacts of "ghost" traps on populations of reef fish, marketable and ornamental alike. The wire mesh traps, often separated from their owners by storms or other events, would lie on the seafloor and recruit an ever-renewing supply of "bait" in the decaying carcasses offish which had entered through the one-way door. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council took longer to arrive at a trap prohibition, voting in 1997 for a ten-year "phaseout" of traps.

In the black seabass fishery in South Atlantic waters, however, federal fishery managers continue to uphold a special exception for some fish traps. The commercial industry terms these devices "pots," but their form and function differs little from the classic snapper-grouper traps which once dominated reef fisheries up and down the coastline. Florida Sportsman has long argued that the wire mesh "pots" warrant no exclusion from the general prohibition on fish traps, and such gear ought to be permanently retired from service.--Jeff Weakley, Editor

Sea Bass Rigs

Nothing's better to pick up sea bass in the 50-foot zone than a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce jig tipped with your bait of choice, from shrimp to fake fish material--that is, when the current allows for such a lightweight rig to get to the bottom. You have to hit bottom to get the sea bass to bite--they're groundlings that seek the protective cover of low-profile relief. When the current is moving--which often spurs the sea bass to feed, just like other grouper--you'll need a heftier weight to get you down more quickly, especially when you're drifting over stretches offish-holding territory. There's nothing wrong with the Double Drop Rig, also known as the chicken rig, but there are other basic rigs for you to experiment with and test your results.

Double Drop Rig: A good rig to use when there's limited time to target sea bass to catch them in fast order, perhaps as a part of your greater fishing plan for the day.

Carolina Rig: A basic rig for snapper and grouper, the Carolina Rig works well for sea bass, too. Remember that in the Gulf of Mexico and in federal Atlantic waters north of 28 degrees north latitude (approximately Melbourne), law requires that you use circle hooks when fishing for reef fish species. In both Gulf and Atlantic waters, by law you must also possess a dehooking device when fishing.

Chunk Float Rig: The Chunk Float rig lets the bait lift off the bottom and lets the fish run with it to get it in its mouth. Also a good rig for fishing offshore spots for winter flounder.
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Author:Conway, David
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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