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September 18, 2013

Virginia Anglers Dig Deep for Big Black Sea Bass

As cooler weather approaches, fish congregate over offshore wrecks

(Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.)

When you’re 50 miles off Virginia Beach in the middle of winter, you hope the sea bass will be biting — otherwise, you’re in for a long, cold day. So, when the first two wrecks we fished offered only a few decent sea bass, I pulled my hat down and buttoned up my slicks. Then my buddy, Ken Neill, motored his 32 Albemarle over a sunken cargo ship in 200 feet of water, and huge red blobs appeared on the fish finder.
The air temperature sat just below freezing, and the wind whistled across the deck. My purple fingers struggled to flip the line release on my reel. As the braid spun off my spool, my teeth chattered; the two-hook bottom rig with its chunks of squid descended to the bottom.
Once the 8-ounce sinker hit bottom, I engaged the reel and turned the handle to tighten the line. Boom, boom, boom — the line violently jerked my rod tip. I lifted the rod, cranked quickly and set the hook. But I didn’t reel. I waited.
Boom, boom, boom — another fish took the second bait. With two sea bass yanking and jerking my line, I struggled to turn the handle and bring in my catch.
After a few minutes of steady cranking, two thick sea bass came up through the clear blue water. When the fish broke the surface, I reached down, took a wrap on the line, and swung my writhing prize over the gunwale. My buddies were too busy hunched over and cranking in their own fish to -congratulate me on my impressive sea bass.
These Northern relatives of the grouper usually weigh a couple of pounds, but both of my fish pushed the 5-pound mark. I looked in awe at their amazing colors — black scales flecked with iridescent purple and green. A big black hump grew out of each fish’s forehead; I could understand why big bass are called knotheads. These were trophy sea bass. As my friends pulled fish over the rail, I realized there were a lot of behemoths below the boat.
Each drop produced another brace of big sea bass. Steadily cranking the reel, unhooking fish, rebaiting and redropping had me heated. After a few more rounds, I stripped down to a sweatshirt and ball cap. This was hot sea bassin’!

Seasonal Sea Bass

While anglers find sea bass all year off Virginia Beach, the best fishing falls during the coldest weather. “These are some of the biggest sea bass I’ve ever seen,” Neill said, as the fish box started to fill, “and there are a lot of them.”
According to Neill, a six-time Virginia Master Angler, during the dead of winter between December and February, the fish congregate on wrecks in 120 to 300 feet of water that lie 40 to 50 miles offshore. The siren call of big sea bass will lure anglers far offshore where bad weather and cold water can make fishing tough. As spring moves in, Neill catches big sea bass while he’s drifting for blueline tilefish along the 50-fathom curve. “I slowly drive around searching the bottom with a fish finder until I mark a school of fish,” he says. In addition to catching sea bass, he’ll find the blueline tiles, big bluefish, and even grouper and wreckfish.
By summer, the fish spread out on inshore structure and reefs. “You can catch keeper sea bass (-12½-inch minimum size) on wrecks in 50 to 80 feet of water,” Neill says, “but you have to weed through a lot of throwbacks.”
In September, as water -temperatures drop, sea bass fishing improves. The action starts on reefs within 20 miles of shore and gets better as the fish migrate to deeper water. By November, the fish are thick on wrecks in 100 feet of water within 30 miles of the beach. “You can catch a limit of nice-size sea bass (15- or 20-fish daily bag last year, depending on the season and location) along with big bluefish and flounder,” Neill adds.
By the end of the year, the biggest sea bass have moved to the deepest wrecks. With so many wrecks and reefs off the Virginia coast, anglers can plan their strategy based on wind direction. “Start the day running up-sea so you have a following sea on the way home,” Neill suggests. If the fish don’t bite, the current is too strong or the dog sharks are too thick, then Neill moves to another wreck.
“I’ll head inshore or offshore, north or south, each piece will have a different scenario,” he explains. “Conditions can be completely different on wrecks that are only a few miles apart.”

Location, Location, Location

When it comes to finding sea bass, not only does the skipper have to locate the right wreck, but then he also has to pinpoint the fish. At each wreck we visited during our winter trip, Neill would first make a circle around the structure while watching his electronics. “Sometimes the fish can be 100 yards off the mark,” he explained. After a couple of laps, he took the boat out of gear and gave the thumbs up.
The best way to test the waters is to make a drop. Neill used the engines to hold the boat over the wreck while our lines raced to the bottom. “I position the boat so the lines are straight up and down,” he says. “When the line starts to streak away from the boat, I bump the engine into gear and motor toward the line.” Keeping the lines straight also prevents anglers from tangling rigs or getting snagged in the wreck.
When we started catching one fish after another, Neill decided to deploy the anchor. He uses a heavy grapple hook made out of bent rebar, attached to an 8-foot length of chain. With one crew member holding the anchor rode and another ready with the ground tackle, Neill moved the boat up-current of the wreck. When he had motored 50 yards above the site, he instructed the angler to drop the hook. When the anchor hit bottom, Neill let the boat drift back to the wreck until the line came tight. The anglers adjusted the rode until the boat was directly over the marks. “Time to go to work,” Neill told us.