Between January and the late spring, offshore anglers lose the chance to catch several of their favorite bottomfish due to federal closures. For anglers who don’t like to take a rest, plenty of rod-bending action is available within a short boat ride of the Myrtle Beach skyline.
Nearshore reefs are stacked with lunker-sized black sea bass, and for fishermen who love grouper on their dinner tables but aren’t allowed to catch them until May 1, black bass are close cousins and also fantastic on the plate.
Black bass are typically bottom-dwellers that occupy a large range from oyster-encrusted boat docks inside brackish estuaries to rocky outcrops found along the continental shelf. But things change during the winter. When the water chills, large congregations of these black beasts move closer to shore and concentrate around nearshore structure. Wrecks, rock piles and man-made reefs will load up with fish that are ready to gobble up any available bait.
Livebottom can also produce big stringers of black sea bass over the winter. The livebottom is typically made up of limestone outcrops or accumulations of sea shells. Coral and other aquatic organisms thrive on these structures, enticing small baitfish and other mobile life into the area. Black sea bass will congregate on these areas and eat any and all available forage fishes that come into the area.
As the sea bass take residence at these nearshore reefs and livebottom sites over the winter, bait availability becomes limited after several months of consistent carnage. They congregate in large schools, are hungry as ever and will consume large quantities of anything that remotely resembles a part of their diet, including small fish and crustaceans.
Sea bass are quick on the draw when food lurks near, and according to Tom Cushman of Captain Cush’s Calmwater Fishing Charters, they are more than willing to cooperate with anglers over the winter with a wide variety of bait and lure options.
“The black sea bass can be very aggressive at the reefs,” said Cushman. “When you find them, they will attack your bait before the lead hits the bottom most of the time.”
Live or fresh bait are deadly, but frozen bait can be just as effective during the winter. Cushman uses pieces of cut squid, shrimp or fish on a two-hook bottom rig with 1/0 to 3/0 circle hooks or J-style hooks. When not using natural bait, Cushman resorts to his favorite method, jigging artificials. He takes a jigging rod spooled with 40-pound braided line and roughly several feet of 60-pound monofilament leader.
“I like to jig a 1 ½- to 4-ounce jig with a curlytail grub, but sometimes they don’t cooperate well with the grub, and I will switch to a 4-inch Gulp shrimp. They cannot resist the scented Gulp baits,” Cushman said.
The scented baits percolate fishy goodness throughout the water column that is just what the doctor ordered.
After his depth finder produces positive feedback over reefs and livebottom areas, Cushman begins drifting baits over these fish-looking ledges jigging baits out both sides of the boat until he gets a strike. He will mark on his GPS where he finds the best action and re-drift the areas until unproductive. Sometimes, Cushman will drop anchor on some of these places, especially when the current is running strong, to put more baits down consistently over one single place. Even though black sea bass will be in large schools, they will not be spread out over a large area.
Getting one of these fish to bite is often the least of Cushman’s worries though. Their large mouths inhale chunks of bait, from small morsels barely as big as a garden pea to baitfish nearly their size. Black sea bass don’t nibble their food. They inhale it with one quick bite. If anglers can present the food in the right spot, the fish will eat it just about every time.
Finding the right reef and the right structure holding the best fish is the toughest achievement to overcome during the winter and early spring.
Cushman will fish a wide variety of destinations out of the Little River Inlet in a variety of different depths from nearshore livebottom spots to large, expansive artificial reefs and ledges out to sea.
“Sea bass will be as close as 3 miles from shore and well out towards the break in 80 to 100 feet of water on ledges, rocks, and artificial reefs depending on water temperature,” Cushman said.
When the water is still warm, the best fishing will be at deeper depths, but after several months of 30- to 40-degree overnight temperatures, the closer reefs will become hot spots. Cushman will hit the 10-Mile Reef, BP-25, Bill Perry Reef and the rocks near the General Sherman Reef and the Jungle.
“As water cools, bigger fish and bigger schools come to the shallower reefs,” he said.
Black sea bass are some of the smallest of all of the species in their taxonomic family, serranidae. But it is not uncommon for sea bass to reach 5 pounds in these waters. The world record, 10 pounds, 4 ounces, was caught by Allan Paschall off Virginia Beach in January 2000. South Carolina’s record fish — 8 pounds, 3 ounces — was caught in 1995 by Larry Hudson.
Winter fishing can be hot at these reefs, producing hundreds of fish in one sitting, but in order to consistently catch more fish over the 13-inch minimum-size length, Cushman recommends anglers move around from one section of rock to another.
“After we pull a few keepers from one place, the fish usually get smaller,” he said.
Ryan Werner of Werner Ocean Adventures takes his fair share of bottom-fishing trips over the winter out of Little River, and for him, the best way to catch big sea bass consistently is to keep the boat running or fish virgin territory.
“You can always count on massive schools of sea bass around to bend the rod on the near shore reefs in the winter,” said Werner. “Not too many big fish, unless you hit some structure other people haven’t been yet.”
To consistently catch heavy, five-fish limits, Werner recommends anglers stay away from high-traffic areas. Sea bass will hold on any type of structure, including all of the well-known places, but they will also flourish on rocks and livebottom areas with little traffic from winter anglers.
“Any structure that no one else has fished is the key to finding big black sea bass,” he said.
Neither Cushman nor Werner will anchor in any place for very long — or at all. The biggest fish strike first most of the time.
“Anchoring can produce hundreds of fish, but as you weed through smaller ones, the bigger ones can smarten up and sharks can move in, which is why I like drifting and moving around. We are looking for the bigger 15- to 20-inch bass,” Cushman said.
There are very few black sea bass tournaments, but the fish are not to be missed during the cooler months. So as long as the water is cool in March and April, look for lunker black sea bass to arrive at nearshore reefs ready to take about any bait available. Anglers need to be ready though for a hearty battle because, these fish fight just as hard as some of their larger kin in deeper waters of the Atlantic.
HOW TO GET THERE — Little River’s nearshore reefs can be easily access from the two public boat ramps under the US 17 Bridge in the Intracoastal Waterway in North Myrtle Beach or at the public boat ramp adjacent to Sunset Beach Bridge in North Carolina. Any structure from 3 to 100 miles out provides excellent habitat for black sea bass. The best and closest place from the inlet is the Jim Caudle Reef, but the 10-Mile Reef, BP-25, the Bill Perry Reef and the rocks near the General Sherman Reef and the Jungle will hold long schools of black sea bass.
WHEN TO GO — Black sea bass can be caught in South Carolina waters every month of the year, but the larger aggregations and larger bass show up over the winter through the early spring on the nearshore reefs. The best black sea bass fishing is from January through May.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Black sea bass are aggresive in the winter because of the scarcity of food and competition for available resources. Anglers can use any kind of live or cut bait, including shrimp, squid and chunks of frozen fish, fished on two-hook bottom rigs with enough lead to keep a tight line. Fish will move up in the water column to eat baits. In addition to live and cut bait, scented soft-plastic baits can be used. Fish all baits on a standard Carolina rig with a 1/0 to 2/0 circle hook. Drift over parts of structure to locate a solid bite before anchoring. Bigger fish will usually bite first, so move when you run into smaller fish.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Tom Cushman, Captain Cush’s Calmwater Fishing Charters, 843-997-5850, www.captcush.com; Ryan Werner, Werner Ocean Adventures, 843-254-7235, www.myrtlebeach-fishing.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
MAPS — Navionics, www.navionics.com, 800-848-5896; Waterproof Charts, www.waterproofcharts.com, 800-423-9026; Maps Unique, www.mapsunique.com, 910-458-9923; SeaLake Fishing Guides, www.sealakeusa.com, 800-411-0185.