Sea Bass Are Eating Well

In Sag Harbor and points westward deep into Great Peconic Bay, the waters are teaming with small fish in the 5-to-10-inch range
Abigail Salzhauer landed this false albacore on Saturday on a fly. Capt. Ken Rafferty

If you are a fan of catching black sea bass, you have certainly been spoiled for a number of years by the increasingly large biomass of the fish. It seems they are everywhere, and now they are showing up in locations never seen before. 

In Sag Harbor and points westward deep into Great Peconic Bay, the waters are teaming with small fish in the 5-to-10-inch range (recreational anglers can retain eight fish over 15 inches). Up until 5 to 10 years ago, it was truly a rare occasion to catch one in these areas. Not anymore. 

It’s not often you hear that too many fish are a problem, but not everyone is pleased by their increased presence in our local waters. A voracious feeder, sea bass, among other fish like striped bass, cod, spiny dogfish, blackfish, and even seals, have a strong appetite for one of our most prized and expensive seafoods, Atlantic lobster. While there are no lobsters to be found in the mostly sandy Peconic Estuary system for the fish to feast on, once you get out to the deeper and cooler waters of Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, and farther offshore, it is a different story, as a natural rocky structure provides a safe haven for lobsters to hide from predators. But even with the cover of rocks, kelp, and mussel beds, fishermen who drop a line for sea bass or set traps for lobster, continue to witness a decrease in the number of lobsters being landed, and much of the blame is being pointed at sea bass.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service biologist’s attribute the decline in the Long Island lobster population primarily to warming ocean waters,” said Capt. Ron Onorato of the charter boat Captain Ron out of the Montauk Marine Basin. “While this may be contributory, I think the greater likelihood is the predation of juvenile lobsters by a biomass of sea bass that is the largest I have seen in my 45 years of fishing at Montauk. After every sea bass trip, the bottom of my fish box is littered with upwards of 15, three-to-four-inch, regurgitated lobsters. Clearly there is decent lobster recruitment as is evidenced by this. But there are so many sea bass right now, I can’t fathom any bottom-dwelling crustaceans surviving.”

Lobsters don’t have it easy. In addition to trying to avoid a variety of predators, they are very slow to reach market size. It takes about seven years for a lobster to reach legal size (lobsters landed in New York waters must be at least three and three-eighths inches in carapace length). And in the midst of the current sea bass population boom, Onorato advocates an increase in fish limits for both commercial and recreational anglers to help “thin the herd” more than is allowed now. “Until then, this situation will continue,” he said. “In addition to the juvenile lobsters, I also have seen many more regurgitated one-to-two-inch bergalls. It’s time to look overall at the predator-prey relationship in fisheries management decisions.”

Tom Eckart, a veteran commercial fisherman and lobsterman out of Montauk Harbor, echoed Onorato’s observation. “The inshore lobstering this year was terrible,” he said from the stern of his heavily used boat the Laurentide. “No doubt about it, the sea bass population has exploded and it has taken its toll on lobsters. My fish pots are jammed every time with sea bass. It’s ridiculous.” Commercial fishermen can only retain 50 pounds of sea bass per day. 

Whether catch limits for this popular fish will be raised next season remains to be seen. For now, sea bass continue to luxuriously dine on a heavy diet of fresh lobster. Bon appetit. 

On the fishing front, fluking off the south side of Montauk in 45 to 60 feet of water, finished up in fine style (the season concludes today), despite the swells and rougher seas due to Hurricane Jose, which stayed offshore this week. Plenty of large fish were taken up until the blow, including a doormat of nearly 14 pounds taken on Saturday aboard the Miss Montauk II. 

“The fishing was really good, with some fish over 10 pounds, but each day was different,” said Capt. Michael Vegessi of the open boat Lazy Bones. “They bit at different times of the day or tide. But we had a nice long season with the fluke.” The Bones will make the annual shift to diamond jigging for striped bass and bluefish on tomorrow. 

“Fishing has had its up and downs of late,” said Capt. Michael Potts of the charter boat Bluefin IV out of Montauk. “One day the striped bass are very large and the next day they are smaller. It’s the same with other species. But it should be a good fall of fishing. I’m looking forward to it.”

At the Tackle Shop on Montauk Highway in Amagansett, the owner, Harvey Bennett, said that striped bass have been consistent at first light at Napeague. “It’s been good, but the ocean heave this week may change that up a bit.” Bennett said that the false albacore fishing has been “off the charts” of late, at various spots, including Montauk Inlet and in and around Gardiner’s Island. He recommends a small Deadly Dick lure as the weapon of choice for landing the small tunny. “And there is no reason to reel like crazy, too,” preached Bennett. “The fish are directional feeders and do not move forward as fast as most think. They are pursuing baitfish from the bottom towards the surface.”

An avid hunter, Bennett is also in the midst of gearing up for the fall season. “Fall is the best time out here on the East End for fishing and hunting,” he said. “Goose season opened on Sept. 1, and my favorite, woodcock season, opens on Oct. 1.” The archery deer season also opens that day. In addition to providing local fishing charters on his own boat, Bennett is a licensed hunting guide ready to take people afield or on the water.

“The albies invaded Three Mile Harbor on Sunday,” said an enthused Sebastian Gorgone of Mrs. Sam’s Bait and Tackle in East Hampton. “Folks were catching them from the jetties. It’s pretty rare for that to happen here.” As for the ocean beaches, Gorgone said that the surf is rough and dirty and will likely remain that way for quite a while until Jose departs. 

Farther to the west, reports were a bit more scattered. “Things have been a bit quiet,” said Ken Morse of Tight Lines Tackle in Sag Harbor. “Some false albacore are around Gardiner’s Island, as well as Big and Little Gull Island.” Morse added that bluefish can still be had at Jessup’s Neck. Note that Tight Lines is now closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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