Pro Tactics: Bigger Scup and Sea Bass
By Zach Harvey
No one reading this is apt to need a big sales pitch on why porgy fishing is such fun. Let’s face it: scup provide near-constant action, they pull-pound-for-pound-harder than almost anything else swimming in New England waters, and they’re delicious. And for whatever hard-wired biological reason, massive bodies of these little scrappers storm the shoal waters outside Hyannis each spring, to sow the next crop and then binge-feed. Interestingly, the Nantucket Sound spring run of porgies is unique in that the scup elsewhere-especially west of Buzzard’s Bay-are piled up thick along the beaches but just won’t chew. While draggers and fish trappers in Rhode Island have massive May and June landings, rod-and-reelers can’t usually buy a bite. Off Hyannis, porgies-the biggest kind of porgies, two- to four-pounders-chew like crazy. There are also sea bass in the mix, including some absolute monsters in excess of six pounds.
Scup fishing is a numbers game, and it’s mainly about culling, that is figuring out how to pull the right size scup out of the 10- to 15-foot-thick silver stack on the bottom. Granted, while you can catch big porgies on almost any terminal tackle and bait, there are some tactics that tend to supersize the scup you hook. Also, not every day is an all-out bailjob, but you can still clean up if you pay attention and put a little thought into your rigging.
Rods and Reels
From the top, your choice of rod and reel can make a huge difference. Mates are constantly amused by some porgy fanatics’ rod/reel choices, particularly when, for example, a $400 Penn International reel is lashed to a $9.95 Acme-brand rod. Given the choice, if you’re shopping for a scup set-up, spend the lion’s share of your budget on a good, sensitive, lightweight 6- to 7-foot conventional stick-a rod that will let you feel light bites but also allow enough “give” that hooked scup won’t literally tear their lips off as they dig for bottom. Reels need only hold enough line to tend bottom and have a drag system that will head off scup’s tendency toward shallow-water self-mutilation. For line, 20- to 40-pound braid works great, though because you’ll be fishing in a crowd, it’s wise to top off your running line with a 10- to 20-foot header of 40-pound mono. The mono means the inevitable tangles will be mono-to-mono, and so won’t send you looking for the bifocals, or put you out of commission for 20 minutes. You can set yourself up nicely with the whole deal for probably $125.
The terminal rigs you use have much to do with not only your catch rate, but the average size of your porgies. Some pin-hookers use the old-style, gold 7/0 or 9/0 Mustad baitholder hooks most associate with cod fishing. The idea is that a bigger hook will hold a bigger bait, and a bigger bait will attract a bigger porgy. Of course, you can burn through a lot of bait using too-big hooks. The key is to learn when to set the hook. As in tautog fishing, you don’t want to set on the mini rat-tat-tat bites of pin scup or bergalls. You want to wait for a more determined thump, then yank back.
Some sharpies favor 2/0 or 3/0 wide gaps or even larger offset circle hooks; both styles warrant less of a hook-set. Just let the line come tight and you’re on. Most of the prefabricated rigs marketed for scup feature #1 or #2 baitholder hooks more suited for bluegill fishing in the local farm pond than for Nantucket Sound’s hubcap-sized porgies. The store-bought rigs work fine, but if the heap of scup you’re working on has a high ratio of shorts, you can spend most of your day tossing 6-inchers overboard. Aside from catching tiny scup, these rigs tend to have lots of hardware to snatch up your railmates’ lines, costing you and them time and frustration.
In headboat fishing, the golden rule is to minimize your hardware, thereby cutting down on the junk in your rig that will gather all the lines on either side of you. A standard high-low rig works fine, with a simple 100-pound barrel swivel up top, two dropper loops spaced far enough apart that the hooks they hold won’t tangle each other. At the bottom, a simple double-overhand loop holds the sinker. Tie your rigs up with 30- or 40-pound mono-no need for fluorocarbon. On the sea bass drops, you might consider modifying the rig by putting a dropper up high for the top hook, followed by a shorter dropper to hold the sinker, and the second hook affixed to the rig’s bitter end. For whatever reason, this minor tweak sometimes means more sea biscuits. Green or red beads also sometimes improve the sea bass attraction, and, given the relatively larger size of a sea bass’ maw, you can use bigger hooks to again dissuade dinks and target the 3-pounders.
Baits can also make a difference. The tidy little morsels of clam tongue stay on a hook better, but they don’t have the slammer-scup appeal that a good chunk of black, oozing belly meat does. The latter may only stay on the hook long enough to reach bottom, but if it’s inhaled instantly by a three-plus Joe scup or five-pound sea bass, who cares? If you buy into the bigger-hook theory, an added bonus is that you can have it both ways, carefully threading on some frill or tongue or a strip of squid for “shelf-life,” then add some goopy belly matter for raw funk. When sea bass are in the mix, squid tentacles or even strips of fish bait like fresh bergall or even bluefish can sometimes conjure you up an eye-popping sea biscuit. Definitely experiment with the baits, and when you’ve figured out a given day’s winning combo, stick with it, even though your hands will sting like hell at day’s end from meticulous bait-threading. Again, if the effort pays in 2-pound scup and jumbo sea bass, isn’t it worth the extra time and aggravation?
Standard porgy wisdom says you really only need to hook the first fish. Then you wait, while fish number one drags bait number two around enticingly, ultimately hooking porgy two for you. It’s not usually a long wait. Once you feel the second thump-and roughly double the load on your buckled rod, haul up your double. Granted, the way the Hyannis porgy run goes, you’ll seldom fret about coming up short of your limit. In fact, once you’ve developed the touch, you’ll likely be in catch-and-release mode within an hour or two of the day’s first drop.
Needless to say, the combination of small, sharp hooks and the porgy’s dagger-like dorsal spikes warrant some care when airborne, especially on a crowded deck. Reeling your rig’s swivel all the way to your rod-tip as you land your fish will leave a lot of unwieldy sharp items dancing around your head. When you’re lifting your hefty double of scup, be sure to leave roughly a rod’s length of line from your rod tip, so you can simply swing the fish into your free hand. Start with your rod at about 9 o’clock and simply pivot it up to high noon, no flinging or catapulting necessary. Keep a cool head, leave yourself some line to work with, and you’ll have much better control over all those potential puncture wounds. Speaking of, a good Kevlar glove for your scup-palming hand can save you some anguish at the end of a lock-and-load scup event. Just cut the tips off the fingers so you’ll have the dexterity you need to bait up without removing the glove every time you thread on a new bait.
The good news in all of this is that Hyannis’ spring and early summer scup/ sea bass action is about as good as it gets anywhere in the world-one of those incredible combinations of time, place and fish biology that you can practically set your watch by. At points, it matters little what bait’s on the hook, what hook it’s on, what rod’s swinging it, or who’s holding the rod. Still, there’s always room to improve your own game: if the fishing’s good, a bit of tweaking on your end can make your part of the catch memorably good-a limit of the biggest kind of scup while your deckmates catch mediums, and enough sea bass to get your mouth watering before you’ve returned to the dock.