Gregg Holshouser’s Outdoors Column | Black Sea Bass season gets under way on June 1

Capt. Robert Strickland piloted the New Inlet Princess, one of a handful of party boats remaining in operation along the South Carolina coast, out of Crazy Sister Marina in Murrells Inlet on Wednesday for a half-day trip, fishing areas 12-15 miles out and in 40-60 feet of water.

Mainly one species is targeted on such half-day trips off the Carolina coast – black sea bass, with scattered grunts and triggerfish also occasionally landed. Catches have been very good for black sea bass, but recreational fishermen haven’t been able to actually harvest them since Oct. 17, 2011 when the annual catch limit (ACL) for the species was reached. Since that date, catch and release has been the order of the day.

That will change a week from Friday – June 1 – when the 2012-13 fishing season officially begins and recreational anglers will again be able to keep black sea bass. With virtually no fishing pressure on the species in the last 7 1/2 months by recreational anglers – except for release mortality – and considering commercial fishing for them has been closed even longer, since mid-August 2011, banner black sea bass fishing is expected beginning on June 1.

“Fishing is going to be good. We’re throwing back a lot of fish right now, but you can keep [all species except red snapper] on June 1,” Strickland said. “Starting June 1 [it] is going to be the time of year to benefit from [the closure], it is definitely the time of year to go fishing.”

Strickland has seen black sea bass numbers steadily increase since federal fisheries managers clamped down on the species. Black sea bass were listed as overfished and undergoing overfishing in 2010 by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) implemented regulations to end the overfishing as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

As early as 2007, the species was governed by recreational limits of 20 fish per person and a minimum size limit of 10 inches with no closed season. Next Friday, the fishing season for black sea bass will likely open at 5 fish per person with a minimum size limit of 12 inches.

While Strickland and others with a vested interest in recreational fishing are excited about opening day for black sea bass, the question is how long is the recreational season going to be open before the ACL, or quota, set on the species is reached?

In December, 2011 at a SAFMC meeting, a new stock assessment determined black sea bass are no longer overfished, opening the door for the ACL to be increased. But because the ACLs had been exceeded in previous fishing years, termed an overage, the quota could not be raised.

At that meeting, the SAFMC’s snapper-grouper committee adopted an ACL of 718,000 pounds for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 fishing years for black sea bass. A year ago, operating under the same ACL, the black sea bass fishery was shut down for the 2011-12 fishing season after 4 1/2 months of fishing, on Oct. 17, 2011.

SAFMC member Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet has a sinking feeling the fishery will not stay open for very long.

“The ACL is still relatively low at 718,000 pounds,” Swatzel said Tuesday. “There’s a good chance instead of the season lasting 4 1/2 months, it could be dramatically shorter than that. That’s a real concern.

“Clearly the rebuilding plan is working so the fish are getting bigger and there are more of them. When people start fishing on June 1, a lot of fish are going to be landed. There’s a real possibility of the recreational season closing much sooner than it did in 2011.”

After a second straight spring season, hampered by his customers being unable to keep black sea bass despite the presence of good size and numbers of fish, Strickland is ready to see fishermen given a break by the federal bureaucracy.

“June is definitely going to be a good month, but the slow spring was the direct effect of the economy and the quotas and the black sea bass being closed,” Strickland said. “Having a closed season on black sea bass is the biggest impact on recreational fishing they have ever done. Fishing is better – it’s time for them to start giving us some quota back now.”

Size limit increase proposed

At the December meeting, the SAFMC voted to increase the minimum size limit of black sea bass from 12 inches to 13 inches with the hope that could slow the catch when the season opens and thus prolong the length of the recreational season. However, it is up in the air whether U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson will approve the increase in size limit before the black sea bass recreational season opens.

For now, the minimum size limit for black sea bass is expected to be 12 inches when the season opens with the 5 fish per person daily bag limit in effect. Anglers would be wise to check www.safmc.net to be sure of the size limit when the season opens.

Little River sweep

The first River Sweep will be held June 2 in the Little River vicinity, with the event designed to clean up the Intracoastal Waterway and barrier islands in the surrounding area. The event will be staged out of Cricket Cove Marina beginning at 8 a.m. For more information, call Capt. Patrick Kelly at 843-361-7445 or visit Facebook at Little River South Carolina “River Sweep.”

Catch Two Flounder Tournament

The Little River Saltwater Fishing Club is staging the tournament Saturday out of Harbourgate Marina. Entry fee is $50 with registration set Friday, 5 p.m., at the marina with the captains meeting at 6:30 p.m. The format is a two-flounder aggregate with the winner determined by the combined weight of up to two flounder. First place pays $1,000.

Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament update

The 45th annual Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament, the opening event of the South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series, is underway out of Georgetown Landing Marina.

Boats are allowed to fish two of three days, Thursday through Saturday. The best weather day of the three appeared to easily be Thursday and the full field of 36 boats was fishing on Thursday.

“[Thursday’s] probably going to be the day,” Georgetown Landing Marina general manager John Horton said Thursday at midday. “It’s probably going to be a good day with good [southeast] wind and a little swell without a lot of chop. It should be good for blue marlin fishing.”

With the marine forecast becoming less favorable by the day, Horton expected the entire field to also fish on Friday, which would wrap up the tournament’s results in two days. Weigh-ins begin at 5 p.m. at the marina.

“If the third day is questionable [weather-wise], they’re probably going to go ahead and fish [the second day],” Horton said.

Horton said the tournament will award $187,000 in prize money Saturday evening at the awards party.