An exclusive, first-hand account from the deck of another Fishin’ Fever state record tautog.
My friend Marc explained to me about a year ago that he was committed to improving his tautog game. He asked if I had the time and could I share some info with him. Honored by his request, we talked a bit, and Marc expressed a commitment to learning more, asking about the smallest details of rod, reel, line, hooks, everything.
Hardcore toggers put tremendous pride in our equipment, bait and our rigging; we tie our own knots and rigs, because we know if it fails, it’s on us! And so Marc asks the right questions showing that he really wants to do it the right way; a willingness to go above and beyond in terms of learning the right way from the start. Marc has committed to rule #1, learn from the big fish guys!
A Record Trip
Tackle, rigging, knots, hooks, everything needs to hold up when you get a shot at a record fish, and that’s almost exactly (sorta, kinda) what happened on Sunday, December 20, 2020 aboard Capt. Tom Daffin’s Fishin’ Fever out of Cape May. On the way to the grounds, Marc and I had some great conversations about family, pups, and of course, ways to improve our big fish game. I brought along two extra Century ProToggers that I lent a few of the guys to use for the day; I also rigged my two personal outfits that I fish with throughout a trip.
The action was slow, but Capt. Daffin had a plan and we worked east, picking up fish along the way. We hit a wreck earlier that morning which had some life, but conditions weren’t right and we had to move farther towards the east. As the afternoon came along, with it came a freshening breeze to keep us tight on the strings. We went back to the original spot, and with improved conditions, Captain Tom was able to wiggle the boat where he wanted. We began to put together a catch of fish as we usually do, but this time of year is a grind. It’s normally slow action, but it’s also big fish time. So, we continued to work at the rail.
Earlier in the trip, I was having a conversation with Chris “Sully” Sullivan. So as I’m sharing with Marc, Marc is passing it along to Sully; now that’s a good friend; a slight breach of etiquette regarding Rule #1, but we’ll get back to that later. Sully had Marc’s Century – Frank Mihalic’s ProTogger – in his hands a couple of months earlier; he’d been shopping for one, but had a hard time finding one in stock in a local shop, so he bought a another rod instead. He was using that stick all morning aboard Fishin’ Fever, and he didn’t look very happy.
I had reminded the guys “not to bounce your sinker” and showed how to fish a slack line. We talked rod balance and comfort, and most of all, how to hook and fight a blackfish. Good habits to always do, and bad habits to avoid like the plague. Thinking of Sully, I offered to switch rods and gave him one of my personal outfits to try.
Both rods were rigged exactly the same – a Century “Frank Mihalic’s ProTogger” with a Daiwa Saltiga 15 reel spooled with 65-pound multi-color Daiwa J-Braid 8 with 20 feet of ANDE Pink 60-pound test as a top shot. At the business end was a slider rig tied with 60-pound Tsunami fluorocarbon snelled onto an Owner 5/0 hook, tied direct via a Belmar Rig. Sully had enough confidence that he fished it as it was. All he added was bait.
State Record On!
As I put this outfit into Sully’s very capable hands, my new friend went straight to work. He caught a couple of keepers as he got used to the rod while complimenting the sensitivity, its feather light weight, and seemingly endless power. Little did we know that this was about to be taken to task!
Suddenly I look over my shoulder, and I see Sully is into a good one – a really good one – so I began firing off pictures while trying to direct traffic from the opposite corner of the cockpit. Sully’s technique is spot on for early in the fight; rod tip is way up as he gets a few quick cranks on the fish. Once the fish is off of the bottom maybe 10 feet or so, it wants to go home in a bad way! The bulldog is digging for the bottom, but the rod butt is in Sully’s gut and his hand is on the fore grip. The rod is holding that fish back from going where he wants to go.
After maybe 30 seconds of this standoff, the fish makes a turn and Sully gets a few turns of the handle. It’s heavy, and not giving up easy, but Sully has the rod in the powerful horizontal position, with the load on the center of the rod. No pumping, just slow and steady power moving the tautog towards the surface. The big fish is dogging toward the bottom again, as Sully bows a bit, and lets the rod do the heavy work. Deep color now, no panic, as Sully calmly coaxes the big brute male blackfish slowly towards the surface where Capt. Daffin scoops him up. A big lift into the boat with that resounding thud that means only one thing, a jersey jumbo!
Congrats all around, lots of pics, and then it’s time to get a weight on him. The scale says what? Capt. Daffin’s face said it all; the skipper’s Manley scale is scary close to a record, teetering at around 26 pounds! We quickly get a few more pics then it’s into the live well for a cold-water bath. The fish fought so hard, that he was bleeding from the gills, so release was out of the question. I quickly ask Captain Tom to snip off the rig that Sully caught his big fish on, you know, just for posterity. We continue fishing as Sully continues to enjoy his special day catching a few more keepers.
On the ride back in, Capt. Daffin radioed ahead to secure a certified scale is available at Utsch’s Marina. Radio chatter turns into a few friends texting pictures as soon as we had cell service. I shared the news with my own Big Fish mentor, Joe Zagorski, who was inbound on another boat from out of the same marina. We all met at the fuel dock to see the big fish weighed. I took pictures, realizing what I was witnessing was history in front of my very eyes. It’s why we do, what we do.
A special thank you and congrats to Capt. Tom Daffin for taking us to where they live; as most folks know by now, the previous state record tautog in New Jersey was also caught aboard Fishin’ Fever back in 2015, a 25.37-pounder for Frank LaMorte.
Of course, congratulations are in order for Chris “Sully” Sullivan on his new New Jersey state record blackfish of 25.8 pounds. I am very proud for Sully! At the same time, I’m truly honored and humbled that Sully had the confidence in me to put my tackle and rigging to the test. I just thank God that he put me on this deck on this day, even if it was only to document and share these unabated facts of my new friend’s tremendous catch, and to tie a few knots.