Back In Blackfish: So, You Wanna Be A Togger? - The Fisherman

Back In Blackfish: So, You Wanna Be A Togger?

author
The author shows off a good blackfish (or tautog) taken during a winter trip. Look at the color of his sinker; it’s a reminder to watch what others are doing to find success.

New Jersey’s blackfish bag opens up in the middle of November. 

People fish as much as they can or as much as their life allows them to. After all, it takes time and money to enjoy a day on the water.

You and your fishing buddies may be very good surfmen or excellent tuna or fluke fishermen. Unfortunately, very few of those skills transfer to the blackfish game! You probably have the gear needed to get the job done, so why not give togging a try?

Sure, there are a couple of odd items here and there that the regulars use, but let’s make a short list; you’re a fisherman, after all! If you want to up your blackfish game, what I’m about to break out will improve your success at the rail.

strike
A small scratch, then another, until that “tug, tug” indicates it’s time to strike. Pay attention while you’re waiting for the right bite and try to fish a slack line.

Climb Aboard

First, the boat that you walk onto means a lot. Head boats of course offer your lowest cost option, even if it perhaps provides a little less personalized service than a charter. They may still net your keepers for you, but if you need a new rig tied on, you may wait a couple of minutes. These boats usually are “walk-on” boats, but many may require a reservation.  This is helpful when keeping an eye on that nice weather window forecast for this weekend ahead.

Give them a shot until you find your favorite. The captain, mates, and fishermen aboard normally create a certain “vibe”.  It’s why most head boats normally have their group of “regulars,” the sharpies who probably fish more often than you can imagine. They are your best chance at learning some good habits on this day. Crowding them is not an option, but that’s not to say you can’t learn from them!  Don’t touch, but take a good look at their outfits and rigging. Something as simple as what type of scissors used to cut crabs may make you more comfortable and safer while you are at the rail. Top dollar everything does not impress, but confidence in your gear is good for your head.

Blackfish head boats or “party boats” typically have green crabs for bait. Some may offer “white leggers” at an added cost, but greenies will catch just fine until the ocean waters begin to cool off significantly, usually around mid-December. The bites will slow down in the rapidly cooling inshore waters at this time of year, and boats will begin to push off into the deeper reefs farther from shore. This is when the white crabs can definitely make a difference.

Some charter boats also offer open boat trips from time to time. You will need to make a reservation to fish on these boats. You will receive much more personal attention from the mate and captain on smaller boats. A conversation on deck between some excellent fishermen, the captain, and mate, will provide so much knowledge that this alone is worth the extra costs. Keep in mind that the six-pack charter boats usually have both green and white crabs included.

the-fight
Marc Jadstadt fighting a beast while the net slowly comes into frame. Once you’re tautog is clear of the wreck, keep in mind a “slow and steady” retrieve as your net man prepares to assist.

Getting Your Sea Legs

Your day at sea will be more enjoyable if you feel good physically. Start a few days in advance by staying away from greasy or spicy foods. Stay as caught up on your sleep as you can.  If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, perhaps take some Dramamine each night before bed for a couple of days before a trip.  Then, after a light breakfast, consider taking Bonine (which is the non-sleepy Dramamine) on the morning of the trip.  Avoid heavy food or alcohol, and you are all set for a great day!

Most days you will get more bites if you can fish a “slack line.” As your sinker is on the bottom, do not lift it as the boat rises and falls on the swell! Instead, take up and give slack by raising and lowering your rod tip. This will prevent your sinker from bouncing up and down, sending all blackfish in the area to the other side of the boat.  This is an important part of successful blackfish to remember; then when you feel a bite, get in position to set the hook.

How you fish for tog is a matter of preference and conditions. Conventional gear with 50-pound braid and a slider rig is standard on most boats. I prefer using a rod closer to 8-foot in length to swing and move a big fish while setting the hook.  Try a few different rods in your hands before you pick out what you want, but remember that perfect balance is needed to fish a slack line all day long comfortably. An 8-ounce weight on the bottom end, and you’re in business!

Now here comes the tricky part; don’t get all excited and start swinging on every peck. A small scratch, another scratch, maybe another, and then you get that tug, tug, and that’s when you want to hit him!  Set the hook while getting your rod tip up as high as possible and reel as quickly as you can until the fish stops you. I say this because there is no accurate way for anyone to know if it is a small fish or a large fish is pecking at your bait. When you swing, you will know!  And if you don’t swing high and hard, he will swim into the wreck, and then you’ll be bummed—practice hooking and fighting these fish correctly on every single bite.

white-crabs
The author notes that as ocean waters begin to chill later into December and boats move into deeper, offshore waters, that’s white crabs can definitely make a difference in successful togging.

Scary Good Jigging

Fishing a jig for blackfish is almost a play on words. You are actually using your baited jighead to get your bait into the strike zone, but you are not actually jigging! Bait your jig and drop it to the bottom. Stay in contact with it just as fishing a slack line with a rig, but feel the bottom if your jig is rolling or if a fish picks it up and swims off with it. Be ready to swing quickly again, especially because of the lighter gear used while jig fishing; that’s part of what makes it more of a sporting challenge to hook and land a trophy-sized fish.

While there are some scary good jiggers, just know that conditions make this an option and not the rule!  A jig fisherman may be bailing them on the other side of the boat, and you’re not getting touched.   And there’s Rule #1: Move to the other side of the boat!  Use the same bait and size piece as the successful jigger, and see if you can cast as close to the same area and fish it.  But remember what I mentioned before, especially with regard to fishing along the head boat rail – “crowding them is not an option.”

Don’t spend all day switching between your rig rod and your jig rod either. Use what you have the best feel for during today’s conditions, and keep it.  Do your best to pick a nice day and give it a shot.  Remember that your skills will improve by togging more and learning from skilled fishermen in your area.   As you begin to travel in search of more tautog grounds, remember that Rhode Island, North Jersey, South Jersey, and DELMARVA all provide completely different fisheries from one another.

REGULATORY REMINDER

In New Jersey, the blackfish limit increases to five fish on November 16 with a 15-inch size limit in place through the end of the year.  When fishing New York inshore coastal waters (NY Bight), the size limit is 16 inches with a bag limit of four fish through December 22.  If fishing in Delaware waters the size limit is 16 inches with a bag limit of four fish through the end of the year.

Take a look at what gear other people are using, and maybe you can hold it in your hands and see if you are still impressed. If so, take pics and duplicate the gear. Don’t buy a rod or reel on straight recommendations from social media and internet experts. Work very hard to make sure your knots, rigs, and rigging are absolutely perfect, then continue to work on your technique of hooking, fighting, and landing blackfish.

Togging can be humbling on certain days, so the days when you’re lucky will be that much more special.   Trust me when I say that when you get your first double-digit blackfish, you’ll be hooked.

Hope to see you along the rail!

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