There’s a dedicated group of hardcore bottom fishermen who spend a ridiculous amount of time and money in pursuit of an ever larger PB blackfish (Personal Best). These anglers enjoy the challenge of these cagy critters, not because they are insane, but because of the skill, tackle and techniques involved in catching oversized blackfish on a rather consistent basis.
With that, let’s discuss some of the secrets from a few of the very best in the tautog game; and no, I am not referencing myself. But I’m humbled that these men have spent time speaking with me in such detail that it will help us both to hook and land some of the largest tog of our angling lives.
What I’ve learned is that the boat we choose matters, as do our gear and tackle, hooks and leader, everything all the way down to the sinker.
In the Northeast, our tog season really gets going in November; of course, some state seasons open and close, but we do have some very good togging through most of the winter. Through January and February in particular, we get a 15-inch size limit in New Jersey and Delaware alike for blackfish, with five fish per angler in Delaware and four fish per person in New Jersey.
Of course winter means stiff winds and not many calm days. That is the reason why most of this game is played primarily on the charter and party boats. Make no mistake, this type of fishing can be tough, and these captains and their crews take on the brutal task of putting us on fish. Find the spot, anchor on it, have the needed baits, and ultimately help land and clean the fish. They take care of the hardest parts of this fishing for us; and we have plenty enough to keep us busy!
For the most part, the party boat is easiest; some require reservations as they may take only a limited number of fishermen, and some don’t. And whereas a full party boat may have 80 fishermen onboard, the smaller charter vessel normally takes six, but select vessels may carry up to 15 or so people. In that scenario, with fewer baits in the water it could often mean better fishing! Keep in mind that even during the height of the January and February fishery, the best charter captains will be in demand. Perhaps you might get lucky and get on the wait list as there may be a cancelation, or a charter group may be a couple of members short.
Boats with a good reputation often have them for good reason; they typically don’t watch the clock, and would rather stay out an extra couple of hours than admit they could not get a total boat limit. That’s pride! In the spring, they have fresh clam and green crabs, while fall fishing also sees a variety of white leggers too. The crews are always prompt and courteous and they want you to catch fish, with mates worth their weight in blackfish gold.
For example, I always take two rods, and when I break one off, it goes in the rack and I am back to fishing with the other. Some mates actually hand me my other rod and try to free my stuck hook, with amazing skill I might add! If it breaks off, they will re-rig my rod exactly as I like; and they will do this all day long. This extra fishing time adds up to more fish for me.
But I only want one more fish, and it’s gotta be pretty large. And that’s what it’s all about, particularly this time of year when some of the very biggest blackfish are caught off the Jersey and Delaware coast by the winter diehards who work hard for their fish. And these blackfish sharpies all have their favorite tackle; a rod in the 8-foot range is about right. The action should be a bit soft at the tip, but should load up fast with plenty of reserve power.
The handle and fore grip lengths are very important for comfort and balance when holding the rod all day. A trigger grip reel seat helps with control when flipping away from the boat. I prefer cork handles, but some new foam grips are also very sensitive. My personal tog outfits are built on 8-foot long Rod Geeks blanks. Tsunami Classic Bottom fish rods are very popular and fish very well. The Jigging World “Black Hole” is very popular with the light tackle guys.
“Jigging reels” of course have changed the game entirely. They are light but super strong, have powerful star drag, and feature the line capacity that we need. The Maxel Hybrid 25 is a powerhouse that has performed very well for me, replacing reels that I have used for years. The Daiwa Saltiga has earned its solid reputation on the blackfish boats as well. Braided line is quite similar these days. I spool my reels with 55-pound Daiwa Boat Braid multi-color line. A smooth finish and excellent color, the line is easy to focus on when watching your line against a moving sea all day. Also, when dropping down, you know what color is close to bottom so that you can apply thumb pressure at the very end of the drop—a nice comfort when it is very cold.
For rigging, tie your braid to a mono top shot. Ask the skipper what size top shot he suggests on the structure he will be fishing that day, though 60- and 80-pound are most common, with 100-pound needed when on tall, nasty wrecks and hangs. Use an FG knot to tie braid to mono. This knot may be new, but you will never go back when you master it (Learn to tie the FG and other knots under the Resources tab at www.thefisherman.com.). Wind it on until you get a few wraps around the spool, and leave another 6 feet or so outside of the tip.
Next, double up about 3 feet of line with a double surgeons knot. Hang your sinker from the center of this large loop. Fold over the double line about 4 inches up from the sinker. Pass this folded double line through the loop on your leader and pass the hooks through the double line loop. Take the sinker and make two overhand knots in the double lines around the leader loop. Snug down and pull the leader away from the double lines. Then pull double line and sinker to lock it in so that the leader stands straight off.
That One Bite
Hooks perform many duties. Most of all, they need to hold up to the pressure of a large fish. The point needs to hold up to the structure as well. The Owner Cutting Point hook is the best I have found. Use a size 4/0 when fishing clam or small crab—5/0 is most common—and 6/0 when fishing large pieces or whole crab. Your favorite leader is fine, but I use 50-pound test Yo-Zuri pink fluorocarbon leader material; it does seem to get more bites on some days and I’ll take every advantage I can get. Another advantage for some is using red PlastiDip on sinkers to make them non-reflective. As for style, flat bank sinkers are perfect.
The very best blackfishermen don’t always feel the weight of their sinker. Why? Because if they are constantly bouncing their sinker on the bottom, they are not catching very many blackfish! Sharpies keep their line taunt, but not tight; and they are line watching! That tiny “tic” can be seen, often before it is felt. Focus on not bouncing your sinker. Often we flip away from the boat and land on soft bottom. We lift it up and it swings closer to the boat. When it touches hard bottom, we stop moving the bait and fish this spot. If the boat swings away, let line out. Do not bounce your sinker!
Keep in mind that every day the bite changes. Even during the day, the type of hits you are getting will change. You must not react to the little tic; blackfish sometimes just peck at a crab, and then rest their chin on the crab for a few minutes until they are ready to eat. Sometimes they push the crab around with their chin a bit before they are ready to commit. If you doubt this is truth, just look at how many blackfish come up that are foul hooked.
I like fishing for the bite; that one big bite. The one that goes whomp, whomp, whomp and you hit him hard! Your rod tip to the sky as you struggle to get a few cranks on her quick before she realizes that something is not right. She surges back toward her hole but you thumb the spool and lift that rod for all your worth. Thumping away, you gain a turn, short stroke and another couple turns. She’s away from the bottom, but it feels really heavy, your rod bending much deeper than you have seen it before. You slow down a bit now as you keep slow and steady pressure as she is on her way up.
Deep color now; stay calm. The mate slips beside you with the net. He does his job. High fives all around, take a few pictures, get some measurements and get that big girl back in the water to make more baby tautog.
I ask you, does it get any better?
|HOW TO: SLIDER RIG|
Although not IGFA legal due to a non-fixed hook, most blackfish sharpies use a “slider rig,” which is relatively easy to tie, has minimum tangles, and is deadly effective. Snell a hook onto the leader material. Drop another hook down the leader toward the first hook. Tie a perfection loop in the end of the leader. I prefer a total rig length of 10 inches.
– F. Mihalic