While tautog action continues off New Jersey, some trophy hunters are heading to the southern grounds.
The coast of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia (DelMarVa) has a reputation for producing some big tog during the winter, and for a good reason. The current World Record was caught here by Kenneth Westerfeld on January 1, 2015, while fishing out of Ocean City, MD, on the Fish Bound with Capt. Kane Bounds. That fish weighed 28.5 pounds.
While not always world records, double-digit tog are a common catch out of DelMarVa ports from Lewes and Indian River Inlet in Delaware to Ocean City, MD to Chincoteague, Wachapreague, and Virginia Beach, VA.
Tog are not the only big bottom fish caught here. The late Al Pascall from Virginia Beach caught the current World Record black sea bass. It weighed 10 pounds, 4 ounces, and was taken on January 1, 2000. It would seem that early January is the time to set world records on DelMarVa (it should be noted that Virginia’s black sea bass fishery is closed in January, reopening February 1).
Hot & Cold
In talking with people who are supposed to know about these things, they say the reason tog grow larger off the DelMarVa coast is because the water stays warmer here longer than it does in waters to the north. This gives the tog a longer growing season and therefore they grow bigger.
I have had divers tell me when the water does get too cold for tog, they simply lay down and sort of hibernate. They can remain motionless for a long time to the point that silt will deposit on their bodies. During this period, they don’t eat and certainly don’t grow. With climate change, the water temperature in the ocean is heating up, so it’s certainly possible that tog will begin growing to larger sizes to the north.
The other interesting thing about tog behavior is their migration pattern. Most fish move north and south. Tog move west and east.
Exactly why tog leave their humble home and move is unclear. Perhaps they hear that there are beautiful ladies or gentlemen tog on another wreck or reef and they just have to see for themselves. From personal experience, I know that I have caught tog over open bottom in the spring and at no other time of the year. Tags on tog almost always come back from fish caught on the same structure where they were tagged the first time, so migration is not common.
Of course, our job as anglers is encouraging tog to eat a bait into which we have inserted a hook and then insert that hook into the tog. Sounds easy, but it is far from it.
Observe & Attack
I learned a great deal about how tog eat from watching feeding time at the aquarium in Virginia Beach. When a tog takes something into its mouth, it is only there for a split second. The fish crushes the morsel, spits out the shell, and swallows the meat in less time than it took for me to write about the process. This is why you have to set the hook just before the tog bites.
Tog eat a lot of shellfish, so you don’t have to worry about hiding the hook point. In fact, I leave the point completely exposed, so it doesn’t have to pierce the shell of the bait before going into the fish’s lips. And that’s where you will hook most of your tog. Since they spit out the shell before swallowing the meat, the hook never sees the inside of a tog’s mouth.
This is why, as much as I love circle hooks, they just don’t work all that well on tog. For a circle hook to work, it must get inside the mouth then move against the side of the mouth until it comes in contact with the hinge at the jaw. There it will take purchase and the fish will be hooked. If the hook never gets inside the mouth, it can’t possibly work correctly.
Another thing I, and probably you, have noticed is a tog’s mouth is not large compared to its body. Compared to a fluke, striped bass, or a black sea bass who seem to be almost all mouth and can take a large bait, tog can pretty much take a bite out of a crab or shrimp but can’t take on an entire blue crab or clam. This is why I trim the legs off my green crabs and will cut blue crabs or large green crabs into pieces. I put just enough bait on my hook so the tog can take it all in just one bite.
I tie my own tog rigs. Beginning with a 24-inch piece of Hi-Seas 40-pound monofilament line, I will tie a perfection loop on one end and a double surgeon’s loop on the other. Between those two knots, I will tie a double surgeon’s loop or a dropper loop closer to the first surgeon’s loop than the perfection loop. I want my hook and bait to be on the bottom, not waving around in the current.
I attach my single hook by threading it on the middle loop. I pass the loop through the hook’s eye then pass the hook back through the loop. This makes a very short leader from the hook to the running line and provides the highest level of sensitivity you can have.
I use a Tsunami Hybrid reel, spooled with 40-pound Stren braid with a shock leader of Hi-Seas 40-pound mono tied to the braid with an Albright knot. The reel sits on a Tsunami Classic rod TSCC 761H. This rod will handle sinkers as heavy as 9 ounces.
In recent years, tog jigs have gained popularity among tog anglers. I did try one at Indian River Inlet, but unfortunately, my first try ended in my first jig becoming just another piece of lead on the bottom of the inlet. The key to successful tog jigging is keeping the line as close to 90 degrees to the water as possible. Fishing from the sidewalk at Indian River Inlet makes that impossible.
We know there is very little time between when we first feel the tog bite and when we set the hook. Tog jigs cut that time down considerably. The sinker and the hook are one unit, so there is nothing to dampen the feel of the bite, and when you set the hook, there is a direct connection between your rod and the hook.
On The Road
Should you decide to trailer your boat down to DelMarVa this winter, plenty of boat ramps are available. All three states have excellent ramps that provide access to the ocean Chesapeake and Delaware Bay. My personal choice would be to charter a boat and leave my boat at home on the trailer.
If you do choose to try to fish on your own boat, Delaware has the best structure to hold tog. Beginning in Delaware Bay, there are the Inner and Outer walls that were built in the 1800s and hold tog throughout the winter. They are easy to fish in marginal weather because they sit at the entrance to the bay and protect against winds from the east. The Lewes boat ramp provides easy access.
It does take a bit of practice to toggle off the rocks, not to mention courage to attempt it the first time. First, you drop the anchor away from the wall, and then you motor close enough so your mate can toss a grapple into the rocks. Once the grapple takes hold, you can maneuver the boat between the wall and the anchor until you mark good structure. I strongly suggest keeping a watch on both lines, and if one suddenly appears slack, engage the motor and move away from the wall. Of course, the entire practice of wreck anchoring has been simplified by those who have employed trolling motors to lock on a spot via GPS or by using Helm Master by Yamaha.
Delaware also has several artificial reefs in the bay and ocean. The ones in the lower bay, numbers 7 and 8, may hold tog in the winter. Those in the ocean, 9 through 12 or the Del-Jersey-Land Reef certainly do. You fish these like any other structure. Drop a wreck anchor from the bow, never the stern, and fish directly over the structure. You can also fish by anchoring away from the wreck by marking it with a float, drifting away from the float, then running back past the float and dropping the anchor.
The reefs in Maryland are built by a private group, but the wrecks are open to the public. In Virginia, they once had a reef-building program, but it no longer exists in the ocean as far as I can tell. There are numerous wrecks and reefs off of the coast that you can find using Captain Segull’s Sportfishing Charts.
Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia have saltwater fishing licenses. You can purchase them by going online and contacting Maryland DNR, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and Delaware Division of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Fish and Wildlife Division.