A bit of schooling may go a long way when putting together a boat limit of tasty white chins on ice.
For most of us, chilly temperatures, heavy tackle, and fishing deep water are just a few of several thoughts that come to mind regarding Long Island east end blackfish. This thought indeed holds true from November into December. However, by the October 11th season debut, the togs and some very impressive ones are caught in depths as shallow as 10 feet. The fact is some of the best tautog fishing during October occurs in the 10- to 25-foot depths right along the shoreline of the North Fork. If I have caught your interest, I strongly suggest that you keep reading. A bit of schooling may go a long way when putting together a boat limit of tasty white chins on ice.
Cool And Shallow
No matter how long summer temperatures roll with the calendar, Mother Nature allows the fall equinox to drop water temperatures significantly. This change is enough along the shallow inshore waters to attract hordes of blackfish to situate among the shallow rocky lairs. They will remain here until cold temperatures send them to deeper, warmer waters. During their residence in the shallows, they will dine on the abundance of barnacles and crustaceans such as periwinkle snails, blue mussels, sea slugs, Asian crabs and green crabs.
Unlike the south shore, the tidal currents along Long Island Sound will cause the water level to fluctuate 7 to 9 feet. Add or subtract another 2 or 3 feet during a full or new moon or a strong northeasterly. As the tide recedes, the blackfish will again move off the shoals and back into the deeper 15- to 25-foot drop-offs, fluctuating back and forth with the rise and fall of the tide.
As the month progresses and water temperatures chill, the tog will move deeper and continue to do so into early or mid-December, when they will hit the basement and spend the winter months in the 150-foot depths of the Sound hibernating until spring. Blackfish are most comfortable chewing and living in rocky lairs with water temperatures in the 50- to 60-degree range, with 55-degree water temperature the most ideal for aggressive feeding. Once water temperatures drop below 45 degrees, the tog will become pale, and they take on a whitish complexion before hibernating.
From Hortons Point to Plum Island, the rocky ledges sitting off most beaches hold plenty of blackfish during October. Most shelves that drop off from these beaches rest in depths of 15 to 50 feet and are chock full of stones, which sets up the perfect haven for big, spirited togs.
Most of the early season togs range from shorts to 6 pounds. However, some brutal white chins from 8 to 10 pounds are always a possibility. Area’s such as Truman Beach, Horton, Mulford, and Rocky Points produce keepers in the 3- to 5-pound range, whereas the regions north of Plum, Big Gull, and Little Gull Islands share 8- to 10-pound bullies. Unless you have a wreck in the Sound that belongs to you, the abundance of fish pots and commercial pin hooking has taken its toll on the female tautog that are in the teens. Additionally, blackfish are slow growers and do not migrate too far from where they were born.
Jigs Over Rigs
Savvy tog sharpies have wisely switched from standard rigs to blackfish jigs tailor-made for shallow waters and rocky terrain. The advantages of a blackfish jig are numerous and hard to ignore. The bean-shaped design of most tog jigs slice through the water column, so anglers can significantly downsize the weight from the typical sinker. One of the many benefits of employing a jig is that you can prod every nook and crevice where a tog might be hiding. And contrary to what most tog angler’s fear, hang-ups are far less than a typical baited rig. The compact nature of the jig and the fact that the hook rides up is the main reason the jig is out of harm’s way during much of a retrieve. Inevitably, the jig makes the angler less dependent on sitting stagnant, waiting for a tog to come along. A crew that works together will often move along the deck, walking the jig along the bottom and prodding every blackfish den from every vantage point, covering every inch of a potential honey hole.
Aside from the lima bean shape, several different forms have been created since the birth of the lima bean jig. These jigs come in different shapes, weights, and colors and are designed to be fished in shallow, deep water and light or swift currents. These jigs come with open arms as they will fit the bill for most tog terrain. Initially, the attractive color scheme of green and orange was designed to make the jig blend in among the filtered light and varied bottom where blackfish thrive. However, nowadays, several other hues and imitations of jigs have been designed to match diverse types of crabs, deep-water wrecks, reefs, and rockpiles.
Some of the best jigs that have done exceptionally well for me in all conditions are the Joebaggs Togzilla Lay Perfect Jigs and Tsunami Tog Treats—which are made with the shape designed to slice through the water column in a compact nature. The hook rides upright to stay clear of rocky snags during much of a retrieve, making the user less dependent on sitting stagnant, waiting for a tog to come along. The LPJ’s and Tog Treats are designed to prod and poke at every nook and crevice where a tog might be hiding with a minimal chance of getting hung up in the rocks.
Crusty Is Trusty
Understand that the jig on its own cannot entirely take credit for catching blackfish. Indeed it will catch the fish’s attention, but without some meat on the hook, the jig alone just won’t cut it. Although blackfish will crunch up all manner of crabs, including rock crabs, green crabs, and hermit crabs, Asian crabs are on the A-List in rocky terrain. Using them wholly by running the hook right through the middle of their bodies is the ticket.
Understand that Asian crabs have plagued the rocky shorelines that protrude along much of the Northeast in recent years and are considered an invasive species. The same goes for the green crab—which is also regarded as an invasive species. To obtain a day’s supply of crabs is as simple as visiting a rocky-strewn shoreline along the north shore during low tide, turn over a few stones, and the crabs will try to scat away at lightning speed—therefore, be ready for a chase.
If you plan to fish the crabs in a day or two, you can keep them healthy in a container in the fridge. Otherwise, a few days out of the water will have them perishing—which will cause your spouse to throw you and the awful smelling crabs out. The best-case scenario is if you keep a live bait well at the boatside. Then you can keep the crabs lively for as long as you please. A well-insulated cooler kept out of the sunlight and in a dark, cool place with the lid closed can keep the crabs alive for between one to two weeks. Asian crabs will most often succeed when all other baits fail. Green crabs are the easiest to obtain, but at times can be ignored, primarily when Asians are employed close by. Stone crabs (aka white crabs) are a natural enemy to the tog and are top-notch bait later in the season when the water becomes cool, and the togs relocate to deep water.
Light And Tight
Tog fishing and spinning tackle, to me, are like oil and vinegar. The only exception is early fall while employing the jigs when the fish are up in the shallows and when the current is flowing slowly to moderate and, of course, while casting and poking around looking for any little bit of drop off, a rock, or obstruction.
Stout fast tapered spinning rods in the 7-foot range will do the trick, while a reel packed with 20-pound braid and a top shot of 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon is the ticket. Fluorocarbon leader is relevant in shallow water, especially in anything less than 30 feet deep. The action can be the difference, like night and day when togs get picky. Blackfish can be quite line shy and skittish, especially when using bait other than Asian crabs. It’s best to cover your grounds as much as possible. Not only will you keep the rod bent, but you’ll also dupe the better size fish that may ignore a mono leader.
Mastering the feel of the bite can be an actual brain teaser at times. There is the simple technique of lock and load though. When the chew is the latter, it will all seem easy since the fish inhale the bait, which can feel like being slammed by a jackhammer. Then there are those annoying nibbles or rapid-fire slams that are more often small bottom dwellers that will usually chew away at the innards of cut-up green crabs. Should that be the case, and green crabs are the only bait on board, not much you can do but cast around until you locate some tog, or you may need to make some adjustments with the anchor. Often that will do the trick as an adjustment as little as 10 or 20 feet can be all the difference.
Finally, there are those cunning subtle pecks that go unnoticed. You drop the jig to the bottom, wait, nothing, reel up, and the jig is empty. Should that be the case, use slow uplifts continuously, and once you feel the grab, set the hook just as you would flounder fishing, and that should do the trick. Be sure to keep the hook sharp, honing it every few fish.
Remember that the Sound can chop up and become unstable in a matter of minutes, making a ride to or from a destination a challenging one. Therefore if a forecast is predicted to blow hard out of the northwest, plan for another day. Ensure your VHF is in good working order and the PFDs are within easy reach of everyone on board. As always, please practice self-restraint and please stay within the limits of the law.