Elizabethan Tog: Overlooked Perfection - The Fisherman

Elizabethan Tog: Overlooked Perfection

striper
The Elizabeth Islands are known for their striper fishing, but the togging may be their best kept secret. Dave Anderson photo.

Get away from the crowds and fish the historic shorelines of the Elizabeth Islands for tog!

It was cold and damp on that cement porch stair, but I wouldn’t have abandoned my perch if I had icicles running off the tip of my nose. Mr. Sevigny told me he was going tautog fishing “down the Cape” which back in the 1950s was more of a long and difficult journey than the casual trip it is today. He only made two trips a year, one during the spring run and the second at the end of the fall run.

If I recall correctly he and a group of men from the power plant where he worked, fished with a local lobsterman who took out passengers on the weekends and they always caught a load of tog. My vivid recollections of his previous year’s trip were still fresh in my mind.

mike
’Three Hook’ Mike with a triple header of tog from the south side of the Dry Pigs off Cuttyhunk.

“Down The Cape”

Joe Sevigny was a foreman at the coal fired plant and considerably more affluent than his neighbors, particularly our family. He was a generous man, and I often ran errands for his lovely wife, Jenny. I also looked up to his sons who were serving in the military at that time. He would pull up to the curbing in front of his house and pop open the trunk of his Plymouth coupe. Stacked tightly up against the heavy canvas he covered the carpet with, were two or three burlap bags full of tog, many still kicking. He placed the bags on the sidewalk then one at a time dragged them up the stairs to his second floor apartment where his wife had placed cardboard on the floor leading to the bathroom. Occasionally a fish or two would slip out of a bag and that’s where I came in. He had fashioned a short round shaft with a stainless hook on the end that slipped right inside those tightly closed gills and held those slimy fish securely. Once the catch was in the bathtub he washed his hands and drank a hot coffee while his wife prepared for the arrival of friends and neighbors.

It would have been a lot less work and time consuming if the distribution had taken place on the sidewalk right alongside the vehicle, but Jenny did not favor having people lining up on the street with pans giving the appearance of begging for fish. She preferred welcoming them into her home where she usually had a pot of hot tea and cookies on the kitchen table. These were her friends, and despite the obvious mess, she would tend to the cleanup after all the fish had been taken care of.

After all the fish had been given away, Mr. Sevigny would set up a cutting board on the porch railing and fillet the fish he set aside for himself and on most occasions he would fillet the fish I took to my mother, saving me the cutting chore which I was only just becoming proficient at. Those fishermen did not bleed their catch on the lobster boat, so the fillets were usually quite bloody. Mom would soak them in water and kosher salt to keep them firm and rinse out the blood.

pigs
Any striper fisherman worth his salt has heard amazing stories about bass on Sow and Pigs Reef, but the same area holds scores of large tautog.

Imagining The Elizabeths

As a matter of curiosity I asked him where he fished, and he was very forthcoming, although I had no idea where Woods Hole or the Elizabeth Islands were.  He told me they fished all along the islands, usually closer to the rocky shores rather than in the gravel bottoms, and on occasion off a rocky point where the strong currents required him to use as much as 12 ounces to tend bottom. Captain Larson wasn’t much of a fisherman, but this mentor was a well-traveled skipper who delivered boats from Maine to Florida. I asked him about tog fishing in the Elizabeths and he said he had seen a lot of tog caught while waiting for a fair tide in Woods Hole, to the east at Nobska Point and all along the rocky shore at Tarpaulin Cove where he saw many boats anchored up and fishing for tog.

From his lips to my eager imagination. I’d never fished for tog in the Elizabeths because I could catch them at home and my clients had no interest in anything but stripers. I did catch some tautog on my tube and worm rigs and one of my clients caught an 8-pound white chinner on the Dry Pigs where we were casting red headed bucktails with a piece of seaworm on the hooks for added scent and appeal. I also caught a 17-inch scup in the same manner. I was running a handsome 24-footer for a New Jersey man who asked about tog in the Cuttyhunk area. I told him we occasionally caught a tog on the slack water when we hauled in the bass gear and took a break because that was when the tog stuck their noses out of their caves and hideouts to feed. We used the rest of our worms to catch tog in the shallow water with most of them feeding in 12 feet or less.

Those Jersey guys were just as excited about the tog as the substantial haul of bass we had that day and promised to bring green crabs with them on their next visit. That was the beginning of a pattern toward a more directed fishery for bottom fish in the form of tautog, black sea bass and jumbo scup that fought like schoolies.

TARPAULIN
Tarpaulin Cove has been a tog fishing hotspot going back at least 70 years.

‘Three Hook’ Mike

On a trip dedicated to casting for stripers with Tim Coleman and his doctor, the medic asked if there was a spot where we could catch a few tog for his table .Two hours previous we were raising stripers in the rockpiles of the Dry Pigs on Danny Pichney metal lips, which was then my go to place for tog. That was where Tim baptized my mate Mike with the nickname ‘Three Hook’ Mike.  We were making an ideal drift over the remains of a sunken schooner that came too close to the Pigs with Tim in the wheelhouse excitedly watching the Lowrance X15 paper graph scratch the outline of the skeleton when Mike yelled out that he was “on.”  He had been drifting a rig with an 8-ounce sinker and three Virginia hooks baited with fresh sea clams as we drifted into the depths. We thought he might have hooked into a striper until we saw three husky white chinners in the 6-pound class tugging in different directions. Without a net on board I gaffed the lowest tog as Mike muscled the top two over the rail. We were all impressed.

I have a few very close friends who love tautog above all other species. They will give me a smile and a hardy thank you for a slab of striper or fillet of cod but a whole tog begets a warm hug and many a thank you as a tog in that condition allows them to carry on a family tradition of stuffing and baking a fish in an old world ceremony. Truth be told, I never gave much thought to togging in the Sound and off Cuttyhunk, I was there for stripers for myself and to teach people how to find and catch them. I never gave much thought about catching a 4- or 5-pounder on a bass outfit meant for snapping a bucktail jig. This was in 12 to 30 feet of water in spring and summer, and I never questioned why those tog, who were usually foraging on crabs, barnacles and mussels would take a white bucktail with a strip of red pork rind on the end and fight like what I believed were schoolie bass.

I always believed the shores of the Elizabeths held good tautog, I just had no desire to catch one. That was until that day Tim Coleman brought Dr. Frank aboard.

NAUSHON
The author suggests fishing the rocky ledges off the southeast corner of Naushon Island, an area often overlooked by those seeking tautog.

Away From The Crowd

Another time when Tim and the good Doctor were aboard, we had just released a husky 15-pound striper when the Doc said he would love to catch some tog for his freezer as he and his wife loved their tasty white fillets in numerous recipes. I knew of a notch creating a ridge along a hill on the south side of Pasque Island. After a drift over it to determine where we would end up I set my grapnel and we began to fish.

I usually carry a frozen block of salted sea clam tongues for black sea bass and fluke strips because those natural oils attract all species of fish. I have well over a dozen bottom fishing rigs onboard so within 15 minutes Tim and the Doc had cleaned out the scup when the first tog came over the rail. That 5-pounder was the first of many that day until the doctor said he had enough for their freezer. Since that trip my mate Mike scored a 15.5-pound monster on the south side of the Dry Pigs and one of my clients had a 13.8 in the same location. If you are tired of fishing in crowded conditions give the Elizabeths a serious try, at the Pigs, Tarpaulin Cove, and the southeast corner of Naushon Island; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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