Tautog (or tog, blackfish) are members of the wrasse family and are found from Nova Scotia to South Carolina hanging around areas of structure from deepwater wrecks to bulkheads. They generally inhabit bay, inlets, and shallow structure points during the spring as they breed and in the fall they start to head further offshore to the deeper wrecks as the water cools.
This species spends most of its life feeding on mollusks and crustaceans as they are relatively opportunistic feeders preying on barnacles, clams, mussels, small lobsters, and a variety of crab species. This mostly accounts for why these fish have such delicious meat.
Blackfish are always on some type of structure, but the depth they frequent depends on the time of the season and the angler’s coastal location. The key to successfully catching keeper white chins is to be right on top of the structure. High profile wrecks, such as barges or retired vessels will hold more tautog as these generally have more feeding opportunities and hiding spots. Of course, the key is finding this structure.
Most coastal charts offer good wreck numbers, but it is definitely advised that you search around; some of the numbers can be up to a thousand feet off. A high-quality CHIRP sonar like the SOLIX 10 CHIRP MEGA SI+ G2 provides high definition images of the bottom and allows anglers to get on top of the wrecks.
Once you’ve found a good piece of structure, staying in place on top of it can be a real art form. The traditional means of anchoring takes some practice to make it work; first you have to find the piece, and then run the boat at 45 degrees running anchor line and dropping the first anchor, then following the same process for a second one. This is can be quite the task, especially if you don’t have a lot of hands to help, not to mention wind and/or drift conditions.
Last fall, my father and I performed the install of an off-center, bow-mounted, 112-pound thrust Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor on my 23-foot Parker Sport Cabin. By using the trolling motor rather than traditional anchoring, my process of approaching and fishing structure has changed. I deploy the motor into the water when I’m about 300 feet away, continuing towards the “piece” at no-wake speed until about 20 to 30 feet away. At this point, I place the boat in neutral and bump it in and out of gear until my boat is on top of the structure.
The snag should be visible via the sonar and once it comes into view, I simply push the “spot-lock” button and tell my clients to start fishing. The trolling motor has a built-in GPS and compass bearing sensor, which keeps the vessel directly over the wreck while accounting for tidal current, wind speed and direction, and wave action.
There are a variety of rod and reel manufacturers that offer good combinations, but I prefer an 8-foot G.Loomis IMX 965C with a fast tip that provides great sensitivity for scratchy tog bites. The Penn International 975 baitcast reel has a great drag, line capacity, and is weighted nicely for a long day of pulling fish out of the deepwater wrecks. I always fish these setups with 40- to 50-pound braid for added sensitivity, with an extra 30 to 40 feet of leader added with a uni-to-uni connection. This allows for easy retying as I prefer using the traditional one hook setup.
I typically snell a #4 Mustad Virginia style hook and use a double surgeon’s loop to attach the weight. It is important that the hook does not go past the length of the loop as you will tend to miss hookups. If the rig is broken off in the wreck, it’s easy to re-snell and loop to get back down to the bottom in no time.
Crustaceans are better in the later season when a blackfish’s mouth has toughened up; I find clams generally will work better in the early season in the areas I fish along the Central Jersey Coast. Tog will eat a wide variety of hooked crustaceans such as green crabs, Jonah crabs (aka “white leggers”), hermit crabs, fiddler crabs, and sand fleas. The tog bite can be very aggressive where they whack the bait with the characteristic “thump” and at other times they may “scratch” the bait a while before fully inhaling it.
Patience is the key to this fishery, as anglers stand at the ready like soldiers with rods drawn down to just above the water’s surface waiting to set the hook with an instant swing to the sky. This is what keeps anglers coming back for them as they are truly tough fish to hook; more times than not anglers will end up with the telltale “swing and miss.” When hooked, the first 20 feet are crucial to get them out of the wreck or with a few beats of their strong tail will have you snagged in the structure. It truly is one of the most challenging gamefish that we encounter in the Northeast.
Improved success comes from completely working the piece to find where the quality fish may be sitting. We will generally fish a piece until the bite slows down, moving anywhere from 5 to 20 feet on the structure to work a new area. Tautog are somewhat territorial, so a large wreck or barge will hold quite a few fish as they will have pieces of the wreck staked out. You’ll often find that quality tautog are holding on some of the most snaggy, productive pieces of the wreck. Traditional anchoring with two hooks allows anglers to hit areas by adjusting both anchor lines to give or take up a few feet at a time; the trolling motors allow movement on the wreck with the push of a button.
Using the Minn Kota I can easily move on the wreck in 5-foot increments in any direction as the motor is programmed for that. For instance, if I want to move 25 feet north on the wreck, I literally hit the button 5x and the motor moves that distance making it super-efficient for tog fishing. In addition, when I want to move to a new piece of structure: a hit of the button has the motor stowed and we are off to the next wreck.
Blackfish or tautog are absolutely delicious table-fare that can be turned from bottom dwellers into fantastic fish tacos or chowder. We only keep what we are going to eat, but with the fish you plan on keeping it is vital to bleed your catch. This primes the meat by removing most of the blood and the bled meat will shine like a white pearl. A simple pierce behind the pelvic fins will do the trick before placing your catch in an ice-saltwater bucket to bleed out.
The author runs Reel Reaction Sportfishing out of Waretown, NJ behind Barnegat Inlet. Reach him at 609-290-7709 or firstname.lastname@example.org.