That personal best blackfish of double-digit proportions is out there waiting for you!
It was a long ride out to where we were finally set up and picking at some fish. After a short while I got a good one. Soon into the battle however, my rod doubled over and blew up! As quickly as I was on, I’d lost a good fish. Shortly after that, the reel on my backup rod started acting up. “Now I understand that extreme cold weather makes odd things happen, but come on,” I said aloud.
The ride home went quickly as I was upgrading gear in my head in a big way. A few new Saltigas, a couple new custom rods STAT! But boy did I blow it; I lost a big fish because of inferior tackle. There can be no excuse. The deck is stacked heavily in a big tautog’s favor. He’s built for this environment. If and when he eats your crab, you will need all the luck you can get. Very good tackle and technique will give you a fighting chance at least.
Truly big fish are special. They will destroy your gear and rigging before you know what happened. If you want to step up your big tog game, then this is bank! Most toggers like to help others succeed, but you need to approach them respectfully, honorably, and with appreciation. Most of the top toggers don’t mind helping a new guy find success with these slippery bulldogs, but success is earned. No egos here, please.
Rods & Reels
Your rod is the fulcrum that you will use to wrestle this oversized prize that keeps you up at night. Try different rods that the better toggers are using. Take pictures and notes to remember the exact rod and blank numbers, so when you are ready for your new rod, you get exactly what you want. Find one that suites your hands and your style. A 7-1/2- to 8-foot rod will turn that ol’ tautog’s head when you set the hook with authority; a righteous swing with an 8-foot rod will move the bait around 12 feet. Handle length and diameter are comfort factors for me. A split butt means my fingers on both hands touch the rod blank for the ultimate sensitivity. The length of the rod butt keeps the reel closer to my body. Even the butt cap fits under my wrist perfectly. Many hours at the rail will have you enjoying a rod that fits you like a glove.
A lot of great rods are tog ready off the rack. Tackle World Black Demon XH is a great example of custom features such as spiral wrapped guides, and thoughtful handle layout that challenged the industry with features that were unheard of on a production rod just a couple years ago. Century Rods makes a beastly new tog rod that is light and comfortable to fish all day with unbelievable reserve power. Tsunami Classic, and Slow Pitch XX Heavy are great choices in rods that catch and fish very well while not being heavy priced. The Mojo Jigging Rod from St. Croix is a good choice too.
Like a Swiss Army knife, your new tog rod will perform many different tasks. The underhand lob cast often launches a 10-ounce weight and a whole crab 50 feet or more. I prefer a trigger grip reel seat for the secure feeling it gives. The butt length comes almost to my elbow, which I find perfect to help with these casts. This same butt length (a bit over 12 inches) allows the reel to stay close to my body when fighting a fish. A longer butt length means you are reaching further away from your body while trying to gain line quickly on the reel, avoiding any clumsy or awkward feeling. The rod tip and blank should be sensitive, so you know when you’re dragging on sand, or if your sinker touches hard bottom. This same tip is delicate enough to feel the scratchy bite but does not collapse when casting these heavy weights.
Your reel is the engine that converts the speed and power to retrieve line. Set the hook with all the power that you have. If he is the one you seek, you have this one shot to gain on him before he knows what happened! Tempting as it may sound, a high-speed reel is not what you want in this situation. Around 5 to 1 gear ratio is where you want to be. And if your reel has a power slot for the handle, take advantage of that. Reeling up 10-ounce sinkers a hundred times a day with a high-speed reel will have you selling that bad choice in short order. Remember the tradeoff for high speed is low power.
A Daiwa Saltiga 15 is my personal choice; a true work horse with spool lock makes this reel a bottom fisherman’s dream. The Ocea Jigger gets high marks as well, so does the Maxel Hybrid 25, which is doing very well now after some design tweaks from the earliest models. Super-tuned Newells and Jig Masters have their fans, and for good reason. They are legendary. Free spool drop to the bottom, click, and you’re ready! Star drag reels are my favorite here, although some like their lever drag reels. I prefer the simple on feature of the star drag reel. If you throw the lever on the drop, then engage to the stop as on a lever drag reel a hundred times a day, the one time that I don’t advance the lever completely to the button will be my big fish bite!
Terminal and Technique
Line-wise, 55-pound test multi-colored Daiwa Boat Braid is my favorite. Super smooth, and the color helps you know when it’s time to thumb the spool on deep water drops. Sufix 832 in chartreuse is also a top performer. High quality mono for a 20-foot-long top shot in 60-pound test is my normal, unless fishing for very large fish then it’s 80. Tied with a Yucatán knot, or a slim beauty knot, both are super strong braid to mono knots and easy to tie with cold wet fingers. Double line with a Belmar rig.
My slider rigs are tied on 50-pound Yo-Zuri Top Knot fluorocarbon leader with 5/0 Owner Octopus Cutting Point hooks. Step up to 60- or 80-pound for your favorite big fish spots. The same rig with the sliding hook flipped over is known as a sweetheart rig. The sweetheart hooks and leader lay correctly when using a small whole crab as bait. For cutting crabs in half, the slider is the way to go. When crabs are hard, bait your hooks and drop them on the deck and gingerly step on them a few times.
Keep in mind that the most important skill that has some guys catching and others watching is a skill that every togger needs to master; that is fishing a slack line means feeling for bites without moving your sinker. It takes time, and lots of practice, but you must develop this skill if you want success with bigger and more fish. When it comes to working the bite, also remember that some days may be dream days when your bait gets crushed and, other days, and probably more often, it’s not so much. Sometimes I flip out and get the non-committal taps until I know my bait is done. Another bait, same thing, maybe it’s the third or fourth crab that the tog finally commits, and you get the good thump thump you’ve been waiting for!
There are some times when you get a few small taps, then nothing; there are other times when a big tog will push the small ones away from your bait. He might just give a nibble, then rest his chin on it to keep the little guys from coming back and stealing his next meal. After a few minutes of you feeling this odd pressure on your bait, the big guy eats. There are the times when a very big fish just inhales your bait. He may pick it up, sinker and all, and then swim off. Some big fish give you “the wave,” where it feels odd, almost like swells are quickly hitting your line. If you feel any of these hits, swing for the fences! When your rod tip is pointed at the sky, get as many cranks on him as you can, cause when Biggie figures out that he’s in trouble, it will be all you can do to stay strong, bow when he surges back to the bottom.
Big tautog normally give two or three sustained runs to the bottom. Lift when he stops and gain more line. Do not pump the rod! Work the fish with steady pressure. Remember to try and relax and breathe. As the top shot knot nears your tip, the mate should be beside you with the net. Stay cool; nice and slow and smooth. Move the tip away from the mate. As you see color, keep the fish a foot or two beneath the surface and move the tip toward the mate to let him do his job.
Catching a double digit blackfish is a tremendous accomplishment that many toggers dream of. Go with proven gear and techniques, and don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Watch the guys around you, and keep learning. Play to win, and that heart breaker could be your new personal best this season.