Take advantage of April’s month-long tog season in Long Island waters.
For the past several years fishing for blackfish has become the highlight of the fall fishing activity as the amount of the chisel tooth species has anglers constantly coming back for more. Many of the rocky lairs across the Long Island Sound are indeed loaded with fish under the 16-inch size limit. However, many locations hold plenty of keeper tog to 8 pounds, with several monster white chins over the 10-pound mark, particularly along the East End of the Sound. The question most asked about this phenomenon is why such an abundance with a species that rarely migrate from this body of water except moving inshore and offshore of the Sound depending on water temperature. It could be because there are fewer lobster pots along the waters of Long Island Sound or stringent possession and size limits. Ideally, the closure of the blackfish season during the spring has given this precious species a chance to spawn, which primo egg dropping occurs as early as late April and can last well into the end of June. Calculate at least a dozen spring seasons that blackfish have gone unscathed, and here is your result.
Turn To The Best Of The Best
Since it’s been quite a bit of time since most of us have dropped over a blackfish bait during the spring, and now that the NYDEC has been kind enough to give us a two-fish allotment during April, I reached out to a longtime friend and blackfish guru Captain Rich Jensen of the Orient based charter boat, Nancy Ann IV. There is little this veteran captain doesn’t know about fishing along the Atlantic’s Northeast, especially how to find and catch blackfish. “Blackfish return and feed right where they left off, which is in deep water, usually in 60- to 80-foot depths,” Capt. Rich explained. “The most important factor, however, is water temperature. Blackfish begin chewing when water temperatures reach 49 or 50 degrees.”
In the eastern section of Long Island Sound, those temperatures occur by the third week of April, giving anglers on the East End about a week of good fishing before the season closes until fall. Fortunately, the Western Sound experiences an early bite of tog since water temps rise quicker than out on the East End, which finds anglers scoring on rocky lairs in deep and shallow depths. In the past, May through mid-June produced excellent results in shallow areas containing mussel beds. Isolated rocks and wrecks on an otherwise flat and featureless bottom are prime spots, serving as an oasis for crabs, worms, and other tog food.
A member of the wrasse family, fishermen have given tautog the nickname “blackfish” due to its dark mottled sides that are either dull black, blackish green or blackish blue. Anglers also call tautog “white chin” because this coloring pattern is commonly found on large males. Up to the North, the name tautog does stick by anglers like glue, just as porgies are mainly called scup.
Tautog are slow growing and can live 35 to 40 years. Generally, tautog are distributed along the Northeast Atlantic coast, with the greatest abundance between Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay. Throughout their life, tautog aggregate around structured habitats. In the Long Island Sound, tautog are generally found around rocks and boulders. This fondness for structure makes tautog easy to catch. The easy catchability and slow growth rate make tautog highly susceptible to overfishing and slow to rebuild. Blackfish inhabit wrecks, jetties, natural and artificial reefs, and shellfish beds along the ocean’s South Shore. As juveniles, shallow, vegetated estuaries, and inshore grounds serve as nurseries, while larger juveniles cohabitate with adults in deeper offshore waters.
Blackfish migrate inshore to spawn in estuaries and nearshore marine waters during spring. They remain inshore throughout the summer, then move to 20- to 60-foot depths as fall approaches, finally spending the winter in the 100- to 150-foot depths where they hibernate until the water reaches 48 degrees. At this time, they shake off their winter dormancy.
I can’t emphasize enough how precise anchoring is relevant to successful togging. Not only does proper anchoring keep the boat directly over the structure, but it also helps to keep the fishing line vertical and hold bottom more effectively. Once you’ve found the pinnacle of the piece being targeted, deploy the anchor well up current or upwind of the structure and let out line until the boat is directly over the highest section of the structure. It’s a good idea to set a second anchor to keep the boat from swinging off the prime piece of real estate, especially when the wind may be against the current. This will keep you over the choice spot and help prevent snags that often occur when the boat is swinging. Better yet, when conditions are relatively calm, a “wreck anchor” suits well and can be bent back into shape once retrieved.
Once anchored, have each angler fish from a different part of the boat, as sometimes a matter of just a few feet can make a big difference in finding the hotspot. You can also fish other parts of the structure by letting out or taking in the anchor line. To make life truly easier, Minn Kota has designed “Spot Lock” to keep the boat directly over the target, no matter what conditions you face. For more info about Spot-Lock, go to innkotamotors.com/learn/technology/trolling-motors/spot-lock.
On Target Or Not
Not everyone can afford Spot-Lock; therefore, if bites are nonexistent, keep tossing the rigs around and away from the boat. Often, the fish may smell the bait and gradually work their way toward the boat. This requires patience; allow at least 15 minutes before making a move. Capt. Rich also states that if you are one of those early birds fishing before sunrise or looking to beat the fleet to the hot spot, wait until the sun has risen. Daylight is evident since blackfish may need to “wake up,” especially before dawn, since they’re inactive and dormant at night. Blackfish are stationary at night, hugging close to rock piles, reefs, and wrecks in the dark. If it is daylight and you have given it a fair shake, you may want to move the anchor back or forward 20 or 30 feet, as many times, a simple adjustment is all that is needed. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right depth. Therefore don’t hesitate to haul anchor and try different depths until you hit paydirt.
If the sounder is marking fish, but the tog are suffering from lockjaw, consider the tide. Blackfish feed best in moving water and tend to shut off during slack water, although some areas like South Shore inlets might produce best near the end and beginning of the current flow. The current doesn’t need to move hard but should be moving. Sometimes that means waiting for the current to pick up or the tide to change before the fish feast.
Unlike the fall season, Capt. Rich Jensen prefers several types of soft baits over green crabs during the spring. According to Rich, the blackfish have just come out of hibernation, so the lack of feeding for more than three months has caused their mouths to be a bit tender. Due to their softness, fresh skimmer clams and freshly shucked bank mussels are favorites of tog, as are hermit crabs. And though all these baits are primo choices of Capt. Rich during the spring, his favorite is sandworms – tog will rarely pass them up.
Suppose you are adamant about using any hard-shell crab, Capt. Rich suggests using tiny pieces on small hooks for the best results. Another bait that will produce is live blue mussels by inserting a small hook behind the neck, then slightly cracking the shell, sending it down, and holding on as this tactic can be a true tog killer.
For the most part, spring blackfish fight or bite as aggressively as in the fall. However, the lairs are the same, and because of that, you must treat the terrain accordingly. While some anglers will opt for fairly light spinning tackle and jigs for shallow water fishing, tackle with more muscle is required for deep water togging. That includes rods with fast taper tips for sensitivity and powerful butt tapers for the lift. Therefore, 6- to 7-foot, 20- to 30-pound class graphite rods and to match conventional reels spooled with 20- to 30-pound make for an ideal outfit.
Rigs should be plain and simple with a single hook attached to a Loop Knot tied 4 to 10 inches above the sinker. The height of the knot will depend on where you are fishing. The lower loops are best along the South Shore wrecks and reefs, while the higher Loop Knot is better suited for the rocks and boulders of the Sound. Hook styles and sizes will also vary depending on the bait being employed.
If green or Asian crab is on the menu, cut the greenies into quarters rather than halves and use the smallest Asians you can find. Fiddlers are ideal if you can obtain some. Apply the crabs to a 1/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook, while hermit crabs will stand up well on 3/0 Gamakatsu Baitholder hooks. The two barbs along the shank will help keep the hermits from bunching up at the bottom of the hook, which is a reality with octopus hooks. The same bait savers apply when employing clams, bank mussels, and sandworms. The only difference would be to replace the Gamakatsu 3/0 Bait savers with a 1/0 Gamakatsu. The hooks should be tied via a Snell knot to a 12-inch 50-pound fluorocarbon leader and a Surgeon Knot on the other end and attached to the Loop Knot. Sinkers round out the terminal end, which depending on the area being fished, will dictate the sizes needed. In any event, make sure to have plenty on hand as surely some will succumb to the sticky home site of the blackfish.
Don’t forget the net, which is a must for landing big fish! Lastly, remember that blackfish will pick up the bait more gingerly during the spring than in the fall. You should always try to fish without tension in your line. This is especially important during the spring when tog tend to be more sluggish.