From Cape Cod to Connecticut, the fall push of tautog over shallow inshore structure is a bitter-sweet event. While the fall run marks the end of another season, it also means some of the best bottom fishing of the year for this hard-fighting, good-eating species.
Also known as blackfish, tautog migrate into shallow (10-30 feet), rocky areas when the water temperature dips into the lower 60s. This inshore push usually begins in early to mid-October and often lasts until December—sometimes later depending on the weather.
At the beginning of the run, the fish can be found in very shallow water (sometimes less than 10 feet deep), but will move steadily into deeper areas as the temperature drops. By December you may have to seek them out over wrecks and reefs in 30 to 40 feet of water.
Finding a ‘Tog Spot
‘Tog can be found over any type of inshore structure, be it a rockpile, wreck, ledge, reef, piling, granite wharf or breakwater. It’s usually easy to find a hot spot by the number of boats anchored over it in the fall. While it might be tempting to join the party, you’ll be better off finding your own spots. That’s because the biggest ‘tog can be quickly culled from a small area, and once they’re gone, they don’t repopulate the structure until the following spring.
One valuable thing you can learn by watching other ‘toggers is the depth at which the fish are holding. If they’re fishing in 10 to 15 feet of water, you’ll know to look for other structure spots in that same depth range.
A good depthsounder is essential for ‘tog fishing. You’ll need it for pinpointing the piece of structure in general, as well as the high spots on the reef or wreck, as that’s usually where the biggest fish will hold. Precise anchoring is critical, too, as sometimes being just a few feet off the mark can be the difference between scoring big and coming up empty.
You’ll often need to reposition the boat several times before you hit the jackpot. This can be frustrating chore, especially when the wind is opposing the current, but it will pay off in terms of more and bigger fish. In windy conditions, it may require 2 anchors to keep the boat just where you want it.
How do you know if you’ve anchored in the right spot? The fish will tell you. If you don’t get a bite within 10 minutes, either re-anchor or try a new spot. Sometimes you can fish different parts of the structure by simply letting out or taking up anchor line, or by cleating the line off amidships to swing the boat to one side.
Speaking of anchoring, it’s wise to invest in a wreck or grapnel anchor. These anchors typically feature tines made of rebar that can be straightened if the anchor becomes fouled. Another option is to buy an aluminum wreck and reef anchor, like the kind made by Mighty Mite. These anchors are more expensive than simple rebar jobs, but they won’t rust and stain your deck.
Tautog tackle can be pretty basic. All you need is a 6- to 6 1/2-foot rod with a sensitive tip and stiff midsection and butt. Most bottom-fishing pros prefer conventional reels, but a midsize spinning reel works just fine.
Fill the reel with 30- to 40-pound-test braided line, which is thinner and more sensitive than monofilament of the same breaking strength, making it easier to feel your sinker tapping bottom and the tugs of a tautog eating your bait. Braided line also has no stretch, which makes it easier to set the hook in the tough mouth of a ’tog.
Basic Tautog Rig
While many ‘toggers use a double-hook rig, I like to keep it simple and go with one hook. I use a ball-bearing swivel to connect the braided main line to 3 feet of 50-pound-test mono. I tie a surgeon’s loop in the end of the mono for attaching the sinker, then tie a 4-inch dropper loop about 8 inches above that. On a separate, 2-foot piece of heavy mono I snell a 4/0 Octopus hook. I tie a small surgeon’s loop in the end of the mono and connect it to the dropper loop via interlocking loops.
The weight of the sinker will depend on the depth and the strength of the current, so bring a variety of sizes. In 10 to 15 feet of water, a 3-ounce bank sinker is usually adequate. Remember: lighter is better when it comes to sinker size, so don’t go too heavy if you don’t need to.
Tautog will eat a variety of baits, but green crabs work great and are readily available in bait shops. You can also catch your own by baiting a crab trap with pieces of chicken or fish racks and leaving it in the water overnight. Fiddler crabs and Asian crabs also work very well for tautog, and conch are considered ‘tog candy – if you can find them.
If using green crabs, first remove all of the crab’s claws and legs with a bait of pliers or scissors. Next, peel off the underside of the crab’s shell (the apron). Cut or slice the crab in half (or quarters if it’s big), then insert the hook through one leg hole and out through the body or an adjoining leg hole, making sure the point is exposed.
How much bait you’ll need per trip depends on how good the fishing is, but it’s easy to blow through 2 quarts of green crabs during a hot bite. It’s also a good idea to cut up a mess of crab pieces before you start fishing, so you can re-bait quickly when the action is fast and furious.
Feeling the Bite
When you’re ready, lower the crab into the water and free-spool line until you feel the sinker tap bottom. At this point you can put the reel in gear or keep it in free-spool, keeping your thumb on the spool to prevent an overrun. The important thing is to make sure the sinker is right on the bottom. Gently raise and lower the rod tip every few seconds to stay in contact with the bottom and keep the bait out of the weeds.
Be forewarned that you will probably lose a few rigs to snags, but it’s all part of the game. It makes life a lot easier if you’ve tied up a bunch of leaders and snelled hooks ahead of time, as tying new rigs on the water with frigid fingers is no fun at all.
As mentioned, you’ll usually know if you’ve anchored on the right spot within a few minutes. However, knowing when to set the hook also requires a bit of experience. The trick is waiting to feel the second hard rap or tug on your line before lifting the rod. (The first rap is the ‘tog breaking the crab into bite-sized bits with its front teeth, while the second rap is the fish actually eating the crab.)
Tautog make delicious eating, of course, and are wonderful in chowders or baked with a cream sauce. Here’s a great chowder recipe from Matt Nugent of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, who fishes the waters of upper Buzzards Bay.
Matt’s Famous Fish Chowder
- 6-8 cups fish stock or water
- 6 potatoes peeled and diced
- 1-2 lbs. fish
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped
- 4 strips bacon
- pinch of red pepper flakes
- olive oil
- 1 tsp. butter
- black pepper
- white pepper
- If you don’t have fish stock, parboil the ‘tog in 6-8 cups of water for 5 minutes and remove. Add potatoes to the stock and simmer for 30 minutes or until soft.
- While the potatoes are simmering, add olive oil and butter to a large skillet. Heat the skillet, then add onions and bay leaves, stirring often. Do not burn the bay leaves. When the onions are transparent, remove some of them from the water and set aside. Cook remaining onions until brown, being careful not to burn them.
- In the same skillet, cook the bacon until crispy. Remove and crumble.
- Add onions, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, bacon and flaked fish to the potatoes and season to taste.
- Cover and simmer for one hour.
- Reduce heat and add light cream to taste. Be sure you are not at a boil, as this will curdle the cream.
- Taste test and serve with warm French bread for dipping.