Once the dandelions start to pop up on the lawns of Southern New England, savvy bottom fishermen reach for their tautog gear. Tautog, also known as blackfish, usually start to move inshore around the end of April, or when the water temperature hits the mid-40s. When it reaches 50 degrees, it’s game on!
It’s no secret that tautog like to hang around structure, including rocks, mussel beds, wrecks and pilings. Isolated rocks and wrecks on an otherwise flat and featureless bottom are always prime spots, serving as oases for crabs, worms and other ‘tog food. For example, mostly sandy Nantucket Sound contains several wrecks that produce excellent spring fishing.
The waters off Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard are ‘tog utopia in the spring, as the massive boulders and rockpiles that litter the bottom here hold lots of crabs and mussels, and give the fish plenty of places to hide from predators. The same holds true for the Sound side of the Elizabeth Islands, as well as Woods Hole, Robinsons Hole and Quicks Hole. In Buzzards Bay, you’ll find no shortage of prime ‘tog structure in the form of ledges, wrecks and rockpiles. Similarly, Narragansett Bay is also loaded with ‘tog spots, including old pilings, lighthouses, jetties and riprap. The key to scoring on the more obvious (and more popular) structures is to get there before the crowds. Otherwise, you’ll need to pick through a lot of small fish before landing a keeper.
Find a Honey Hole
You’ll do much better if you make an effort to seek out hard-to-find spots that receive less pressure. Pull out a chart and look for some small, isolated reefs or wrecks in 10’ to 30’ of water. To pinpoint these structure spots on the water, you’ll obviously need a GPS and a depthsounder. When you reach the general area, idle in progressively wider circles while watching the screen for signs of structure and individual fish.
Work the deeper spots in late April/early May, then move shallower as the waters warm in mid-May. (Tip: You can often tell what depth zone to fish by observing the local party boats and commercial fishermen.)
Precise anchoring is the key to success in ‘tog fishing. Anchoring not only keeps the boat directly over the part of the structure that holds the most fish (usually the highest part), it lets you keep your line vertical and hold bottom more effectively.
Once you’ve found the pinnacle of the reef, ledge or wreck and marked it with a buoy, deploy the anchor well upcurrent or upwind of the structure and let out line until the boat is directly over the highest part of the structure. It’s a good idea to set a second anchor off the stern to keep the boat from swinging too much, especially if the wind and current are not in the same direction. This will keep you over the best spot and help prevent snags. By the way, you will be well served to buy a wreck anchor (the kind with bendable tines) for tautog fishing, so as not to risk losing your main anchor.
Once you’re 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 hot spot. You can also fish different parts of the structure by simply letting out or taking in anchor line.
Depth & Current
If you don’t get a bite within 10 minutes, you’re probably in the wrong spot. Re-anchor over another part of the structure, or run to a new spot altogether. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right depth zone. Don’t be afraid to haul anchor and try several different spots until you hit paydirt.
If you are clearly marking large fish on your sounder, but not hooking up, check the tide. Tautog feed best in moving water, and tend to shut off during slack water. The current doesn’t need to be moving fast, but it has to be moving. Sometimes that means waiting for the current to pick up before the fish start to feed. Note that you will need to use progressively heavier sinkers as the current increases to keep your bait on the bottom, so bring a variety of sizes ranging from two to eight ounces.
Best Baits & Gear
Fiddler crabs, green crabs, Asian crabs, clams, shrimp and seaworms all work for tautog. With green crabs (readily available in bait shops), cut them in half or quarters and place a section on each hook, leaving the point exposed. Some pros also like to remove the claws and legs of the crab before placing it on the hook.
Be sure to bring a lot of crabs, as ‘tog are expert bait-stealers. When the fishing is hot, it’s easy for 4 anglers to go through a couple of five-gallon buckets of green crabs in a 6-hour period. Fortunately, any leftover crabs can be saved in for the next trip.
There are a variety of bottom rigs for tautog, including specialized versions for fishing ultra-snaggy structure, but a basic dropper-loop rig tied with 50-pound-test mono works fine. Many anglers fish two droppers off the main leader, with a No. 5 or 6 Octopus hook snelled to the ends.
As for tackle, a 6 1/2-foot boat rod will do the job nicely, but make sure it has a fairly limber tip for detecting the sometimes subtle bite of a ‘tog. The midsection and butt of the rod should be stout enough to set the hook with authority and wrestle the fish off the bottom before it can duck into a hiding spot. For a reel, most anglers go with a conventional model loaded with 40- to 60-pound-test braided line, although spinning gear is fine.
Once you’ve lowered your bait to the bottom, get ready for a strike. The trick is not to set the hook at the first “bump” or tap. Rather, wait for a strong, hard pull on your line before lifting the rod firmly to set the hook. Once you feel the fish’s weight, start cranking, as you need to prevent the fish from “holing up” in the structure. If that happens, place the reel in free-spool for a minute or so and the fish may swim out on its own.
A couple more pieces of gear will make your life easier when ‘tog fishing: a net and some gloves. The net will come in handy for landing a big fish, while the gloves will help you hold these ultra-slippery fish while you remove the hook or clean your catch.