Tautoga onitis is certainly a strange looking creature. Tough skin, barrel shape, depressed head, rubbery lips, and teeth that make an orthodontist think of braces: these are features that put the tautog far to the back of the beauty parade. But function and form go together, and, when it comes to crushing mollusks and living in rockpiles, the blackfish is perfectly adapted. Moreover, when it comes to wrestling matches, this creature impresses the angler using suitable medium or medium-light tackle, and the gourmet is equally impressed by fresh tautog fillets on the table.
With strong management plans now in effect, the tautog season now begins in October (Saturday, the fifth, was this year’s starting date.) and the spawning fish roaming open bottom in the springtime are protected by seasonal closure. When you’ve got a slowly growing fish that can live a long time, small bag limits and shortened seasons are important to keep populations stable. There are also constant threats of overfishing, as any skipper who has watched stocks swing wildly during the 80s and 90s will tell you.
Early ‘tog can be found on almost all rockpiles in and around our beaches. If you have beach access and launch a small craft locally, you won’t have to look very far to find October fish hanging out around some of the big rocks. When there were rental skiffs available at the Mattituck Fishing Station or the old Port of Egypt decades ago, you’d see lots of tin boats or wooden skiffs fishing anywhere out to 30-foot depths. Often you didn’t even have to go beyond 15-feet during the first weeks of the season near Mattituck Inlet, although you started deeper off Mulford Point. The advantage of fishing shoal water was that you could get away with lighter sinker weights in slower currents, and, when you were fishing crab baits, you could fish for quite a while with longer leaders that didn’t tangle so badly in those currents.
Blackfish can be maddening for the newcomer. One famous old time writer, the late Matt Ahearn, once said that if you were consistent at tautog fishing, you’d begun to master the bottom fishing game. It’s all about feeling a real bite and distinguishing that from the cautious nibbles that precede the definitive “take.” Those who observe blackfish in salt water aquariums or dive around them say that feeding blackfish stack up like cordwood on rocks and “sample” their pickings, sucking in and expelling, before inhaling. If you had absolutely no sinker attached to a “free” bait, there would be no problem noting the strong bite at the end. Problem is: the sinker seems to alert your quarry from the outset, leading to missed strikes and hooks picked clean. There are days when everything seems to go just fine and we hook most of the tautog that pick; then there are days when we strike too early, hooking fish lightly and dropping them on the way to the surface, or strike late when the fish has already felt the hook, turned, and gone into a crevice in the rocks or wreck.
Tautog can embarrass the uninitiated, too. One companion from the West End who’d spent a life working stripers and blues used to refer to tautog on lighter gear as “vertical bluefish.” A fish of any substantial size, say four pounds and up, could make a determined dash for the bottom from any point in the water column—all the way up to the net. If you weren’t ready for the fish to swap ends and take the elevator down or if you couldn’t turn the run you could easily get broken off at the top or hung in the rocks below.
As the season moves along and the November party boats take over, the scene shifts to places like Orient Light or Fishers Island. Now the currents present the real challenge, and it’s time for the tautog specialists to show their skills, dropping 12- to 20-ounce payloads to the bottom on rods that can handle the weights but still provide sensitivity. The stronger the flow, the shorter you make the droppers (Those crab baits can spin like crazy.), and the rougher the bottom, the more careful you are about feeling your way with the sinker. And you may not have long to find the fish as you drop down and the lead gets swept downtide. Nibbles may never get felt, and you’d better not miss the one “hit” that passes for a strike. On a rough patch, you fish one hook and try to weaken the sinker loop so that the sinker will break away if a real “bulldog” of 10 pounds decides to tour the bottom.
Tautog fishing may not be easy, but the rewards on the table will keep you going all winter. You may freeze ‘tog whole to reduce freezer burn, but always remove the skin before cooking.