Summer flounder (aka fluke), snappers and blue claw crabs are favorite targets of North Fork anglers. However, as the warm, sunny days of summer are replaced with the brisk, cold northerly winds of autumn, those species retreat to more pleasant waters. As they leave, a “bulldog” of a fish has begun its migration to our inshore waters.
This “bulldog” goes by many names such as tautog, tog and white chin, but is most commonly known as a blackfish (with a bulldog referring to a very large male). They belong to a family of fish known as Labridae, which are commonly referred to as wrasses. This bruiser of a fish grows to lengths of 36 inches and weigh up to 28 pounds. They are a moderately long-lived fish with the largest specimens living between 35 and 40 years old.
Young of the year blackfish seek shelter among eelgrass meadows and patches of seaweed in the back bays. During this time their color is highly variable (shades of black, brown, red and even green), allowing them to camouflage with ease in these heavily planted environments. As they mature, they leave the protection of the sea grasses and search out sea bottoms consisting of hard structures such as rocks, wrecks and pilings.
Blackfish are visual predators that remain active during daylight hours and quickly retreat to the shelter of structure as the sun begins to approach the horizon. Once settled in, they will sleep until sunrise the next morning. It is because of this behavior that we do not target blackfish at night, as we do other species of fish such as bluefish and striped bass.
Adults and juvenile blackfish feed on an assortment of hard-shelled crustaceans and mollusks. They have large teeth with powerful jaws that can crush through the hardest defenses with ease. Small prey items are often swallowed whole, to be “chewed” with pharyngeal teeth located in their throat. A blackfish’s fondness for these crunchy foods requires anglers to use non-typical baits when targeting blackfish.
Green crabs are by far the most common species of crab used as bait for blackfish. Extremely abundant, green crabs are an invasive species that showed up from Europe in the mid to late 1800s. It is believed they were hitchhikers on the bottom of wooden boats. As they spread along the coast they have left a destructive path, feeding on many commercially important species such as scallops, soft shell clams and mussels. Similar in size and shape of a green crab is the Atlantic rock crab. It is a native species that inhabits the same environment as the green crab and is often referred to as a white crab.
Another popular bait for blackfish is the hermit crab. Locally we have two species, the long-clawed and the flat-clawed hermit crab, with the latter being more commonly used as bait. Hermit crabs are unique from other crabs as they have a very soft and vulnerable body. To protect themselves from predation, they use the empty shell of a snail as a “mobile home” carrying it everywhere they go. At the first sign of danger, they can pull themselves deep inside the shell for protection. As they grow, hermit crabs must find a new, larger home to move into. If an empty shell is not available, the hermit crab will evict another crab from its home or kill a snail to obtain its shell to move into.
In recent years, a new crab has become the “hot” bait for blackfish, the Asian shore crab. With its introduction to the east coast in the late 1980s, the Asian shore crab has now established itself from Maine to North Carolina. These crabs can be commonly found living intertidally around hard and rocky bottoms. I have been to areas where turning over one small rock at low tide revealed 50 or more crabs hiding beneath it. As with the green crab, this invasive species has also had a negative effect on the local ecosystem by displacing native species such as the mud crab.
Now that you are armed with some knowledge of blackfish and some of their favorite foods, it is time to try your luck at catching one of the North Fork’s bulldog blackfish, which also conveniently makes excellent chowder to warm you up after a cold autumn day on the water.
Blackfish season in the Long Island Sound goes from Oct. 11 to Dec. 9 with a three fish limit and goes from Oct.15 to Dec. 22 with a four fish limit. A blackfish must be 16 inches or larger to keep. Check the NYS DEC website for up to date info.
Visit the North Fork Captains Association (http://northforkcaptains.com) for a list of reputable charter/for hire boats that will get you on the water to catch some blackfish.
With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram @fishguyphotos.