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Tautog Time

Updated: Apr 28, 2023


Tautog are one of the first species to stir anglers back into action. Photo courtesy of Ryan Collins of MFCC

Every saltwater fishing season has to start somewhere. Maybe it's a haddock trip on a partyboat, a group trip on a friend's boat, or an exploratory trip on your own boat. Maybe you want to wait till the squid make an appearance at your favorite locale. If you live in New Jersey, your saltwater season has already started with the Striped Bass migrating north, where they are one of the early season species.


In Massachusetts, our options to start the saltwater season are numerous. We have to wait a little bit longer, but there are signs in nature that tell us when the saltwater season gets into full swing. Some folks visit the local herring runs looking for herring in the runs. Reports of ospreys returning to the region slowly surface. Then, there is perhaps the most curious sign of all which is the mysterious appearance of the first weeds on your lawn. Some folks swear that the first dandelion signifies that the Tautog fishing has started.



Tautog, also known as blackfish, up north, are a very interesting species and are members of the wrasse family. They grow very slowly and take a longer time to reach the age and maturity to spawn. The stock is, today, highly regulated because of this. Stock numbers have started to rebound somewhat, but they still need to be watched closely. Let's take a quick why this curious looking fish with it's equally curious habits can be so much fun to target.


THE TAUTOG

Tautog can be sought after in many areas, accessible to just about everyone. One of the characteristics of Tautog that makes them appealing is that they very easily can be found in shallow water, even from shore. You don't need a boat at all. If you do choose to target them from a boat or kayak, your vessel doesn't have to be an offshore machine. The access also makes them an appealing species to try to introduce children to fishing particularly after a long winter.


Second, if you have never tried tautog out of the oven or in a chowder, you are truly missing something. Having eaten a lot of cod and haddock in my childhood, the Tautog has a somewhat similar taste. Their white flesh is firm with a sweetness that likely comes with its diet filled with delicacies coming from the rockpiles they live in.


Third, from the moment you manage to hook one, to the point you bring it to shore or to your boat, you have a tremendous battle on your hands. These fish are determined to remain on the bottom. When they feel the hook, they immediately make a direct line back to the rockpile they came from or to a piece of structure to seek shelter or break you off. Even after bringing one of the bottom, they make a determined run, back. Looking closely at the broom shaped tail and the muscular shoulders on the fish, you can see why these fish are valued for their sport.




WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Aside from perhaps making sure that dandelions have shown up in your hard, the only requirements is to be fishing structure and in this case it means finding your local rockpiles. Onc the water reaches 49-50 degrees, the Tautog will return to these near shore waters and shallow structure areas and begin to feed. It means finding jetties, pilings, wrecks, etc. The more structure, the more gnarly, the better. It's not uncommon to find anglers in a small metal boat double anchored within 30 feet of large pile of boulders supporting a marker of some kind out in the water. These fish have the behaviors of territorial, localized fish and to find them, you have to do your homework and be very detailed about your search.


From shore, its a similar exercise. Target rocky areas and jetties along the coastline as the 'tog will stick close to these areas. Finding pilings, shallow reefs, fields of boulders and shellfish beds are all potential areas to target.


Locating these fish is one of the main challenges or puzzles to unlock in catching them. Studying charts and maps of local rock structure or boulder fields can be a good place to start, but its very likely that some of the very best structure is undocumented below the surface and has to discovered, which is also part of the fun that keeps anglers returning to the water trip after trip.


HABITS

Tautog are a daytime fishery. Fishing for them after hours, like striped bass, doesn't seem to yield great results because they move little at night and are not likely to come out of their sleep from their shelters. Tautog seem to feed better on sunny days and begin feeding right at first light.


The territorial nature of these fish has already been mentioned. It's bears noting again that not only are these fish territorial, but they will not stray far from their shelters. If you locate the rockpile that may be holding the fish, know that where you anchor relative to that structure can also be important. Side note, this is not a species of fish where drifting is a big part of the equation. You can drift to find a specific area or rockpile you want to target, but know that an anchor and being able to maintain position over a spot is important. Anglers with trolling motors, have a particular advantage here. These fish are not feeding in a circular or figure eight pattern, like we sometimes associate with other species. There is an opportunity to chum for them using a small chum pot or by dropping pieces of bait in the water and letting them soak. A premium is put on positioning yourself relative to the fish.


They do live in groups and feed aggressively and competitively as shown in the video below from Ryan Collin of MyFishingCapeCod.com.


ANCHORING AND CURRENT

Anchoring and bait presentation is of paramount importance. You want your bait to be presented vertically and you want the bait to be presented naturally. Seeing a crab flying above bottom while your boat is drifting isn't going to fool many fish, but a crab sitting innocently on the bottom directly in front of the home of a Tautog is likely to get a strike.


It's very possible that you can find a rockpile that is holding Tautog, but on that particular day, in a certain tide, you may not be able to hold bottom with your bait and your line begins to scope out. In those time, it may be best to relocate and find a location that has less current. This is not to say that current is not desired, because it is. It could become a problem if you have conditions that carry your bait out of the desired target area and carries your bait in a manner that it is fouled by weeds or is lifting and scoping out of the intende strike zone.


BAIT SELECTION

In terms of diet, these fish feed on crabs, seaworms, clams and mussels. Crabs are a very productive bait. Dropping seaworms down early season if fishing a more muddy bottom can also be very productive.


For those wanting to acquire there own green crabs for fishing, this video from Ryan Collins of MyFishingCapeCod could be very helpful.


JIGS AND RIGS

For rigs it best to keep it very simple. Generally rigs are used for soft baits like sea worms, but there are applications for using them with green crabs as well. I prefer heavier line for the rigs, 40lb minimum, 50lb preferred because these rigs are going into heavy structure. Dropper loops are kept short. Generally I prefer size 4/0 hooks that are able to pierce through the lips of these fish. Gamakatsu makes a really nice hook for this application. The image of the high-low rig is one that I make for Monomoy Tackle. The diagram on the right is from OnTheWater magazine.



A rig that I have experimented with and make for the shop that has several variants and names is below. A customer originally sent this to me and asked me to tie the rig for him. As illustrated below, it's called 'Captain Rick's Tautog Rig. Two things standout. First, the branch line is positioned very close to the bottom of the rig where the sinker is. Second, the rig offers the ability to change out damaged hook branches from the barrel swivel outward. If you get hung up, the hope is that you break off the line at the barrel and not lose the whole thing. There are other names for variants of this rig.


A very popular method of hooking up with Tautog today is with jigs. It makes it more fun on a jig and allows, in my opinion, an even more direct connection with the bait and the fish to feel those quick, finicky bites. Many manufactures offer jigs in a variety of weights. The jigs intend to present the bait enticingly to the tautog and in some ways, lift it or present it to them. Below is a jig made by JTC jigs in Long Island that illustrates this point really well. When jigging you are making very subtle lifts of the rod, perhaps up to 6" to feel if the fish is there and to maintain regular contact with the bottom.




For Rods and Reels, there's the opportunity to keep it simple. For your reel, line capacity is not as important, because you won't necessarily be fishing very deep unless you are making some sort of offshore wreck trip. You need a reel with a decent amount of drag. You may want a reel that is on the lighter side to hold in your hand for a couple hours at a time. Reels used for black sea bass and fluke are generally fine to use for Tautog.


Same for rods. Rods with a relatively soft tip, but a strong backbone are preferred. Medium heavy or heavy power with a fast action will do fine.


These fish are not going to make blistering runs away from you like some other fish, but these fish, once hooked are going to make determined, persistent runs back to the bottom. The initial hook-up is an immediate turn and move back to structure. Your rod and drag setting on your reel have to be able to keep the fish out of structure initially. Once off the bottom, Tautog will keeping making efforts to return to the bottom. You have to keep your drag set to allow for some line to come off the spool and avoid getting broken off.


On my most recent trip I used a 6'-6" MH Fast action rod using 30 lb braid with a 40lb leader. For a reel I used a Shimano Tekota 500.


BITE BUILD AND THE BITE ITSELF

This concept of 'building a bite' was introduced in last week's blog with haddock. The bait is one component. Patience is another. Dropping bait and being patient in an area allowing the bait to soak and set up a chum slick of bait and scent is very important to keeping the bait in your area. If the bite doesn't happen immediately, its advantageous to stay patient and to remain in the area while your bait offerings hold the marks you observed on your sonar in your area and ultimately, hopefully, lead to catching fish.


When it comes to the bite itself, hooking the Tautog is another one of these challenges and puzzles to unlock. Tautog are notorious at slowly picking away at your crab offering and crushing the edges and basically stealing it away from you. If you feel these subtle taps at your rod, the urge is to set the hook each and every time. Often times these lifts or attempts to set the hook after each tap results in the crab being pulled from the 'togs mouth and the crab off your hook.


This is where the subtle lift of your rod comes in. If you feel the taps of the bite on your rod, slowly, lift to feel and resistance. You may feel that the taps on the rod are still there which means that the fish may have the hook fully in its mouth. Feeling that resistance on the subtle rise, may next be followed by an upward hookset to get the hook point through the lips of the fish. This takes a lot of practice and patience.


SUMMARY


I have recently enjoyed fishing for Tautog early spring before other fish such as Scup, Black Sea Bass and Fluke arrive or open to target according to seasonal regulations. They are a unique and fun fish to target and catch.


  • Target structure such as rock piles in shallow water.

  • Precision anchoring and positioning is required.

  • Present baits in a simple manner and be patient. The bite may take time to arrive and to build.

  • Resist the urge to set the hook right away. Being patient and allowing the Tautog to work its way to the hook is key.

  • Once the hook is set be prepared for that initial run to structure by the fish. You have to be able to keep it out of structure to be able to land the fish.


STORE PRODUCTS

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. If you wish to see any of the product mentioned here or used in some of the video content, please see below.







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