Gone Fishin' for Tautog
An early May tautog trip with Bob Carlough, Captain of The Skimmer, was like being a kid again.
We played hookie from work on a weekday afternoon and went fishing for blackfish or tautog.
For Bob it was a busman’s holiday. He normally spends his time on The Skimmer showing tourists the natural areas of Cape May’s back bays, including osprey nests, tern colonies and the mysteries of the salt marsh.
As a result, he knows the back bays behind Cape May and Wildwood very well. And on this particular day, he knew just where to go to find some unsuspecting tautog.
While most Cape May anglers come to the shore for striped bass and flounder, locals know that spring is the time for blackfish. Whether you call them blackfish, tautog, slippery bass, or just plain tog, they are fun to catch and great to eat.
They're most numerous inshore, in the back bays and inshore wrecks, from late October into December and from April through May. During these times, it really isn’t hard to find a few nice fish, as we discovered.
Dropping our baits next to some pilings we felt nothing for about 20-30 minutes. The tide was high and not really moving.
When the tide started to drop the bite picked up and we managed to catch a few fish in a couple of hours. The bite wasn’t hot, but the fish were fat and mostly keepers.
Tog might be called grazers because they eat mussels right off rocks and pilings, simply chewing them up shell and all, then swallowing the entire mess.
Their impressive buck teeth and crushers make quick work of mussel shells. They also love crabs and grass shrimp.
How to Catch a Tog
Tog can bite voraciously, taking in your whole crab with one bite or they can be finicky, nibbling gently and stealing your bait.
Rig for tog with a sinker at the end of your line with a snelled hook a few inches above the sinker will bring the most bites. Two to four ounces are generally enough lead, although offshore you may need up to 8 or 10 ounces to hold bottom. A second hook a foot to 18” higher sometimes helps, but it also can lead to tangles and snagging rocks, pilings and other parts of the bottom.
Best baits for tog are crabs, either green, Japanese, or fiddlers, along with clam or even grass shrimp. For larger crabs, cut them in halves or quarters before hooking them. Fiddlers should be threaded on the hook whole.
Pilings, bridge abutments, rockpiles, and jetties, along with wrecks, will hold fish best.
My old favorite spot for tog was the concrete bunker at Cape May Point State Park. The tog would come in with the tide and it was easy to present fiddlers or green crabs near the pilings where the tog were grazing on blue mussels. That bunker is now off limits.
Once hooked, tog are one of the strongest bottom fish, so you should use at least 25 pound line and a stout boat fishing rod.
Getting them off the bottom and away from the dangerous pilings or rocks is paramount. Give them a second and you may not get them or your hook off the bottom.
You also can jump on one of the party boats that sail out of Wildwood Crest or Cape May. The Starlight Fleet often sails to wrecks just offshore to fish for tog, along with ling and other bottom fish.
Tog grow slowly, despite their voracious appetites. It can take a tog three to four years to reach breeding age and a size of about 12 inches.
By six years a tog is 14 inches in length, the legal size for New Jersey. These fish can live more than 20 years. Record size fish in New Jersey waters exceed 20 pounds.
The daily limit for tog in NJ changes by season with 4 fish allowed between January 1 and May 31, 2006; 1 fish between June 1 and November 14, 2006; and 8 fish between November 15 and December 31, 2006. All fish must be 14” or longer in 2006.
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