Updated: Oct 23, 2020
With instagram and facebook attributing to the hype of tautog (tog) or blackfish fishing, many novice anglers are curious about the fishery and are jumping on head boats come the opening of the 5 fish bag limit in November(Jersey regulations). For one, I highly encourage taking a crack at this fishing. It's no secret that blackfishing is a difficult and intimidating fishery, but with the help of this article I will share the basic process to putting these funny-looking, great tasting fish on the deck.
Now, I am not claiming I am a seasoned blackfish angler by any means. What I have done is spent the past three winters freezing my fingers off, cutting crab, and asking questions up and down the rail to learn a fishery I could only have a swing at on my college winter breaks. (Even if you are a hardcore pro, I still think you'll get a laugh from this article) Compiling notes from my failures and successes, I'll cover what to wear, discuss basic tackle, and let you in on a simple, but highly effective technique to getting bit.
My brother (left) and I with a few fish from our annual Christmas tautog trip last winter.
Dress for Success (must read nitrile gloves hack)
As far as fall/winter togging goes, you could lose before even leaving the house in the morning if you fail to dress properly. Layers is the name of the game to staying warm on the rail all day so be sure to double up on socks, wear waterproof boots, and break out the long johns. I highly suggest a pair of fishing slickers and a quality windbreaker, but if you don't want to invest, insulated overalls or old ski gear will do the trick. Check out the shop on my site for a tog hoodie that will keep you warm and looking fresh! Take note on this blackfish hack right here, be sure to pack a box of nitrile gloves, like the kind doctors wear, and hand warmers. On cold days, tuck a hand warmer into your nitrile gloves to keep them toasty and dry under a thinner pair of gloves. Remember to always pack a few extra layers to store in the cabin for when the weather man is wrong about the windchill!
Hoodies and long sleeve shirts available on the website linked here: https://www.blueoceangraphics.com/shop
Keep your Tackle Stupid Simple
As a fishing junkie who had spent their summer working in a tackle shop, I was immediately overwhelmed with the complexity of rigs, jigs, and rods when I first stepped on a blackfish head boat. Sure, I knew what a simple tautog rig was I sold plenty of them, but this was a different world. The bottomline, no pun intended, is that it's easy to be convinced you're not fishing the right rig or setup and achieve the mentality that you won't catch with what you're using. Needless to say, I tied several variations of what I was seeing people catch with all day and personally caught nada. I learned from my mistakes and stick to the saying "Keep you tackle stupid simple". This rig below I guarantee will put you in the game. Now, jigs and more complicated rigs do have their place and often produce large fish, but for the sake of entry level togging, this rig is 100% the way to go.
How to Tie it Up:
For day in and day out togging, this simple, one hook bottom rig has brought me the greatest success. First, snell a gamikatsu 4/0 octopus hook with 30-40 lb leader material. Generally, I snell a pack of these the night before with short leaders, 8-10inches, and tie off with a surgeon loop. Don't know these knots? You should! If you can't snell a hook jump on youtube and then come back. Next, tie a large surgeon loop on a 20-30inch, 40-50 lb leader for your lead and tie a tight dropper loop about 12 inches up from your bottom loop. Either connect to your mainline with a barrel swivel, or surgeon loop to snap swivel on your mainline. With your snelled hooks, you can now do a quick loop-to-loop connection and you're fishing.
The loop-loop connection allows for easy rigging with cold hands. It's very common to dump your whole bag of tackle into a day of blackfishing on sticky bottom, this simple rig will allow you to recover quickly from snags, save $$$, and get you more time fishing instead of rigging.
Don't Lose a Fish of a Lifetime!
Note this wreck fishing tip! That small over hand knot just above the surgeon loop is known as a 'breakaway' and will save your fish and tackle when the weight gets snagged. A very common situation in bottom fishing; a breakaway can save some heavy heartache.
Rod and Reel Combo
To fish this rig, I recommend using a stiff, conventional boat set up that can handle up to 8-10 ounces of lead. You don't necessarily need a high-tech rod and reel, but it is crucial you use braided line. The braided line is very sensitive and abrasion resistant which is ideal for sticky wrecks as well as feeling the light bites these fish are known for. That being said, these fish throw down so make sure your outfit has some beef to it and you can trust your reel for a hard day of fishing. Without breaking the bank, Tsunami trophy series are great rods at a reasonable price point that can be paired with a wide variety of conventional reels.
The Method to the Madness
I’ll now let you in on, what I believe to be anyways, the easiest method to putting these fish in the box. For bait, you will either be buying or supplied with whole green crab or white leggers and hopefully a kitchen rated pair of scissors. Always keep a pair of heavy duty scissors with your tog gear as they are key for cutting crab efficiently. A quick observation down the rail and you'll notice people cutting them in half, fishing them whole, stomping on them with their boot before dropping them down, cutting all the legs off, legs on and the shell off, and so on. Here is my advice as there is a method to the madness; start small and build the bite. I will first fish a smaller sized, half crab with no legs or shell. The best way to hook these baits is in one leg knuckle hole and out the other. Once you drop to the bottom, keep the line as still as possible and wait for anywhere from a small, scratchy bite to a hard thump. You must swing hard to achieve a solid hook set once you get the bite. Keep a tight drag and go to town cranking these reef donkeys from their home as they can really dish out a fight. These fish are dubbed the grouper of the Northeast for their pound for pound pulling power.
No shame in a swing and a miss, you can't catch them if you ain't tryin! If no dice, reel up, change to a fresh piece of crab, and drop back down. The idea is to keep getting fresh crab to the bottom and building the life around your piece of wreck. Utilizing smaller baits with out the shell or legs puts more scent in the water and encourages smaller, less finicky tog to bite. If you are successful and catching fish, you can work your way up to a whole crab no legs, small whole crab, and so on to entice a bigger fish to chew. The key is to keep getting fresh bait to the bottom and constantly changing baits every 5 minutes or so as smaller fish on the wreck will pick away at the bait leaving you with nothing but shell.
Also, it is typically encouraged to rub elbows when a specific section of the boat is anchored over a productive piece of wreck. Don't hesitate to jump up next to someone on the rail if they're catching and you're not, this isn't a game for shy people. Typically, most fish are caught within the first 30 minutes the boat is anchored in a new spot. So, fish hard as soon as the horn blows and don't be afraid to make new friends if you see tog coming over the rail without your hook in their mouth.
Never know what will find your crab enticing if you build up the bite!
Catch em' Up!
Take these tips, some nitrile gloves, and hop on a blackfish boat this late fall/winter. The Osprey fishing fleet (click link) runs an awesome trip out of Atlantic City, NJ in the winter/spring. This is an addicting fishery and keeping it simple, building the bite, and staying warm will put you in a solid position to bag your 5 fish limit. Pictured below is my Dad, left with a solid white chinner, my brother, right with his first tog, and me in the back looking to see what rig or jig crab combination just caught a fish. I didn't keep it simple that day, and came up empty handed. Dare I mention my brother fishes maybe once a year? Tight lines guys and please share some feedback in the comments below.