Lessons In The Pursuit of Trophy Tautog

Pictured above: Dante Soriente of MagicTails Bucktails caught a 20-pound tautog on one of his own jigs.

My favorite moment in tog fishing is the half-second after the hookset. Just about every other fish, upon feeling the hook, reacts immediately and violently, but not the tog. The tog swims up, slowly processing the situation, before turning and swimming back to its structure with the power of a fish many times its actual size. At the other end of the line, the angler is processing as well, wondering if the hook found its mark, or if the fish is keeper sized.
I remember that moment for the largest tog I’ve ever seen in person. Sean Jones, one of my party of six who’d chartered Captain Tom Daffin of the Fishin’ Fever out of Cape May, drew everyone’s attention when, hours into a brutally slow winter tog trip, announced, “Fish!”
Sean Jones used the Shogun 4-16 oz to keep this 16-pound blackfish out of the wreck.

I saw the rod straighten as angler and fish evaluated the situation, and saw Sean’s eyes grow wide when the fish turned and ripped line from the nearly locked-down drag. It dove for the wreck with such sudden force that Sean’s hand slapped the gunnel as he reached out to brace himself against the surge. After an extended fight, the tog was in the net. With eyes beady and bulging from the 120-foot trip to the surface, a tail as broad as a 40-inch striper’s, and teeth ground down to nubs by two decades of grubbing for shellfish, it was simultaneously the most hideous and most beautiful blackfish I’d ever seen.

At 16-pounds, it looked like a different species than the barely-keeper blackfish I was accustomed to catching. And in many ways, a 16-pound tog acts like a different fish than a 16-incher. For the fishermen who devote their fall and winter fishing to catching teen-sized tog, this means taking a different approach.

tautog caught holding to structureSmall, overlooked structures hold large tog because they see less fishing pressure than larger, more obvious areas.

“Everyone looks for big structure,” says Rhode-Island-based charter captain, BJ Silvia, “but many of the best big fish places are easily overlooked.

Silvia’s home waters off Newport are loaded with reefs, rocks, and craggy structures, and with so much tog habitat, if can be difficult to narrow down where the giants live. Silvia likes the more subtle structures, the ones that he calls “blackfish highways.” These, BJ says, could be small points with a few big boulders, edges between hard- and soft-bottom areas, and even contour lines. BJ put a 19-pound blackfish in his boat in 2018 by fishing one of these little-known structures.

tog jig

Jigs for Bigs

While most of the captains preferred rigs over jigs for the largest blackfish, jigs have their place. Captain BJ Silvia has found that jigs present crab baits better in strong current than rigs. In current, a crab bait can spin, which will put off the tog, BJ said. A tog jig places the bait right on the bottom, where it won’t be as affected by the current. And tog jigs definitely catch big fish. In November, 2018, Dante Soriente of MagicTails Bucktails caught a 20-pound tog on one of his own jigs.

One of the keys to catching big tog is staying in a location long enough to draw in the right fish, BJ notes. Activity from smaller tog or other bait stealers will attract more and larger tog.

BJ likes big baits for targeting big tog, and uses the biggest green or white-legger crabs he can get. With all but the biggest baits, he prefers a single hook rig, with a 5/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. At times, however, Silvia will bump up to a 7/0 hook.

white-legger crabsSilver-dollar-sized white-legger crabs, which Captain Bob Cope calls “gems,” are prime baits for big blackfish.

Silvia prefers a single hook rig, unless he has an extra-large crab bait, in which case he’ll use two hooks in one side of the crab.

Fishing out of Montauk, Captain Hugh Chancey of Chancey Charters prefers a single-hook rig as well. He baits up with a whole, silver-dollar-sized white-legger crab (or “gems,” as Captain Bob Cope calls them). Sometimes he’ll crack the shell, and other times he’ll pop it off entirely, saying that the tog respond to different presentations on different days, and it sometimes takes some experimentation to figure them out. Overall, Hugh says most of the big fish brought aboard his boat fall for whole crabs over crab pieces. But there are exceptions.

What separates Hugh from the rest of the fleet is his knack for catching the fish that aren’t interested in feeding. When other fishermen onboard aren’t getting bites, he’s tweaking his baits and his rigs to tempt the fish that aren’t hungry. He’ll scale down the size of the crab, his hook size, and even his fluorocarbon leader to get tog to bite. “Many people don’t realize tog get line shy,” Hugh explained.

Sometimes the key is tiny baits on tiny hooks. This doesn’t often catch the biggest tog, Hugh admitted, but when the fish are shut off, it’s a way to start getting bites, and has led to some impressive catches.

Captain Bob Cope kissing tautogMust Love Togs. Captain Bob Cope reveals the secret to his intimate knowledge of blackfish.

Captain Bob Cope, of Full Ahead Charters out of Cape May, said some of the biggest fish in his waters are homebodies that spend most of the year on a specific piece of structure. He’s gone out in September and hit the same areas he fishes in January (peak season for monster South Jersey tog) and put multiple double-digit fish in the boat.

For fishermen looking for a trophy tog in New Jersey, Bob notes that the early fall—before the blackfish possession limit changes from 1 fish to 5 fish in mid-November—is a great time. Tog are hanging at many of the same wrecks and reefs, but the primary challenge is avoiding black sea bass. One September day, while looking for big blackfish, Cope hit four places before finding one where the bait could sit unbothered on the bottom long enough to attract a tog. Even though the bag limit is one in September and October, the benefit to targeting tog at this time is that they are relatively unpressured, which is a big factor in finding big ones. Locating the places that aren’t fished hard is the primary ingredient in catching a super-sized blackfish, Bob said, “because most of those big tog get caught only once.”

Although that attitude is beginning to change. In the past, fishermen viewed tog strictly as a fill-the-box fish, but that viewpoint is beginning to shift. Lighter, stronger gear has helped fishermen realize that tog are an outstanding sport fish, requiring a deft touch to hook and skill to land, and in order to maintain (and improve) the trophy fishery, more fishermen have been choosing to release their biggest tog. Off Newport, Silvia says he, Captain Rob Taylor of Newport Sportfishing Charters, and Captain Jeff Viamari of Bad Influence Sportfishing encourage their clients to release the 10-plus pound tog. Captain Bob Cope says he’s seeing an increase in the number of fishermen looking to release big tog off New Jersey as well.

“Tog are slow-growing,” Captain BJ Silvia said, and fish that size take a long time to replace once removed from the fishery. The result will be more 10-, 12-, and eventually 15-pound blackfish available to more anglers.

Tautog Records by State

Giant Cape May blackfishKenneth Westerfeld (right)with his 28-pound, 8-ounce IGFA world-record tog caught out of Ocean City, Maryland, in 2015.

Massachusetts: 22 pounds, 9 ounces; 1978
Rhode Island: 21 pounds, 4 ounces; 1954
Connecticut: 26 pounds, 9 ounces; 2015
New York: 22 Pounds, 8 ounces; 2014
New Jersey: 25 pounds, 6 ounces; 2015

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