Simple Tips for Bigger 'Tog
SIMPLE TIPS FOR BIGGER ‘TOG
By Tom Schlichter
There’s just something special about blackfish, also known as tautog or, less formally, ‘tog, that really captures the imagination of serious bottom-fishermen. Certainly, they are more challenging to catch than cunners, scup, sea bass or even fluke. Hook one and it instantly powers right into the thickest cover it can find. There’s also little doubt that it takes a serious sense of timing to set the point on ‘tog worthy of the tag “bulldog.” Add in their propensity to feed most vigorously on select stages of the tide – a choice which can vary based on specific location and bottom configuration – plus their delicious tasting fillets, and it’s not hard to see why this species draws nearly mystical respect.
On sticky wrecks, in strong currents or in crowded quarters, a single hook blackfish rig is the way to go. OutdoorTom.com photo.
Still, when push comes to shove, the mighty blackfish is a very catchable fellow. Pay it due respect, but don’t overthink this game. As with most any bottom-feeding species in our waters, keeping just a few basic points in mind can really up your scores. Rather than get caught up in all the mystique, focus on the following ideas when heading out on your next blackfish trip.
DULL POINTS LOSE FISH
Baiting up with a dull hook is perhaps the single biggest failure among novice blackfish fans. Don't even consider sliding a crab or clam bait over your barb before inspecting the hook point to ensure it is razor sharp.
Make it a best business practice to check hook points repeatedly throughout the day, especially if a fish manages to wiggle free on its way to the surface. Check, too, after momentarily hanging the bottom. The simple process of freeing a hook often blunts the point and this holds true whether using time honored Virginia-style hooks, Octopus-style hooks or even blackfish jigs.
Let’s face it, blackfish do well in rocky environments but hook points don’t. If dragging your point lightly across a thumbnail fails to leave a light scratch, it’s time to tie on a new one or at least sharpen the one being used. Always keep in mind that it’s not the little fish with soft mouths that slip hooks with dull points; it's the biggest fish with the toughest lips that escape unscathed.
SEARCH FOR LIVING STRUCTURE
Keep an eye out for potential blackfish spots throughout the year. This bucktail, intended for stripers, put the author onto a potential tautog hot spot. Photo by Felicia Scocozza.
Not all ‘tog structure is created equal. Given their choice, blackfish prefer to occupy areas with dense mussel coverage. Underwater boulder fields, large rocks and ledges, reefs and wrecks are all blackfish hideouts, but the best ones hold plenty of mature blue mussels. Heavy mussel coverage means the bottom is thriving and likely crawling with crabs and other crunchy creatures blackfish relish.
How can you tell a selected piece is encrusted with bivalves? There are a few small tip-offs you can learn to spot. One is simply finding mussels on the tip of your hook as you retrieve it to the surface. Seaweed and bottom debris speckled with baby mussels can be another tell-tale sign, especially when it gets stuck on your anchor or chum pot.
Learn to note these occurrences throughout the year as you fish for other species like porgy and fluke. Mark the coordinates of such pieces and return at the start of blackfish season to see if you have discovered a new hot spot. Often, bottom that is alive in this manner shows a little halo of fuzz on the fish-finder. You can also assume you are over mussel encrusted bottom if you start catching starfish because they are a primary shellfish predator.
TO JIG OR NOT TO JIG
Jigging for blackfish is all the rage right now, but some situations are ideal for jigging while others lend themselves better to using standard blackfish rigs. As a rule, jigging works best in water depths of 50 feet or less where braided lines and spinning setups allow you to get down to the bottom with a jig weighing two ounces or less.
Jig for blackfish at the start or end of a tide, or during slack water if at all possible, as soft currents allow use of light jigs that can be crawled naturally across the bottom. Avoid using jigs around serious wrecks and overly snaggy reefs as you are likely to hang up while sliding the jig gently across the sea floor.
If you need a jig weighing more than two ounces to hold bottom, consider switching over to a single-hook bottom rig or, perhaps, a double hook snafu rig. This setup works especially well in deep water, strong currents and wreck areas as it accommodates heavy sinkers that can be lowered to the bottom and then kept in place until a bite is detected.
SHELL OFF, SHELL ON
How you present a crab bait can make a difference in you catch as well. Most anglers use a pair of heavy shears to cut green, white (Jonah), Asian or even calico crabs in half, then break off a couple legs and slide the hook point in one leg socket and out another. Fewer, however, seem to notice that the fish sometimes prefer the shell on or the shell off.
Usually, a de-shelled crab works best. When the fish are feeding thick and heavy, however, you’ll catch more big blackfish if your leave the shell on your baits. This will provide a bigger profile and thwart small fish from easily stealing your bait. Crack the shells lightly to allow more juice to drip out as a blackfish attractant.
HOLD ‘EM HIGH
Plain and simple, a straight, overhead hook-set is the surest way to raise a monster tautog above the snags at the beginning of the battle. Many anglers get this part right, but then make the mistake of lowering the rod tip too quickly as they start to reel, giving back just enough line that a tackle-busting white chin can power back into the snags. Additionally, dropping the rod tip after setting the hook can allow momentary slack in you line, allowing your sinker will fall below the fish and tear the hook right out of the crab crushing maws of a trophy specimen. Get that rod up high overhead and keep the line tight even as your reel down to a more comfortable position later in the battle.
In water depths of 50 feet or less with light tides, jigging for blackfish can be a ton of fun. OutdoorTom.com photo.
Blackfish Tough Mouth: Blackfish have tough lips and it takes a sharp hook to penetrate the mouth of a true bulldog. OutdoorTom.com photo.
Improperly set drags can also compound the initial hook set. Set the drag too light and any respectable tautog will simply power back into the boulders or wreck from which it came no matter how high you hold the rod. A drag with too little give, on the other hand, encourages hooks to tear free and knots or frayed leaders to part during the rock-'em, sock-'em up and down battles for which bulldog blackfish are so beloved. For most species of fish, setting the drag at about one-third the breaking strength of the line is a good idea. For blackfish, it’s important to set the drag a little tighter.
PATIENCE CAN BE KEY
To connect with the biggest blackfish, you've got to wait out the smaller fish that will inevitably toy with your baits. Rapid pecks usually signal bergalls or small blackfish while a substantial 'tog offers a substantial tug. Keep a finger to your line and you'll clearly feel the difference. Wait until your rod takes a slight set, or it feels as if the fish is actually dragging the sinker slightly along the bottom, before setting the hook.
Be aware, too, that strikes from large blackfish are often preceded by a minute or two of relative calm as smaller fish get out of the way. If the fast raps suddenly stop, be ready for a bigger bite because a bruiser white chin may have just strolled into town.
- Bryce Poyer