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Tautog Fishing Tips from the Pros…

Experimenting with a variety of rigs, different baits, and obscure locations is often the key to landing big tautog.

Tautog, also called blackfish, are more affable than you may have been led to believe, and catching them is not easy to master. There’s a big difference between catching a couple for dinner and consistently pulling a limit of big ones. The biggest tautog are far more selective than their smaller brethren, much more powerful, and smart enough to bury themselves in the stickiest structure at the slightest hint of trouble. For this reason, the most experienced and successful tog fishing pros are held in high esteem by those aspiring to battle more bruisers.

Learn tautog fish facts like how old a tog is based on its length, what they taste like, and the size of the world record blackfish.

Big Tautog Nancy Ann IV

Huge lips, white belly strip and a broad tail—that’s the kind of blackfish it takes to win a pool aboard Captain Rich Jensen’s Orient Point charter boat, Nancy Ann IV. This tog fell to angler Tom Meoli. Photo: Captain Jerry McGrath

I’ve asked a quartet of the Northeast’s most highly regarded tog masters to reveal a few secrets specifically aimed at targeting bulldog tautog. These are skippers who routinely bring home—and occasionally even release—some of the biggest whitechins of the year. Listen up, blackfish fans. Class is now in session.

Finding fish in the fall is all about adjusting the depth as the season progresses and the water grows colder, says Capt. Jason Colby of Little Sister Charters, who targets tautog out of Westport, Massachusetts.

“I start the season in late September in 20 to 25 feet of water,” says Colby, “and by mid-November, I’m looking deeper than 30 feet. The last spot I’ll fish, around Thanksgiving, is in 47 feet of water.”

Although waiting on a tide change might be necessary when fishing for other species, being patient and staying put rarely pays off in tautog fishing, says Colby. “If the tautog are there and you put a crab in front of them, they’ll usually bite. So, if you make a drop and aren’t getting bites, assume the fish aren’t there and move on.”

Tautog Jig

Captain Jason Colby of Little Sister Charters prefers targeting tautog with jigs, but he claims that’s not always what they want. At times, a basic single-hook rig will work better.

 

Colby has switched from traditional size 4 Virginia-style blackfish hooks to 4/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks. He has also incorporated fluorocarbon leaders into his single-hook bottom rigs, snelling his hooks to 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders and attaching them to 50-pound-test fluorocarbon dropper loop rigs. For bait, he prefers half a green crab, “the bigger, the better.” If he can only get smaller crabs, he’ll fish them whole.

Although a single-hook rig is a good all-around option, when given the choice Colby opts for a 1-ounce tog jig. “The reason why people love to fish for blackfish is the bite—it’s fun, and it’s a challenge to get the timing right and hook up. With a direct line to a jig, that fun is multiplied,” says Colby. “The bite on a jig is different. A big tautog will inhale the jig and immediately begin swimming off. You’re not only feeling for the tap, you’re watching the line to see if it moves. When you know the fish has the jig in its mouth and is swimming away, that’s when you strike.”

Tautog Hotspots

Capt. Rich Jensen of the Orient Point, Long Island charter boat, Nancy Ann IV, has a reputation for catching huge blackfish. The top bulldog to come over his rails topped 16 pounds, but this well-respected skipper makes it a point to note that between 12 to 13 pounds has been the top weight in recent years.

“I can’t say that I’ve been doing anything radically new in my area,” states Jensen, “but I have made subtle changes here and there to stay on target more often than not.”

Newport Sport Fishing Charters Nick Krasy 13 pound tautog

Mike Sadowski holds a 13-pound tautog caught while fishing with Newport Sport Fishing Charters.

Cover Water & Keep Moving

One thing this master blackfish skipper advocates to improve scores with big fish in today’s high-pressure fishing world is covering a lot of water so as not to overwork one honey hole. With the ability to range 15 miles to the west up into Long Island Sound and a similar distance to the east, Jensen is lucky that he has a lot of good rock- and structure-laden bottom over which to prospect.

“I try to work new bottom as much as I can,” explains Jensen. “The more I work new pieces into my trips, the longer I can let established spots rest and reload. This approach keeps my favorite pieces alive well into the colder weather. It’s hard to lay off some of the better spots because I need to produce daily, but by not over-pressuring any one location, I assure all of my clients a good shot at some great fish.”

It’s also important to be spot-on when you anchor over a specific piece of structure, stressed Jensen. If you aren’t getting the action you hoped for, pull up and reposition. With more pressure and fewer fish these days, you’ll really want to be tight up against the sticky stuff or right in the mussel beds to maximize big fish possibilities.”

The current world record tautog was caught by Kenneth Westerfeld off the coast of Ocean City, Md. in 2015 – it weighed 28 pounds.

Capt. John Marino of American Sportfishing Charters in Huntington, Long Island, specializes in catching big tog on ½- to 1-ounce blackfish jigs tipped with Asian shore crabs. It’s a technique he’s been using for more than a decade to deck bulldogs to 13-plus pounds, and he continues to refine his presentations each and every blackfish season.

Tautog eats jig tipped with crab

This 14.75-pound brute fell for a jig tipped with half a green crab.

“I’m not ‘jigging’ for blackfish in the way that most anglers jig for fluke,” notes this Western Long Island Sound skipper. “Instead, I get the jig to the bottom and try to keep it in place or drag it lightly across the seafloor and meticulously probe inch-by-inch to bump it against any structure I can uncover.”

Marino suggests that anglers jig for tautog around rock piles, ledges, and mussel beds in 20- to 30-foot depths, but notes that just as important as knowing where to work blackfish jigs is understanding where not to try them. “Avoid wrecks,” he warns, “It’s not hard to bounce a jig free of rocky snags but you aren’t getting it back once you set the hook into a wooden wreck or dead line. Stay in the boulder fields with this technique and you’ll do just fine.”

Tidaltails Blackfish Jig

Tidaltails Blackfish Jig

Until recently, Marino advised anglers to use jigging as a shallow-water technique. That advice has changed of late. With ever-improving braided lines and increasingly sensitive rods, he now regularly jigs in depths up to 60 feet. Another change: he sometimes jigs while drifting. “If the tide is slack or running real light, drifting lets you cover a little ground,” he explained. “It’s still vital to be around rough bottom, but you can work the edges without too many snags if you pay close attention to the end of your line.”