Time for Togging
Dr. Ball caught the largest tautog in Virginia, as well as achieved status as the Top Angler in the state for the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament in 2004.
The water temperature has dropped and the striped bass have moved south, not to mention it is downright frigid. So is now the time to consider winterizing your boat and hibernating until spring? Not for serious tautog hunters. Bottom bouncers in search of big tog know these wreck-dwellers don’t hibernate; they materialize into hungry, foraging machines, eagerly searching for a meal. From January to early April, the colossal, king-sized tautog are lurking about the inshore and offshore hideouts, offering respectable trophies to those who venture into the cold.
Often referred to as Black Fish in northern regions, tautog have a face only a mother could love; sporting an impressive set of over-sized lips backed by ominous dagger-like teeth, all attached to a stout, stubby body covered with brown and black markings. They may not be lighting-fast swimmers or graceful beauties, but don’t be fooled by a tog’s docile appearance, a feisty tautog locked onto the end of a stout rod will certainly command your attention. In fact, rumor has it has that strong-willed tog have been known to pry the rod right out of slippery, frozen fingers and over the side. But once wrestled off the bottom and into the boat, releasing these tasty table-fare into anything other than hot grease will be the exception.
The average tog to weighs between 3 to 7 pounds, with the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament rewarding citations for fish at the nine-pound mark, or a released fish reaching at least 23 inches. These fish grow very slowly, with the largest on record weighing in at a hefty 25 pounds.
Timing and Location
Tautog span most of the eastern coastal United States, with the best fisheries concentrated from New England to North Carolina. Any structure offering hideouts and rubbly nooks and crannies for shelter will promote tog congregation and dwelling. The most popular tog holes consist of bridge piling and tunnel shorings, jetties, natural and man-made reefs, and of course, inshore and offshore wrecks. Although tautog can be enticed almost all year round, the tog rush generally kicks off when the waters start to cool in the fall. With the cool-down beginning with the bay waters and moving offshore, the tautog scene tends to do the same with the best action centering around water temperatures ranging from 45 to 60 degrees. Once the water reaches about 42 degrees, expect few to no takers, so moving to deeper, warmer waters is the key to locating the actively feeding fish. A good choice during the colder months of February though March would be targeting deeper water wrecks such as the well-known Triangle wrecks.
Tackle and Equipment:
Unlike other types of fishing, the type of rod and reel combo you select for togging is of paramount importance. Your rod should be stout, with enough backbone to heave a hefty tog from his structure with purpose, paired up with a conventional-style reel possessing a sturdy drag system and a power-handle. Don’t attempt to brawl with these fish with anything less than 30 to 50-pound test line. I prefer braided line because it offers more tactile sensation, allowing me to explore the structure easily and perceive any little bump, and since tautog have a reputation for being expert bait-stealers, any advantage is valuable. Terminal tog rigs can and should be simple, consisting of a dropper loop midway up a two-foot length of 50-pound monofilament leader material, holding an extremely sharp octopus-style 6/0 to 7/0 hook for penetrating a tautog’s tenacious lips. Each of the other ends consists of an overhand drop loop, one holding an 8 to 16-ounce sinker, and the other looped onto a sturdy swivel attached to your main line. Because togging generally lends to fishing in treacherous tackle-eating territory, losing tackle is expected, so taking along extra rigs, and sinkers will certainly enhance your productive fishing time.
Tautog naturally eat crustaceans, which is basically any shelled marine critter. Just as with any bait, fresh, live bait is always the best choice. There are many different tog baits available, but the five most popular tend to include blue crabs, clams, hermit crabs, green crabs, and fiddler crabs. Northern tog anglers prefer the readily available regional green crabs, while those further south, will often opt for blue crabs and clams because they are usually available most times of the year. Fiddler crabs, which are the best bay tog bait, are scarce during the winter. Hermit crabs are my personal favorite, but they are sometimes tough to find, and they are also difficult to manage as well as keep alive. All are effective, great baits but you may have to settle for what you can find.
A wreck anchor donned with at least 10 feet of ¼ inch chain, and plenty of rope for deeper water will prove helpful to stabilize your boat over the structure. Carry along an extra anchor, and a small length of pipe to re-bend the steel anchor prongs into place. Be sure your wreck anchor is suitable for the size of your boat, it very frustrating to find a tog honey-hole only to pull from the wreck with the next passing wake because your anchor is too small. To get started, maneuver your boat up current of the wreck. As you begin drifting toward the wreck, either throw or drop the anchor and chain in a stretched-out manner followed by plenty of rope, so that the chain does not drop on top of the anchor, or you will experience the joy of untangling an ineffective anchor blob. Allow the anchor to drag across the bottom until you feel resistance from the structure. Do not jerk the anchor; this causes the anchor to jump off the bottom, most likely causing you to miss the hang. Once resistance occurs and the rope begins to tighten, tie it off and confirm that you are over structure.
Drop your bait to the bottom, and while keeping the line taught, hold your rod very still, feeling for any motion. Over the years I have developed a two-step process that works very well for me. Once dropping my line, I will hold it very still for about 30-40 seconds to allow the fish to examine the bait without movement, promoting a natural appearance. If I don’t feel any bites, I will gently lift my rod to move it over several inches. If I feel any resistance while lifting my bait, I firmly set the hook, usually setting it into structure, but you never know for sure. During any of this process, if I feel any movement, whether I think it is a sinker roll, drop-off, or an actual bite, I set the hook immediately. Waiting to the count of three to before setting the hook, as often recommended, will leave you with nothing to show but a bare hook. After experiencing an actual tog bite and missing him, wait a few more seconds, and if he does not return, then pull up your empty hook and re-bait.
You can use your sinker as a tool to feel around the structure, searching for holes, and shelves in the wreck harboring tautog crouching to spring on their prey. Be patient, tautog fishing takes a little practice and understanding of their environment.
Tautog will often collect and group into different sections of the structure, often only a few feet from your bait. If no luck with your chosen spot, try moving to different areas of your boat, then try moving forward or back five to ten feet on your anchor rope before conceding to a new anchoring attempt, or a different structure. One interesting tidbit about tautog in general, is that when it comes to eating, they are either not very bright, or they are extremely hungry. Mindlessly, the same fish will bite repeatedly until he is finally hooked, so don’t give up. If your buddy is having difficulty hooking a fish, slip into his spot while he is re-baiting, and you can hook the same fish he has been missing.
Once fooled, don’t expect long runs, or much else other than a fierce up and down battle with an angry tautog, so keep the drag firm. When initially hooked, pull the rod up with firm determination in order to haul the tog out of the wreck; otherwise you will have your rig and sinker hung in the wreck, along with an attached fish. If this does happen, you can loosen the line a little, and wait. Sooner or later the fish will move, allowing you to apply steady pressure to guide him up and out of the structure. If you are impatient, simply jerk the line several times, and either the fish or the rig will give out. Once the fish is hooked and clear of structure, enjoy the vertical the tug of war, and the not so pretty reward of a tasty cool-water brute.