As the weather gets colder, many anglers start putting up their boats and gear for the season. There are, however, a good number of anglers who are ready to brave the chill to fish for the mighty "whitechin", blackfish. If you've never had the chance to hook into one of the most challenging quarries our inshore waters has to offer, now is the time.
Blackfish, locally known as tautog (tog), habitate areas of structure that provide good places to hide and an abundance of the crustaceans in their diet. This includes wrecks and rock piles for the boating angler, as well as jetties, bridges and sod banks for the shore-based angler. Tog are hard fighting once hooked, as they attempt to wedge themselves into the structure making it near impossible for you to land them. It's a love / hate relationship for most anglers, and those that love them would prefer to do nothing else.
To begin, you have to have the proper rod and reel. When fishing from a boat, depths of 60' - 100' are the norm, and the hard currents that are common in the fall months often require 6 - 8 ounces of lead. I recommend using a conventional type rod with a length of 6' - 7'. A medium action rod will suffice, but you really can't go too heavy; think broomsticks!. For reel selection, something with a fast retrieve of 4:1 or better is desirable as it will help to get the fish away from the structure. The Penn 112H is an excellent choice, although the 300 GT and LD series reels are lighter. I have seen some folks catch fish on spinning outfits, but they are in the minority, and I've yet to see them produce well consistently.
Line selection is more of a personal preference. 30 pound test gives me good abrasion resistance and is stiff enough to allow me to tie my tog rigs directly on the main line, minimizing the required terminal tackle. Braided lines are popular, but you have to start attaching snaps and swivels and have a good number of tog rigs pre-tied. Many anglers prefer it because of the greater feel, they argue, but I don't have any problem feeling even the slightest bite using mono.
Rigs are also a matter of personal preference. I use Mustad 92625 2/0 (bronze, bait holder-less J-style) hooks. To make a tog rig, I tie a 3" Drop Loop in the end of my line for my sinker. I then tie a 6" Dropper Loop for the hook just above the end loop. If there are a lot of smaller fish or the bite is slow, I will attach a second hook using a Dropper Loop 6" above the first. This gives me more time to keep the baits in the water waiting for the big one to come along. If you prefer to pre-tie your rigs, you can make rigs the same way as described above, finished by attaching a swivel with an Improved Clinch or Palomar knot about 18" above the top hook. (See Knots)
The many artificial reefs provide great structure for targeting tog. The fishing begins in late October on the shallower structure, and heats up by Thanksgiving in 70'+ of water. Tog need structure with hiding places, so choose your destination accordingly. (See Reef Locations)
The when can be as important as the where when targeting tog. Days with less tide and current often see better fishing. The full and the new moon generally bring hard currents with them and are avoided by the savvy tog angler. Recent storms that generate large swells will shut the tog right down. The swells really churn up the bottom, sending the tog deep inside the wreck where they remain until the ocean settles down. Finally, the weather can deteriorate quickly in late fall, so dress warm and choose your days carefully.
(The Rutgers University COOLroom.org website has interesting graphics showing currents here.)
Tog fishing requires that you keep your bait (clams and green crabs are most popular) as still as possible. This means precisely anchoring over the structure. There are only so many pieces of bottom to go around, and this time of year things can get crowded; it's first come, first served. Therefore, before leaving the dock, be sure to have at least a few destinations in mind in case your first choice is taken. Once anchored up, bait your hook, drop it down to the bottom, and hold on!
Catching a tog is easier discussed than accomplished. Tog first mouth the bait before getting to the hook. Therefore, you want to wait a couple of seconds before setting the hook. After getting a few solid raps from what you think is a decent fish, slowly lift the rod tip and if you still feel him hanging on, then set the hook. Once hooked, it's you against the fish. The first few seconds of the battle are critical as he tries to swim back inside. This is where a stiff fishing pole is important with a good retrieval speed on the reel. On many days you will get hung up in the wreck almost as many times as you hook a fish. Don't despair! Slack off on the line a bit, and often the tog will swim out, thinking he has gotten a free meal. He will be in for a nasty surprise!
Tog are slow-growing, long-lived fish. They start life as females, which are a darker brown in color. After they reach sexual maturity, they become males and develop grey backs with light undersides, giving them the nickname "whitechin". The best eating ones are the ones just over the legal limit. The current world record is 25 lbs. and was caught off of Ocean City a few years ago. I highly recommend keeping a digital scale and camera on board. Keep only what you want to eat (when filleted properly, there is very little waste from a tog) and when you catch a "slob", especially one over 10 pounds, consider taking a few pictures and releasing him. Believe me, after catching him once, you won't complain about having the opportunity to catch him again!
About the Captain
Captain Adam Nowalsky has been fishing the waters of South Jersey for 15 years and has over 20 years of saltwater fishing experience. After growing up fishing the waters of Raritan Bay and off of Sandy Hook, Capt. Adam worked his way through college working on South Jersey charter boats and the local bait and tackle shop. Capt. Adam now runs the brand new 35' charterboat Karen Ann II out of Great Bay. To learn more or book a trip, visit his website.