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September 21, 2007

Crunch Time!

Mid-Atlantic anglers are tempting big tautog by serving up a gourmet bait buffet.


Big 'tog are on the menu as Roger Burnley brings in another.

Imagine you're a tautog. Imagine that you live in a crag in the rocks at the bottom of the sea. You are fat, ugly, powerful. From your rocky home you watch the murky water, waiting for the current to bring you something tasty. A blue crab scoots by. You dart out and crunch it up. A mussel catches your eye. You shoot over and crunch that up, too.

Yet eventually you tire of such everyday fare, so when a big, juicy hermit crab - out of its shell, no less - drops in front of your face, you don't hesitate. You race over, chomp down and feel the cold steel of a hook penetrate your lip. Whoops. Now you are dinner!

'Tog anglers have long experimented with an assortment of seafood delicacies to coax fat blackfish out of the rocks. Sure, blue crabs and chowder clams catch their share of tautog, but when the fish are finicky, or when trophy whitechins are the target, having a variety of bait on board can mean the difference between 'tog fishing and 'tog catching.

What's On the Menu?

A tautog's diet is a smorgasbord of delectable crustaceans and mollusks. We should be so lucky to dine like a 'tog. To tempt these connoisseurs of fine seafood, an angler must become a gourmet chef, choosing only the freshest bait and preparing it in the most appetizing manner.

Crunch Time!
To pry big blackfish away from their rocky homes, the author relies on a heavy boat rod with a stout butt section and a powerful reel. His typical terminal rig is ten ounces of lead, 50-pound leader and a tasty piece of clam or crab impaled on a 5/0 hook.

Chowder clams are probably the most common bait in a 'tog fisherman's arsenal. Only use live clams. The shell should be closed and they should smell salty. Open the shell by cracking two clams together until one or both break. Remove the meat and cut it into strips. Hook the clam through the tough tongue section and let the body dangle in the current to release scent. Keep baits small and close to the hook, making it harder for these infamous bait thieves to do their work.

Blue crabs are another great bait, and some bait shops also stock spider crabs, which 'tog also have a hard time passing up. When purchasing crabs, make sure they are alive; I've never caught a 'tog on a crab that was dead when I bought it. To prepare the crab, first pry off the shell with a pair of bait shears, then cut off the legs and claws. Next, cut the body section into quarters. Run the hook through one leg hole and out another. Save the claws for bait if the body sections run low.

Variety Show

A box of blue crabs and chowder clams is a good start, but many times it takes a variety of baits to fill the fishbox with 'tog. When the water is cold and the fish don't have to eat as often, or when there is an abundance of food available, blackfish anglers should add irresistible items to the menu.

Fiddler crabs and green crabs are 'tog candy. These bite-sized crustaceans will illicit strikes when the fish are picky. Simply remove the claws and run the hook in one leg hole and out another. Be sure to serve fiddler crabs and green crabs when fishing inshore rocks, wrecks and reefs.

Crunch Time!
Erik Moore unhooks a tautog that hit a whole hermit crab in 70 feet of water. Big hermits are the go-to bait in 'togville when the fish are proving fussy.

When targeting fish on deeper structure, it is hard to beat a whole hermit crab for bait. These are not the cute little pet hermit crabs sold to tourists, but "bulldog" hermits caught in the deep by commercial conch fishermen. To prepare a hermit for bait, first stick it in the freezer for a couple of hours to slow it down. Then take a hammer and crack the shell. Once there's a hole in the shell, loosen the crab's tail and pull it out by its claws. Run the hook through the crab, starting at its head and exiting through the tail.

The reward for using hermit crabs is worth all the hard work. Big baits equal big fish, and hermits have produced some of the biggest 'tog I've ever seen. When fishing inshore for a lot of little fish, I'll stick with crabs and mollusks, but when fishing deep for a trophy blackfish, I'll be sure to have a couple dozen hermits on the boat.

While there are many different baits for tautog, there is only one type of tackle - heavy duty. To get a big 'tog out of his hole, an angler must be very persuasive. A heavy-action boat rod matched with a powerful reel will get the point across. Spooling the reel with 30- to 65-pound super-braid will add strength to the argument. Super-braid is also super thin, allowing the angler to use a lighter sinker and still maintain contact with the bottom. Lastly, braided line is very sensitive, transmitting the slightest tap to the angler.

Crunch Time!
A hunk of blue crab meat proved more than this blackfish could bear.

Terminal tackle should be equally heavy. I tie my own rigs out of 50- to 80-pound monofilament. Starting with a four-foot section of mono, I tie a surgeon's loop in the end and thread it around a sinker. Then I tie another, longer loop a few inches above the sinker to hold a 5/0 Gamakatsu Bait Holder hook. I like a longer hook to hold bigger baits such as hermit crabs and whole green or fiddler crabs. When finished, the hook should hang down to the bottom of the sinker. I attach the 'tog rig to the super-braid via a 150-pound-test barrel swivel.

When fishing for 'tog, it's important that the bait stay on the bottom. Don't bounce the rig up and down. As the boat rises and falls on the waves, lift and lower the rod tip to maintain constant contact with the bottom. 'Tog are capricious. Sometimes they snatch the bait and run, sometimes they only nibble.

Learning whether to feed the fish or set the hook at the first tap is a skill that takes time, and a lot of missed bites, to develop. However, once the hook is set and the fish is on, getting a 'tog out of his crag becomes a battle that places the angler at a distinct disadvantage. The best plan is to pull hard and pray that the fish doesn't get off. A 'tog can break the line, rod, reel, straighten the hook, or smoke the drag. I've had big fish halfway to the boat when they suddenly turned and dove right back down to the bottom. 'Tog don't stop fighting until they hit the deck.

Where They Dwell

Reefs of Dreams

IF YOU SINK IT, 'TOG WILL COME.

Fisheries managers along the East Coast have been busy sinking everything from concrete reef balls to surplus military equipment to create more fish-holding structure. It seems that one man's trash is another man's reef.

Most of the Mid-Atlantic coast is a vast, submerged desert, devoid of natural reefs. Shipwrecks, discarded ballast stones, bridges, jetties, and breakwaters served as the first artificial reefs. For over 100 years, fishermen have scuttled old ships to create new habitat. In the 1980s, fisheries managers got involved, racing to build artificial reefs in order to curb the decline in fish populations. Today, state agencies are coming up with creative ways to build and fund new reefs, sinking old army tanks, construction debris, even retired New York City subway cars. The Reef Ball Foundation has designed an environmentally friendly concrete dome specifically suited for artificial reefs. They will even build a memorial reef ball by mixing the cremated remains of die-hard anglers into the concrete!

But any old junk will not find its way to the bottom of the ocean. All reef sites must be approved by state environmental agencies, and proposed reef material must be cleaned and prepped to make it environmentally safe. Then the future reef is transported to the site, oriented on specific GPS coordinates, and dumped into the ocean. Once the material hits the ocean floor, it doesn't take long for it to attract new life. In five years it will become a living, breathing reef. - Ric Burnley

'Tog live in structure, and Virginia anglers are lucky to have an inexhaustible supply of wrecks, reefs and rocks to fish. I've caught blackfish in water ranging from ten feet to 70 feet deep. As long as there is structure, there will be 'tog.

Unlike 'tog in the Northeast, which move offshore in winter, the Mid-Atlantic fish stay on the same piece of structure all year long, as their temperature limit is around 40 degrees. To find the temperature in 'togville, tie a pool thermometer to a bottom rig and drop it down to the reef. Although the fish are available in summer, they are difficult to catch with sea bass, croaker and other "pests" around. Late fall, winter, and early spring is the best time to target them, as they have the bottom all to themselves.

Finding a piece of blackfish structure is not difficult. Many states publish GPS and loran numbers for wrecks and reefs, and there is plenty of information in magazines, books and on charts. Once a suitable location has been reached, proper anchoring is critical.

The easiest way to position the boat over structure is to use a wreck anchor and drop it directly into the wreck or reef. However, if the structure is small or in deep water, hooking directly into the reef will actually put the boat off the structure. Instead, approach the GPS numbers, find the reef on the depthsounder and determine the direction of drift. Then, motor upwind and/or upcurrent of the reef, throw out a standard anchor, and settle back over the spot. To fish different parts of the structure, let out more line, pull it in, or tie off to different cleats. Also, fish from different parts of the boat. A few feet forward or aft can make all the difference. If a spot fails to produce in 30 minutes, it's time to move.

The number of tautog available to anglers is dependent on the amount of structure for them to live in. Fortunately, states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast are adding bottom structure with programs that sink everything from subway cars to concrete "reef balls," providing a lot of prime structure that will eventually hold big 'tog. But remember, to catch a 'tog you have to think like a 'tog: select only the tastiest bait, find the nastiest piece of bottom structure, and fight like the devil!