Though the bag limit was only one fish per person during last winter’s blackfish season, the opportunity to catch trophy tog in the shallows was too good to pass up. Togs migrate in- and offshore with the seasons, and in fall even large fish can be found in shallow water. I ran my new Pathfinder 2700, equipped with a 120-pound-thrust Rhodan trolling motor and Yamaha’s impressive Helm Master EX digital controls, to a likely inshore tog haunt. The digital controls link electric steering, shift-and-throttle binnacle, joystick and autopilot to the latest F300-compatible outboard via a computer.
I scouted an area and picked a spot where the depth transitioned from 18 to 26 feet along an underwater ridge, then walked to the bow and deployed the trolling motor. Using the remote, I positioned the boat and pressed “A” to engage anchor mode, which uses an internal GPS system to lock onto the position while the CPU controls the motor to maintain the position.
Ginger and I broke out the lighter of our tog spinning outfits and clipped on 3/4-ounce jigs tipped with small, whole green crabs with the carapace popped off and dropped them to the bottom. Conditions were perfect and the fish were aggressive; we didn’t have to wait long for the telltale bites. We caught some nice ones, but we were looking for Mr. Big, so I used the trolling motor to glide quietly down the ridge to expand our search.
I was lost in thought at our next stop, remembering what a chore it used to be to anchor on these spots. Then a solid hit caused a reflexive strike, and I was into a fish that peeled line like no tomorrow. A double-digit tog in shallow water fights more like a bonefish, and this one made a screaming run before the drag slowed it down. After some bulldogging back and forth, an 11-pounder was netted, admired and released.
Easier Rhodes Ahead
Not too long ago, fishing for blackfish was the domain of anglers with a special set of skills, and the ability to accurately anchor a boat over structure was top of the list. About two decades ago, I wrote a feature for Salt Water Sportsman titled “Anchoring for Accuracy” that went into minute detail on the use of ground tackle in various configurations for those who wanted to join the cult of the tautog. This type of anchoring is hard work, requiring seamanship and math skills. And any sudden change in current or wind direction could mean pulling one or both anchors and repositioning. But that was then; this is now. Recent advances in technology make positioning a boat over productive bottom much easier.
The trolling motor is an amazing tool for tog fishing, especially in shallow water. It doesn’t seem to scare the fish, which is evident because we frequently hook them directly under the running motor in just 20 feet of water. But trolling motors with spot-holding technology aren’t the only advancement that makes anchoring a thing of the past. Yamaha’s Helm Master EX, a fully integrated digital smart helm that is like artificial intelligence for your boat, is another incredibly versatile tool that comes into play for all kinds of fishing, from inshore to the canyons to bottomfishing to trolling for marlin and tuna.
Secret Angler Man
As the water cools in the late fall and early winter, togs migrate to deeper structure. They can be found in water depths from 50 to 100 feet or more, often miles from shore. With the many artificial reefs, wrecks and natural structure found off New Jersey and New York, there’s plenty of tog-friendly real estate to choose from.
Larger structures are often fished hard by party and charter boats, but the small pieces experience less fishing pressure and can hold big fish, so I try to concentrate my efforts on those. I spend a lot of time searching out these hard-to-distinguish spots and hate anchoring on them because there is a chance of a passing boat glomming my numbers.
Now I don’t have to worry because I don’t have to anchor. While a trolling motor can be used farther offshore, the Helm Master is more ideal for this fishing. I simply get over a spot using the engine and push the FishPoint button on the joystick control. The system uses its own GPS and heading sensor to hold position.
And if someone passes nearby, I can quickly move off—but they usually don’t even realize I’m on structure because there is no anchor or trolling motor deployed. How sneaky is that?
Another bonus that comes with using Helm Master is that it’s quicker to get on a spot and hold position because you don’t have to deploy the trolling motor and then use it to get back on the numbers. If you want to move a few feet, push on the joystick in that direction—be it left, right, forward or back—and the engine moves the boat a preprogrammed distance. I usually set it so each click is a 10-foot move, and I can click the joystick multiple times to stack the distance. The system works not only with multi-engine boats, but also single-engine vessels.
Using the engine to hold position has its limitations, at least in my mind. When it’s in FishPoint mode, the outboard clicks in and out of gear, creating some surface turbulence when applying thrust to maintain the waypoint. Even though it shifts quietly, I defer to the trolling motor when fishing shallow structure so engine noise can’t bother the critters below. I have some very shallow spots, some with barely 10 feet of water over them at high tide, that can hold a lot of blackfish. I prefer to be as quiet as possible when fishing skinny like that.
Replacements for old-fashioned anchors aren’t the only thing that has changed the togging game in recent years. Techniques have transitioned from conventional tackle, heavy sinkers and rigs to spinning tackle and jigs. I wrote about this emerging trend way back in 2013 and have been using it ever since. Using light tackle required a different approach to feeling bites, setting the hook and fighting the fish, but within a year I had taken togs over 13 pounds on incredibly light spinning tackle.
I first experimented with a plain-white boxing-glove-style jig head I saw used for trolling ribbonfish for king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico. It looked like it would do what I wanted—drag a crab bait to the bottom and hold it there with the hook facing up. It was the start of a tog fishing revolution that led to a cottage industry, with numerous companies like S&S Bucktails, Magictail, Tsunami and others producing and selling tog jigs from 1/2 to 3 ounces in a rainbow of colors. These all accomplish the same task: making it easy for togs to find and eat the crab—often with considerably less hesitation than the old sinker-and-rig method.
Ginger and I use similar spinning outfits for jigs. The lighter one, for 1/2- to 2-ounce jigs, is a Tsunami Trophy Series TSSPJS-701H 7-foot slow-pitch fast-action rod with a Penn Spin-fisher VI 3500 reel loaded with 20-pound braid and a minimum 4-foot, 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. The heavier rod, for 1 1/2- to 3-ounce jigs in deeper water, is a Tsunami Carbon-Shield TSCSHDSPS-761XH 7 1/2-foot fast-heavy action with an Evict EVT 4500 reel loaded with 30-pound braid and 40-pound leader.
The tog fishing game has gone high-tech, and it makes for fast action with a lot less work. First, I ditched my heavy conventional tackle for spinning rods and jigs. Then I swapped my anchors for the latest in boathandling technology. One thing is for sure: I won’t be looking back.
Read Next: Inshore Tautog Fishing
SWS Planner: High-Tech Tog
- What: Blackfish on jigs using the latest in high-tech anchor replacements
- When: Spring, fall and winter
- Where: From southern New England to Maryland
- Who: Private boats equipped with electric trolling motors and full digital helms for boat-position control
SWS Tackle Box
- Reels: 3000 and 4000 series
- Rods: 7- to 7 1⁄2-foot medium to heavy spinning rods
- Lines: 20- or 30-pound braid, 4 or more feet of 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a Tactical Anglers QuickClip for fast jig changes
- Lures: A variety of tog jigs from 1⁄2 to 3 ounces
- Bait: Green or white crabs