It's Time For Garden State Tautogs!

It's Time For Garden State Tautogs!

It may be cold enough for eggnog, but now's the time for catching big tautogs all along Jersey's lengthy coastline. Here's where! (January 2009)

As Capt. Chris Heuth eased back on the throttle of his party boat Big Mohawk, the electronic fish finder showed a very clear picture. The bottom was flat as a board. The blue water above showed not a trace of fish. Suddenly, a structure arose from the bottom, much like an oasis in the desert.

Above: Capt. Chris Heuth of the Big Mohawk stresses the importance of changing baits regularly. He scored this big blackfish by using a fresh green crab.
Photo by Milt Rosko.

It was no manmade structure, but a ragged pile of rocks placed there eons ago byMother Nature. Its configuration was clearly defined with jagged peaks, some widely separated, and many extending 10 to 15 feet up from the bottom. More importantly, some marks on his scope indicated fish among those rocks -- just tiny blips that had to be tautogs, or blackfish, as they were popularly known by the twenty-odd anglers on board.

Only minutes later, Capt. Chris had positioned the Big Mohawk upcurrent from the rough bottom. He placed the anchor on clear bottom and throttled back over the spot.

"We've got plenty of green crabs as bait," said the skipper as he left the wheelhouse. "So make certain you replace the bait quickly if the bergalls are a bother." He quickly repaired to the rail, walking up and down to help anglers in baiting their hooks or preparing a rig that would work on the feisty blackfish that had made the spot their winter residence.

"Often the tiny bergalls suck all the meat out of the crabs, and there's nothing left but the shell," said Heuth.

"So keeping a fresh bait on the hook is important if you want to score with a big black."

It didn't take long for things to happen. A neighboring angler at the rail lifted his rod tip smartly, and had it pulled down just as smartly.

"I'm in," he announced with satisfaction. "And it's a good one!"

Moments later, Capt. Chris was alongside and did the netting honors. He brought aboard a beauty of about 5 pounds -- a perfect size for the dinner table, and certainly well above New Jersey's 14-inch minimum-size requirement.

So began a most enjoyable winter's day! On leaving dockside, the mercury played with the 32-degree mark, and the decks bore a glaze of black ice from the night's freezing temperature. But the warmth of the cabin -- and the camaraderie of a truly dedicated bunch of veteran anglers -- made for a day far more enjoyable than spent watching spectator sports on television where the players are having all the fun!

You had to be alert. For as soon as your sinker touched down on the rocks below, the bergalls would be after your bait with their pesky peck, peck, peck. Sometimes they'd get the bait, no matter how carefully you placed it on the hook. But often it'd just be a couple of pecks, and then nothing . . .

Until you felt a subtle strike! If you were sufficiently disciplined, you hesitated and let the blackfish ingest the green crab into its mouth, before lifting back to set the hook.

Then the fun began, with give and take until the 'tog was within range of a mate, or Capt. Chris' net.

Most everyone had caught his or her share of undersized fish, which we carefully unhooked and promptly released. On this trip, fortunately, most of the blackfish were keepers.

Periodically, the deckhands would reposition the boat, easing out more anchor rope to position us over a different part of the bottom. Tautogs have a reputation of not moving very far from their lair, and you've got to put the bait where they can spot it.

Hence the regular relocations.

We made two more drops during the day, which turned remarkably warm for early January, considering the thermometer when we left the dock. When three whistles finally sounded, signaling it was time to go home, most everyone on board was pleased with his catch. More than half had caught a limit of four. They had the makings of a couple of fine winter dinners in their coolers -- which didn't need ice today!

Action such as this occurs daily along the length of the Jersey Coast. Party boats from Atlantic Highlands, Belmar, Point Pleasant, Ocean City, Brielle, Barnegat Light, Sea Isle City, Atlantic City, Wildwood Crest and Cape May sail to the blackfish grounds on an all-day schedule.

The clientele on board are a truly dedicated segment of the recreational fishing community and are especially adept at catching tautogs.

Blackfish are a species that can give you ulcers. Only experience and putting in time at the rail eventually brings your skill up to where you'll outsmart the bigger blackfish.

Would you like to join in on this wintertime fun? You'll be pleased to learn that when targeting tautogs, the same basic outfits rated for 20- or 30-pound-test line -- which you may have been using all summer when seeking bluefish or fluke -- will work just fine.

While many anglers load their conventional reels with 30-pound-test monofilament line, for the past few years I've been using 40-pound-test Sufix braided line.

Its fine diameter and no-stretch quality enable me to employ minimal sinker weight. Also, the braid's extra strength let me easily pull free of bottom snags, which are a normal occurrence on the blackfish grounds.

Veteran tautog skipper George Bachert sails the Angler from Atlantic Highlands. "Keep your terminal rigging simple," he advises. "All you need is a snelled hook and sinker. Anything more, and all it will do is get you hung up in the bottom."

As simple as that sounds, many anglers aboard party boats use multi-hook rigs adorned with swivels, snaps and colored beads, all of which are prone to snags.

As any veteran tautog buff will tell you, these buck-toothed bottom feeders are interested in just the tasty bait on your hook, be it a green crab, fiddler crab, strip of clam or sea worm.

For bait, many anglers who frequent the popular Miss Chris Fishing Center in Cape May favor white-legged crabs.

"Tautogs just can't resist them," advises Bob Lubberman, who holds forth at this South Jersey facility.

The basic bottom rig most popular on the blackfish circuit is made by simply tying a surgeon's loop to the end of your line. Onto it, you slip your sinker. Just a couple of inches from the sinker, tie a dropper loop in the line, and slip a hook snelled to 12 inches of leader material onto the dropper loop.

When big blackfish are present, hook sizes up to 1/0 are used, though hook sizes ranging from No. 2 to 5 are used most often.

There's a cadre of party-boat anglers who continue to use a sliding sinker blackfish rig, with good success. They'll slip an egg-shaped sinker onto their line, tie a tiny SPRO barrel swivel to the line, and then attach the 12-inch leader and snelled hook to the swivel.

Then they're all set to bait up.

Many anglers who use this rig will fish with a somewhat slack line, letting a blackfish inhale the bait and begin to swim away with it. All the while, the line slides through the sinker, offering no resistance. When it comes taut, they simply lift back and set the hook.

I've even known some anglers who dead-stick their rod in a rod holder, with about three feet of slack line, and they do surprisingly well. Many blackfish inhale the crab bait, crush it in their jaws and swallow it -- hooking themselves in the process.

With dead-sticking, you've got to be alert. You don't want the 'tog to seek sanctuary in the rocks or the wrecks. So as soon as your rod tip bounces, lift back smartly and begin reeling with a firm drag to get the fish up and coming.

Green crabs are far and away the most popular bait used to target blackfish. But occasionally these crabs will be rather large, so it always pays to carry a sturdy pair of scissors to cut the crabs in half. Remove the two claws. Inserting the hook into one of the holes where a claw was removed, and let the hook exit through another hole.

Some anglers use elastic thread to secure the bait to the hook, though in my opinion, this isn't necessary

The coastal area of New Jersey known to produce big tautogs consistently is the water off Sea Isle City.

Way back in 1978, a 21 1/2-pound tautog was caught aboard the party boat Capt. Robbins. That fish held the New Jersey state record until 1998. It was then eclipsed by a 25-pound monster 'tog landed by Tony Monica while fishing on the North Star -- a record that stands to this day.

John Sullivan, the owner of the Capt. Robbins, thinks that big tautog are plentiful in the waters off this coastal community because there is so much great bottom, with minimal fishing pressure compared to other parts of the state.

Anglers aboard the Capt. Robbins consistently score pool-winning fish in the 8- to 10-pound class, with an occasional 'tog up in the teens.

Great numbers of wrecks, reefs, mussel beds and other choice bottom structure hold the tog throughout the winter months. Their depths range from 30 feet early in the season, when the water is still warm. Eventually during January and February, when water temperatures plummet, the fish move out to 85- to 100-foot depths.

However, the handful of veteran skippers who ply these waters readily admit they have "private spots" -- specifically, patches of bottom that they fish at irregular intervals because they don't want to deplete the population. The Loran and GPS coordinates often result from skin divers finding the spot, or from commercial clam and scallop draggers getting their gear hung in the bottom obstructions where tautogs love to reside.

Capt. Mike Wigle has been the Capt. Robbins' skipper for the past 17 years. When it comes to rigging, he echoes the sentiments of many North Jersey captains:

"Don't use any fancy rigs. Just a plain and simple one or two Sproat-style hooks, snelled to a foot of leader material and tied to a dropper loop close to the sinker. That way, the baits rest on the bottom, and you'll have the tautogs picking up those green-crab baits regularly.

"Lest I forget, use sufficient sinker weight to hold on the bottom when there's a strong current running, as is often the case during the winter months. Many anglers use upwards of 8- to 10-ounce sinkers, so they can maintain their line perpendicular to the bottom. By keeping the line taut and straight up from the bottom, they immediately feel when a tautog inhales the green-crab bait and begins to crush it before swallowing it.

"Then it's just a matter of timing, to set the hook and -- with firm drag pressure -- get the tautog away from bottom debris that it can get tangled in if you have too light a drag."

By the way, John notes that anglers who visit the Sea Isle City area during the winter months pay ridiculously low motel rates, at $40 to $50 per night. He's pleased to arrange a trip during January and February when the tautog bite is hot.

Why in the world, you might ask, would anyone want to go fishing in the cold winter months?

Well, it's because the blackfish are such fine table fare. I much prefer catching the 2- to 4-pound ones.

I fillet the fish and skin the fillets. That gives me two generous portions, which my wife June turns into the most delicious seafood dinner you could ever ask for.

First, she coats a Pyrex baking dish with cooking spray and places the fillets in the dish. Next, she smothers the fillets with a homemade sauce made with mayonnaise, mustard and ground horseradish, adjusting the quantity of each ingredient to suit our taste. Then the fillets are broiled until they flake to the touch of a fork.

Served with a tossed salad, baked sweet potato and a side of baby lima beans, it's a dinnertime treat even veteran culinary chefs would find difficult to top.

While this fishing is fun, it can be very uncomfortable if you don't go forth properly prepared.

Capt. Charlie Eble of the 100-foot Doris Mae IV out of Barnegat Light advised, "Always bring more clothes than you think you'll need. You can always shed a layer or two if it's a pleasant day."

With that goal in mind, all the captains we spoke with while preparing this article suggested monitoring the Weather Channel before planning a blackfish junket. Avoid northeast winds of high velocity, as well as the prevailing winter northwesters.

Often after a couple of days of huffing and puffing, the winds blow themselves out, and you'll experience calm seas and pleasant temperatures that make for fishing fun.

I regularly wear a pair of long johns, loose-fitting trousers and a flannel shirt, topped with a hooked sweatshirt and hooded outer jacket. Insulated knee boots make for warm footing. And to finish off, I don a foul-

weather suit. Most of these boats have heated handrails, but a pair of warm gloves keeps my fingers from getting numb when the temps are hovering around the freezing mark.

A warm woolen ski hat completes the outfit and keeps my ears from turning beet red!

All the boats that specialize in this wintertime fishing have comfortable heated cabins, with a galley that provides lunches from hot dogs and hamburgers to warm soup. Often I'll bring along a plastic container of homemade soup, which I love to prepare during the winter months. That soup warms me for an afternoon spent at the rail trying for bucktoothed blackfish swimming among the rocks and wrecks below.

As you know, blackfish usually offer plenty of action during the winter season. Hopefully, one or more will find the green crab bait on my hook!

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