Hot Tautog Action Off New Jersey's Wrecks & Reefs

Hot Tautog Action Off New Jersey's Wrecks & Reefs

Our state's long coastline offers an endless number of places to seek hard-fighting, great-tasting blackfish. Here are five-plus places to try. (January 2006)

Tim Surgent of Neptune tagged and released this estimated 10-pound blackfish.

Photo by Gary Caputi

Inside the rubble of an artificial reef site, shipwreck, or some subterranean rocky outcropping, it's dark and murky, a deconstructed playground of twisted beams, concrete and algae-covered rocks. The combination of wreck, rock and rubble builds an underwater skyscraper for myriad species of fish to claim as their lairs.

Seabass, bergalls, conger eels, ling and other residents flit about the area, over, under and around the structure, feeding precariously and trying to make sure they are not going to be fed on. The tower is living, breathing with life. In one of the vacuous black holes, within the rocks and wreck, something stirs. From the front all that is visible is a pair of whitish, rubbery, large lips, which are surrounded by blackness.

A green crab ambles over the rock, in front of the lair housing the menacing lips. The crab creeps along, and then freezes for a split second in front of the hole. Something's wrong. Then it disappears. All that's left in its place is a swirl of water and a beastly apparition, thick and muscular, grinning a devious bucktoothed smile -- it's none other than a tautog.

Tautog or blackfish are the fuel that ignites the proverbial fire for the bottom-fishing industry once the water temps dip into the low 40s to high 50s in the wintertime months. In New Jersey, blackfishing has taken on a revamped personae from the past. It isn't regarded as a byproduct fishery as it once had been. Now it's been elevated into a passionate fervor that the winter months signal a time for boat owners to keep their boats docked for bottom-fishing in the frigid waters, as well as luring legions of hardcore anglers onto the party boats -- all in the pursuit of a meaty, thick bucktoothed fish.

Just how good is blackfishing in New Jersey? Let me put it simply: On Jan. 20, 1998, Anthony Monica wrestled in an epic tautog of 25 pounds off Ocean City. His huge blackfish sported a 34.5-inch length and 28 1/4-inch girth. It is the standing all-tackle world record as we speak. How's that for a world-class fishery?

TALE OF THE 'TOG

Anyone who has seriously angled for blackfish cannot argue against the fact that this species is one of the hardest-fighting fish in the ocean for its size. A formidable member of the wrasse family, even a just-legal 14-inch tautog will give you a run for the money.

New Jersey regulations on tautog are a bit confusing. As it stands, regulations include a 14-inch minimum size limit. Now here is the tricky part. From Jan. 1 to May 31, anglers may keep a bag limit of four fish. From June 1 through Nov. 14, anglers may only take one blackfish home to the table. From Nov. 15 through Dec. 31, anglers may keep an eight-fish bag.

Does that middle period sound kind of unfair? In reality, it is. A one-fish bag limit keeps almost all recreational pressure off the tautog for six months, while the commercial sector continues to catch blackfish in their pots and nets. While Jersey fishermen have to bite the bullet for a six-month period, when the fishery "opens" back up in mid-November, the blackfishing goes ballistic all through February, peaking in January, as long as the water temps stay above 42 degrees. And what you pull up can be very interesting. Depending on how you hit the structure you decide to fish, you can either be into smaller 2- to 4-pound 'tog or bulldogs of gargantuan proportions.

TACTICS ALONGSHORE

As an observation on 'tog, they are built to pick off and eat crustaceans taken from the craggiest crevasses of Davy Jones' locker. Equipped with goofy, oversized rubbery lips, which shield and protect bucktoothed donkey teeth, the tautog has the tools needed to precisely and deliberately beat, pluck and stab out crabs, lobsters, shrimp and clams that lodge themselves within the tight crags of any structure.

Tautog are the epitome of a fine-dining bottom-dweller, and with such a crustacean-rich diet, it's no wonder why they taste like heaven in the frying pan with white, flaky meat and mouth-watering appeal.

Tautog are notorious for inhabiting any possible structure that can provide a sinister ambush point or give them the playground to feed upon forage. As blackfish will nestle themselves in structure, you need to be prepared to set up with tackle and gear that can effectively muscle out a 'tog from its domain.

A heavy-action conventional stick is required, preferably an 8- to 9-foot fast-action conventional rod rated for 25- to 40-pound-test, paired with a reel like the Penn 525 or a Shimano 700 Calcutta that has a lot of backbone spooled with a thicker line, such as 25-pound Berkeley Big Game or something at least in the 25- to 40-pound variety for confidence against abrasion and cutting when fishing jagged and craggy structure.

Wreck-fishing demands heavier type gear, as you'll need all the strength you can get to pull out snags and bully out blackfish from their rough underwater lairs. Braided lines such as Power Pro and Fireline in 40- to 50-pound-test are gaining in popularity, as the unparalleled sensitivity allows anglers to feel a 'tog bite with greater efficiency. A 25-foot final length of monofilament is recommended, though, as a braided line has no stretch and tends to work against itself and pull the hook out of the lips of the 'tog.

Captain Ken Dubman, hardcore bottom-fisherman and captain of the K-Kat out of the Highlands, relies on one rig in particular, nicknamed the famed Belmar Rig. Dubman takes his running line of 50-pound-test braid, Albright knots a 10-foot section of 30- to 40-pound mono line, then doubles the mono over, ties a double overhand knot, leaving a double-lined 5-foot loop section. He then takes a bank sinker of 3 to 12 ounces (depending on the current), and loops it on the end. Then, 3 inches up from the bank sinker, he pinches the double line and threads two 12- to 16- inch snelled 60-pound-test No. 2 bronze Mustad beak-style hooks through the loop at the same time, so two hooks are right next to each other to effectively hold a green or Jonas crab into place.

This particular rig allows for the entire crab to effectively be used as bait with enough hook-setting power to capture a bulldog tautog. Another widely used rig to tackle the average 2- to 6-pound tautog consists of two size 2 to 4 Virginia-style hooks tied on a 36- inch high-low rig, where one hook sits 3 inches above the sinker dropper, and the other sits about 12 to 18 inches above it.

Depending on the current and how deep you are fishing, a bank sinker

weighing anywhere from 3 to 12 ounces is affixed to the end of the rig to hold bottom near the wreck or lump. This rig works to attract tautog that lie directly on the bottom as well as the fish that are cruising for food a few feet above in the structure. It is not uncommon to be hooked up with two fish at once, and when you do, you'd better be prepared for a wrist-wrenching battle!

If there's one point to note about blackfishing, it can be defined as knowing, and learning, the "touch." Once you are holding bottom with a bait, wait until you feel a series of meaty taps on the end of your line. The first tap is usually an exploratory one, to test what the 'tog has seen or maybe to crack a shell. If the blackfish determines what it has hit is worth eating, a split second from the first tap, it'll whack your bait again. That's when you want to set back on the hook.

Once you've gotten the pattern down, among myriad missed strikes, you'll know when you have the "touch." It'll be when you can anticipate the second strike and hang the blackfish before it has gotten room to snake off with your bait on the second strike. It's a test of wills, and the process of getting dialed into the blackfish's bite will break you down and frustrate even the best of anglers at times.

When blackfish start to break out of their britches, like the Incredible Hulk busting out of his shorts on an anger rage, they take on a whole new, devious personae. They become the fat, white-chinned blackfish that can only be known as titanic tautog.

Capt. Sam Rescigno of the Mary M III out of Barnegat Light knows about the titanic tautog. His all-time best checked in at just over 14 pounds, but the sharpies that drop lines in off his boat have pulled 'togs to 20 pounds, 9 ounces on deck. How do they score? Capt. Rescigno said, "Hands down, if you can get them, hermit crabs are the best bait. I get them from lobster fishermen, but you can find them around rocks if you put your time in."

But how can you find the largest of the bottom brawlers? "This is my theory. I truly believe that the larger blackfish go against conventional thought and stay outside of the wreck or reef area. They are a cautious fish and spend a lot more time on the open bottom than you think. You can explain this by noticing the colors of the larger 'togs, they are white on the bottom and light gray on top. Why? They blend in better with the sand and clay bottom. The smaller 'togs are a dark black because they are hanging tight in the dark, rusty structure," Capt. Rescigno said.

"Big blackfish also dine on all sorts of crabs, which are for the most part, fiddling around along the sand bottom. Even the divers I speak to tell me that the larger breeds of blackfish hang on the edges of the wrecks, and not so much inside them," he added.

For leviathan 'tog, Capt. Rescigno's go-to rig consists of a 40-pound-test, 5-foot-long double leader, 40-pound-test snelled 4/0 beak hook or No. 3 Virginia-style hook looped on. To find those big old blackfish, Sam recommends a different strategy.

"Fish out-of-the-way spots. You don't always need to target the reef sites and big wrecks. I usually hit the small, overlooked wooden snags that lie on the inshore grounds, and find a pack of big 'togs on each one. The bite for the bigger blackfish is on when they begin to migrate back to inshore waters come March through May. You'll see fish in the 10- to 12-pound class caught with more consistency than you do in, say, November when there are millions of 5-pound-class fish all over. My favorite time to go fishing for blackfish is from mid-December through January, but the springtime is also a good bet."

So a big bulldog probably hits like a Mack truck, right? Well, maybe, but not always.

"I notice that when I get whacked by a big 'tog, it feels like a soft hit, even almost feeling like a bergall bite. It's because the mouths on the older 'togs are huge and they suck in that bait in one inhale, where the smaller 'togs have to pick and punch at it a few times, then you feel the hits there. Big 'togs feel like soft hitters, though one time I did dead stick a rod out with a clam bait for cod and it doubled over the side to the water when a 12-pound 'tog hammered it," Capt. Rescigno said.

WHERE TO FIND THEM

Cape May Reef -- GPS -- 38'53.75 / 74'39.98

This 4.5-square-mile reef site is an easy nine-mile southeast ride out of the Cape May Inlet. Seventeen wrecks and the sprawling concrete rubble from the Ben Franklin Bridge make this a winter tautog hotspot for limit catches of 2- to 6-pounders with 15-pound-plus bruisers mixed in.

28 Mile Wreck -- GPS -- 39'00.45 / 74'04.97

Also known as the Varanger Wreck, the 28 Mile Wreck attracts large blackfish. In its 95- to 130-foot depths, the jumbled structure is fabled for having produced Anthony Monica's world record.

Shrewsbury Rocks -- GPS -- 40'20.29 / 73'57.50

The Shrewsbury Rocks are a vast underwater mountain range. This well-known area is just a short jaunt from Shark River Inlet or Sandy Hook. The Shrewsbury Rocks hold some bumpy real estate that 'tog flock to.

Shark River Reef -- GPS -- 40'06.80 / 73'41.40

The newest addition to New Jersey's Artificial Reef Program, the Shark River Reef was finally completed in 2005; this brand-spanking new structure will no doubt be a treasure chest for blackfish seekers in the coming years.

Takanassee Rocks -- GPS -- 40'16.50 / 73'57.50

A spread-out arena of shale, mussels and big boulders, which stretch about 2.5 square miles some five miles north of Shark River Inlet, the Takanassee Rocks hold blackfish tight to the beach, easily within reach of all types of boating vessels.

TAUTOG ARE OLD-TIMERS

Though you may love and fawn over the delicious taste of the tautog, know that tautogs are one of the slowest growing fish in the ocean. To put the sluggish growth rate of 'tog into perspective, a keeper-size blackfish at 14 inches is already a sage age of 6 years old, a 19-inch 'tog is 10 years old and a 22-inch 'tog is 20 years old (info from

www.njscuba.com).

A whopper 28-inch 'tog can be in the 40- to 60-year-old class! That being said, understand that the 'tog you do pull up is most likely older than you are, and the resource should be respected and protected. Personally, I recommend releasing the largest 'tog you may catch, many of which are the big breeders. If you hit it right, a day out blackfishing is a test of will, mettle and moxie. It's guaranteed that a tautog of any size will give you a run for your money. And there is no better place than New Jersey to test your skills against these fine fighters.

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