When the frost is on your windows is the best time to test your skills against hard-pulling blackfish and eager-to-bite ling!
By Milt Rosko
The northwest wind had been buffeting the coast for three solid days, peaking at 20-plus knots, which practically shut down any thought of going fishing. It was a typical winter wind, cold and raw and coming in from Canada.
Frequently the northwesters and their subfreezing temperatures fizzle after a few days, which augurs well for anglers who set their sights on the fine winter fishery that exists along the Jersey coast. By far the most popular bottom-feeders targeted by local anglers are tautog (often called blackfish) and ling (properly named the red hake).
A check of the Weather Channel disclosed just what I'd been waiting for: The winds would moderate to less than 5 knots, accompanied by temperatures in the 40s, a perfect combination for a late-December trip aboard a party packet. Not surprisingly, I've found ideal weather conditions like this frequently exist from December through February. Indeed, just last season saw balmy temperatures tucked in between cold spells all winter long. It just became a matter of watching the weather forecasts and selecting the right days . . . as the fish are there and are waiting to cooperate.
It was a toss of the coin whether to opt for tautog on the patches of inshore rocky bottom, or to head off to the Mud Hole to seek the whiskered ling. Both species are fun to catch and absolutely delicious table fare. Reports were filtering in of tautog in the 10-pound class winning party boat pools. That tilted me in favor of seeking this adversary that sets up residence around wrecks, rocks and broken, irregular bottom where there is an abundance of mussel beds.
My choice was a good one. The weather was beautiful. There were fewer than 15 anglers aboard Captain Bobby Bogan's party boat Gambler, which sails from Point Pleasant Beach on the Manasquan River. There was ample room for everyone, and the blackfish cooperated!
That day I didn't catch a 10-pounder, but had several 3- and 4-pound beauties in the cooler, plus one just shy of 6 pounds. It was a fine catch, the makings of a delicious dinner, and several packages of fillets for the freezer. My catch was atypical, as everybody disembarked toting liberally filled coolers.
Red hake, commonly called ling, are a staple of the winter fishery these days -- and a delicious delight on the dinner table. Photo by Milt Rosko
It never ceases to surprise me how few anglers participate in the great tautog and ling fishery that consistently provides fine fishing off the Jersey coast during the winter months. It's primarily a party and charter boat fishery, as most private boatmen have put their craft on the blocks for the winter.
If you're accustomed to fishing aboard your own boat during the summer months, and using light tackle for fluke, porgies and sea bass, you'd be well served to join the hardy contingent that set sail on the packets during the winter fishery. You don't even have to worry about tackle, as there's sturdy rental gear available.
When targeting 'tog and ling, it's a good idea to use a rod measuring 7 feet that's rated for 30-pound-test line. A rod like this has what is best described as a stiff action, capable of handling the heavy sinkers that are sometimes necessary when fishing in 60- to 250-foot depths where there's a strong current. I use a baitcasting reel - spinning reels just aren't suited to this fishing - that holds 250 yards of 30-pound-test line. While on occasion I'll spool 30-pound-test monofilament line, the past few years I've been partial to 50-pound-test braided line. The very fine diameter of new braided lines, coupled with their lack of stretch, makes them an ideal choice. Indeed, I've observed anglers using 50-pound-test monofilament standing alongside me who couldn't hold bottom with 16 ounces of sinker weight, while I had little difficulty holding bottom with 8 ounces, while using braided line.
Unquestionably the major advantage of braided line is being able to detect the slightest strike, and being able to lift back smartly and set the hook with no line stretch to contend with. I can say without hesitation that I can feel the strike of a 5-inch-long bait-stealing bergall in 200 feet of water. This is an important consideration. After all, with ling and tautog, if you fail to strike promptly, they'll quickly clean the bait from your hook.
Perhaps the biggest key to success with respect to bottom rigs for both species is to keep it simple. Remember that you're fishing around wrecks, rocks and broken, irregular bottom covered with mussel beds and marine growth. Rigs with lots of extraneous hardware are apt to quickly snag the bottom and cost you a rig.
A good basic bottom rig consists of tying a surgeon's loop on the end of the line, onto which you should slip a bank-style sinker of sufficient weight to hold bottom. It's important to keep your line perpendicular to the bottom, without it being pushed by the current. It's a good idea to use more, rather than less sinker weight, as it will provide better control of your bait.
I then tie a pair of dropper loops into the line, the first one just a few inches up from the surgeon's loop, and the second about 18 inches above the first, which will keep the pair of hooks from tangling.
For tautog I like a Virginia-style hook, with a No. 2, 1 or 1/0 if the fish are running from 1 to 3 pounds in weight, and moving on up to a 2/0 or 3/0 if there are a lot of heavyweight tautog in the area you plan to fish. The hooks are snelled to 12 to 15 inches of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material. To complete rigging, each of the two leader loops is slipped onto a dropper loop, making a neat, efficient rig, with no hardware at all.
For ling I rig up the same way, but often use a claw- or beak-style hook of the same size, preferably with a baitholder shank, as the barbs on the shank help hold a clam bait securely on the hook.
It is important to note that some anglers prefer to have both their hooks resting right on the bottom. This is easily accomplished. Instead of tying two dropper loops in your line, just tie one. Then tie a second dropper loop into the middle of the leader on one hook, and slip the second hook's leader onto it. Complete the rig by slipping the loop of the leader onto the dropper loop that is tied onto your line. In this way both hooks will rest directly on the bottom, which many anglers feel results in more strikes, as tautog and ling generally hug the bottom as they search for a meal.
Of course, your bait is supplied aboard both party and charter boats. Green crabs and fiddler crabs are by far the superior bait for tautog. The fiddlers are tiny, and sometimes I'l
l place a couple of them on the hook. Quite the opposite is true with green crabs. Often it's wise to just use half a green crab, or even a quarter piece if they're large crabs. Use a pair of bait scissors for cutting the pieces, and then secure them to the hook using a piece of elastic thread. Make certain to tie the bait to the hook securely, as a piece of crab loosely hanging from the hook will get ripped off in an instant by a hungry tautog.
Some anglers employ snails as bait for tautog, which are a tough bait. Big skimmer clams also work well, too. To improve the catching qualities of clam meat many anglers place their clams in a heavy kosher salt brine solution. This hardens the clam and makes it a superior bait, which is less apt to be easily ripped from the hook.
Ling will strike a variety of baits, with skimmer clams and strips of squid being their favorites. The key in baiting for ling, in my opinion, is that you employ a small, rather than a large piece. I've observed anglers who put such a huge piece of bait on their hook that it's doubtful a ling could even get it into its mouth. For best results, use a piece of the firm clam meat, along with a trailing piece of the clam's muscle tissue. A piece about 3/4 inch in width, by 1 1/2 inches in length is just fine.
With a strip of squid, it's best to cut a piece 3 to 4 inches long, by 1/2 inch wide. I find this size works well, as ling, which don't move far off the bottom, can swim up and easily inhale it.
On reaching the fishing grounds, you'll find the skipper will take great pains to position the boat over a choice piece of bottom conformation. This often requires double anchoring, so that the boat stays in position over a choice wreck or rocky outcropping. Blackfish begin an easterly migration late in the fall, and often will be located in water depths of 30 to 40 feet. As the waters cool, they gradually move to the east, and will be found in depths of 60 to 100 feet or more.
Johnny Creenan of Colonia is a small-boat angler who keeps his trailer rig operational as late in the season as possible, weather permitting. He'll often launch at the Atlantic Highlands ramp, and cruise down to the Shrewsbury Rocks, anchoring on the rocky patches just inshore of the black can marking the outer extremity of the rocks, where he consistently scores with nice catches of tautog, and has the makings of a fine mid-winter meal while fishing with his wife, Rita, and son, Steven.
With ling, you'll find they summer in the depths of the Mud Hole and other deep offshore depressions, moving inshore as the waters cool. Thus the water depths can range from up to 300 feet in the deepest reaches of the Mud Hole, to considerably less at such famed spots as the Ambrose Tower, 17 Fathoms Bank, the Klondike, Barnegat Ridge, and other near-shore locations. It is not unusual for ling to move within a quarter mile of the beach or closer when the water temperatures are in the 40- to 50-degree range.
As you send your rig down, you'll quickly determine if you've enough sinker weight for the line to be holding perpendicular to the bottom. If the line begins to drift toward the boat's stern and won't hold bottom, immediately reel it up and increase the size of the sinker weight. In this type of fishing it's not at all uncommon to utilize upward of 16 ounces.
Be ever alert as you get the feel of the sinker reaching the bottom. Often a cruising fish will spot the descending bait and be onto it in a flash. I've often observed anglers who carelessly free-spooled their line, permitting the rig to plummet to the bottom, and accumulating a lot of slack line. By the time they retrieved the slack and got the feel of the bottom, they will have had a strike, and had their bait cleaned from the hook.
There is a marked difference in how you should respond when you feel a strike. While on occasion you'll find tautog and ling on the same grounds; for the most part, you'll be catching either one or the other species. Each takes a bait differently and to hook them requires a different technique.
Tautogs inhale a bait and crush it in their mouth before swallowing it. They are extremely fast in doing so, and it requires an equally fast response. I've often heard the statement, "You should strike them before you feel the strike." I hesitate for just a moment as I feel a strike, for often it'll be the pesky cunners that carpet the bottom in the locales frequented by tautog. When I feel a firm pull on the bait, I'll lift back smartly to set the hook.
Always use a firm drag when fishing for blackfish, because with a light drag a big blackfish will quickly seek the sanctuary of the rocks or wreck and quickly cut you off. With a firm drag you should lift back, set the hook, and immediately begin reeling and pressuring the fish off the bottom.
Captain Charlie Eble Jr., who sails his 100-foot Doris Mae IV from Barnegat Light, implores anglers who hook a big blackfish to call for the net. All too often in the excitement of hooking an 8- or 10-pound beauty, an angler will attempt to lift it aboard as he's been doing with the 3- and 4-pound fish. Often they'll suffer a pulled hook or line break as they attempt to lift the big tautog aboard. The deck hands are always ready to lend assistance, so don't hesitate to call for the net when you've hooked a big one.
Captains Chris Hueth and Gary Fagan skipper the Big Mohawk from Belmar and sail to the grounds off Elberon and Deal, where each season they post fine scores. They caution anglers to minimize hardware on their rigs, and to secure crab baits to the hook to prevent tautog from ripping the baits from the hook. They also caution their anglers to be ever alert, especially on the initial drop to the bottom, where a hungry blackfish may grab the bait in an instant.
With ling, you'll find their strike is less intense than a tautog. They'll inhale a bait, and usually will turn and hook themselves in the bargain. Indeed, many ling specialists lift back to set the hook on the initial strike, and then avoid reeling in hopes that a second ling will take the bait. This makes it less of a chore of reeling a single ling from the 200- to 300-foot depths of the Mud Hole.
Current New Jersey fishing regulations provide for a tautog season from Oct. 10 through May 31 with a 14-inch minimum size and 10-fish bag limit. For the remainder of the year, June 1 through Oct. 9, there is a one-tautog bag limit at 14 inches. Currently, there are no restrictions on ling with respect to size, season or daily bag limit. Check the latest regulations guide before going fishing or just ask the captain or mates aboard your favorite party or charter boat.
Ling and blackfish provide excellent table fare. Ling have somewhat softer white meat, while tautog have very firm-textured white meat. Both species freeze extremely well, and each winter I make it a point to stock the freezer, packing sufficient fillets for a meal in plastic freezer bags that I seal with my vacuum bagger. The system keeps the fish free of freezer burn and when thawed you'd think you caught them that day. I've kept both species in the freezer for up to two years, and they're just perfect.
A closing word about clothing is in order. Remember that
in spite of rosy weather reports, conditions can (and often do) change quickly while you're out on the water. Head forth in anticipation of it being very cold, as you can always take off a layer of clothing. I make it a point to wear insulated boots, long underwear, and several layers of outer clothing, including a hooded parka and warm hat with earflaps. I always carry a rain suit, which wards off the wind, and warm gloves are a must. Of late, I've used hand and foot warmer packs like those sold for deer hunters. Tucked into your boots or gloves, they keep feet and fingers warm as toast on the coldest day.
If you're accustomed to the hustle-bustle and crowds while fishing during the summer, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise as you try for tautog and ling, the Garden State's wintertime favorites. The crowds are gone, the fishing's good, the camaraderie a delight. And ling and tautog are a welcome midwinter dinnertime treat!
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