Munchers and crunchers, the winter tautog By Dr. Bogus (2006)
Businesses oft tout 24/7 access, but the mantra of coastal Carolina anglers goes one step farther, 24/7/12 for the 12-month, year round access to saltwater fishing opportunities. During so called off season months, anglers along the central coast can venture out to the “east side” of the Cape Lookout Shoals for big king mackerel, work the shoals for the winter run of stripers or venture out to the “Knuckle” for a giant, that is the giant bluefin tuna. But how about us bottom feeders, us lead bouncers? What do we do when the last of the sea mullet are gone and even the final contingent of the puffers, the blow toads have moved on?
How about trying the blackfish, a.k.a. tautog or just ‘tog for short. So what’s a ‘tog you ask? Her in North Carolina they even seem to get less respect than puffers, but both are some of the best table fare known. Lee Padgett (Cedar Point), a transplant from Northern Virginia and a long time ‘tog fisherman, brought his taste for ‘tog from Virginia. “When I came down here, nobody knew what they were,” explained Padgett.
These feisty fighters and are truly premiere munchers and crunchers of the fish family, crunching on gastropods, mollusks and crustaceans, and unlike many local targeted summer fish species have a wide range of cold water tolerance. Pick a calm mild winter Carolina day, with water temperatures in the 50s and you can safely venture out for these delectable fish.
To get the scoop on the finer points of ‘tog fishing, I stopped by Joe’s Pro Bait and Tackle Shop on the Causeway in Atlantic beach and talked to owner, Joe Ward.
“Yes, we have tautogs down here,” affirmed Ward. “Our fish don’t get as large down here as they do up north. I think they can get up to 18 to 20-pounds some places offshore up north, but our average fish here is about a couple pounds maybe. I’ve caught them personally up to six-pounds,” said Ward.
Baits? “They are crustacean eaters,” said Ward. “So baits would be some fresh shrimp if you can get them, and sand fleas too. They use what they call a green crab up north but we don’t have those down here, fiddler crabs will work, rock crabs will work too,” explained Ward.
Shrimp is easy, but how about crabs in the winter? “You can get all the rock crabs you want even through the winter,” said Ward. “You have to find some rocks lying around along the sound shoreline that you can flip over, or you can knock the oysters off a wall or other structure and scoop them up in little nets. The wall, like in the Morehead Port, if you take a spade and you knock some of the oysters off, you can see the little crabs in there. You can pick them out or have a little dip net, that when the oysters fall off, because the crabs will release from the oysters, and the crabs don’t fall as fast,” described Ward. “You can get fiddler crabs on any day that it warms up. Some of the companies package them dead too. Sand fleas are packaged dead, you can get all those you want,” said Ward.
Another approach is to think ahead, some people will gather sand fleas (mole crabs) when they are plentiful in the summer and freeze them straight or par-boil them then freeze them.
What is Ward’s favorite bait for the tautog? “Shrimp…in the early fall I like to use a live shrimp that’s dead (i.e. recently deceased), and just cut it into little pieces, that way it’s real fresh,” said Ward.
Tautog, like are totally structure oriented and are in many ways similar to sheepshead in that respect.“ Absolutely,” said Ward, “they eat barnacles, and all the growths off the rocks. You’ve got to be getting hung up or you are not where the fish are.” “I’ve caught lots of tautog when I’m fishing live shrimp at the Cape Lookout Rock Jetty as an incidental catch (while trout fishing), if I let my bobber get too close to the rocks. It will just amaze you, when all of a sudden you will be into a tautog if you let it get too close. I’ve caught hundreds on the Cape Lookout Rock Jetty, they are right around the base of it”
According to Ward, other local hot spots include the Ft. Macon rock jetty at the State Park, where Ward has landed some nice ones up to 5-pounds there, the rock jetty off Radio Island that goes into the Beaufort Channel, the rock pile off the Barge Wreck (just west of Cape Lookout) and some of the inshore artificial reefs like AR 315 and 320.
To the west, Padgett has found ‘tog at the Emerald Isle Bridge and rocky areas along the Intracoastal Waterway in the Cedar Point. “The earliest I’ve ever caught them was a few years ago in August, fishing the (Morehead) port walls. But I catch the most from October into February or early March, when the water starts to warm, said Padgett.
Lee Manning, who runs the Nancy Lee Fishing Charters (Swansboro), also has some favorite spots, fishing the nearshore rocks out of Bogus Inlet. “We catch most in the fall and spring,” said Manning, “usually two to three per day as a by-catch, while bottom fishing for sea bass with squid for bait. Most are one to two-pounds but occasionally we do catch some three to five-pound tog too,” Manning explains. “Most of the fish we catch are on the rock ledges just out of Bogue Inlet, Keypost Rocks, 45-Minute Rock, Station Rock and Lost Rock, they are right on the ledges. They do have pretty teeth if you need a tooth transplant,” smiled Manning.
“For ‘tog rigs, you don’t have to get fancy,” said Ward. “You want to use small strong hooks with either a Carolina type rig or a more traditional type bottom rig, with a single hook though. You’ll need 30 to 50-pound test on there with very small hooks, probably number-sixes or maybe a number-four. The circle hooks that some of the companies are making, in the heavier versions like Gamakatsu work real well for some, but I prefer one of the Octopus style hooks,” explained Ward.
Padgett also uses standard fare of rigs, actually a standard two-hook bottom-rig with number-two hooks…and remember to take off your pyramid sinkers for more structure friendly bank sinkers, or you will pay the price in hang-ups.
Getting the tautog to bite is one thing, hooking them is another. Just like sheepshead, often by the time you try to set the hook, it’s already too late. They’re gone and so is your bait. Here is Padgett’s approach, tried and true and perfected (or nearly so) over many years. “I drop the bait down and twitch it from time to time,” describes Padgett. “With crunchy baits, I use the three-tap approach to hooking them. When they first bite, you first feel two light taps, supposedly they are they are crushing the shells and spitting out the debris. Then on the third tap, they eat the bait, so you set the hook when you feel the third tap,” said Padgett. “When using shrimp or squid I try to set the hook during the first two taps, but sometimes I forget and probably loose some fish though,” sighed Padgett. It’s just hard to change old habits I guess.
Finally remember these fish are good eats, some of the best. “They are one of the best eating fish I’ve ever had, really excellent eating fish,” says Ward. “I fillet and skin all my fish to keep the pollutants out of the food that we eat, and anyway you would prepare a flounder works with a tautog.”
So keep you eye on the weather and seas, and the next time you start to get cabin fever and crave some of our local winter “fruits de la mer”, think blackfish, tautog or just plain ‘tog.
I called several of the local head-boats and none target them. I called Capt. Stacy, Continental Shelf and Carolina Princess. Nancy Lee boats get them as a by-catch when fishing inshore rocks bottom fishing for black sea bass with squid. See Lee Manning quotes in article.
Tautog are found from Nova Scotia to South Carolina.
The roof of the mouth and the pharynx have crushing teeth suitable for breaking and grinding hard-shelled prey. They munchers/crunchers eating gastropods, starfish, crabs, muscles, clams, etc. They have teeth like a babies teeth, thick lips and slimy bodies.
Tautog’s slow growth and seasonal site tenacity may make it susceptible to over fishing. Stock Status designated by ASFMC is overfished. Many northern states have size and creel limits. Populations are at an all-time low. NC has little harvest and is currently not regulated in NC. They reach 11-inches after 3-years, and may live for 30+ years.
NC record 19-lb off Oregon Inlet 1992.
Habitat can include rock reefs, inshore wrecks, rock outcrops, gravel, eelgrass beds, shell beds and kelp, inshore in fairly shallow water (max 60 ft, usually much less). They are active during the day and become quiescent at night. During this lethargic period, individual fish require shelter for protection.
Bait includes clams, mussels, peeler crabs, cut hard crabs, green, sand fleas, hermit and fiddler crabs, shrimp, and squid.