Fish Crabs for Blackfish
It takes a tough fish to make its living eating critters encased in hard shells, but the pugnacious blackfish fits the bill. Blackfish are also known as tautog or tog, shortened versions of the name given to them hundreds of years ago by the Narragansett Indians who called the fish tautauog. Whatever you call them, they are a popular fish for saltwater anglers in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states in fall, winter and spring, and with very good reason.
Blackfish are capable of growing to over 20 pounds and can live to the ripe old age of 30 years. The current world record of 25 pounds was caught off Atlantic City in 1998, but word of a potential new record catch is now pending approval by the International Game Fish Association. If approved, Kenneth Westerfield, an avid tog fisherman from Bayside, New York, will crush the standing record with a monster 28.8-pound tog caught aboard Capt. Kane Bounds’ charter boat, the Fish Bound, out of Ocean City, Maryland on January 3, 2015.
In recent years, there has been a profusion of tog caught weighing more than 20 pounds. Anything over ten pounds is a handful even on heavy tackle, which is why there is a fraternity of anglers who consider these pugilists of the bottom fishing realm their favorite.
Tog are one of the largest members of the wrasse (Labridae) family, of which there are over 500 species found in tropical and temperate oceans around the world. Most are small, colorful reef-type fish, while others, like the parrot fish and queen triggerfish, grow larger. Most of these colorful fish are rarely associated with recreational fishing, but the blackfish is a horse of a different color.
Stocky, heavily-muscled with a rounded head and a powerful, massive tail fin, blackfish lack the fancy coloration of some of their cousins. The females have mottled markings in shades of brown, while mature males are dark gray to black on the back and sides with a white under belly. Large males have a distinctive jutting lower jaw, and both sexes have large mouths and fat, rubbery lips that hide the prominent teeth used for gnawing mollusks off the hard bottom they live around. While the teeth appear intimidating, anglers familiar with them have no fear of putting a finger or thumb in the fish’s mouth while removing hooks or handling them prior to release. Once a finger touches the inner mouth, they relax.
Further back in the mouth of the blackfish, just forward of the throat, are pads armed with hard, rounded tooth-like bumps used for crushing the shells of the crabs and mollusks they like to eat. This makes them ideally suited for the lifestyle, and explains why crabs are the number one bait used for catching blackfish.
Anglers find blackfish around naturally occurring and manmade underwater structure, most frequently in water less than 100 feet deep. However, they can venture into depths in excess of 150 feet if bottom water temperatures get too cold during the winter. While not migratory, tog do move from shallow to deep water and back again with the seasons. Smaller ones can be found in bays, inlets and around jetties, while even the larger fish will move shallow along oceanfront hard bottom during the warm months of the year and to spawn in the spring.
As mentioned, the most popular and productive bait for blackfish found in ocean waters are live crabs. Green crabs, a shoreside species found in tidal rivers, are easy to catch or purchase at bait shops, and they catch tog quite well. White crabs, the species found around the offshore structure tog inhabit, are harder to come by but can be purchased at bait shops that cater to tog fishermen during the season. Even blue claw crabs, which are more popular for human consumption (think crab cakes and fried soft shell), are used in some areas as are hermit crabs. As far as tog are concerned, if it crunches they’ll eat it.
Finding blackfish is no harder than heading to one of the many near-shore artificial reefs off the coast. They relate to structure, live in and around it, and so do the animals they eat. Artificial reefs are constructed using all manner of hard structure. This can include concrete of all kinds – dredge rock, subway cars, ships, barges, and decommissioned military vehicles – and it can all be inhabited by blackfish. You just have to figure out which spots tend to hold the most and biggest tog. To do this, you need to spend some time exploring the reef structure and trying different spots.
One thing that is critical to tog fishing success is understanding the basics of anchoring your boat accurately. There are times when you can be ten feet away from a structure and you won’t get a single bite. Shift the boat closer to or over the structure, and the bites can come fast and furious.
The next, and some say the hardest part, of fishing for blackfish is hooking them. Most anglers use a simple bottom rig with a six-to-10-ounce sinker at the lowest point on the line, and a single 4/0 or 5/0 live bait hook on a 12-inch leader slightly above it. For using larger whole crabs, there is a two-hook rig called a “snafu” that you can reference on fishing websites. Both rigs are designed to help you keep a tight line between your rod tip and the sinker, but the baited hook is resting on the bottom alongside the sinker. That makes it easier to feel subtle bites, but still is far from foolproof. Small live crabs can be fished whole with the legs on, but you want the scent to escape the shell. You can do this by popping off the carapace (the top shell of the crab), or by tapping it a few times with the sinker to crush it. Cut off the claws and a couple legs, and insert the hook into the claw hole and out one of the leg holes. Larger crabs can be cut in half or quarters.
When a tog bites, you feel it relayed through the line back to the rod. This is where tog fishing gets interesting. Blackfish are notorious bait stealers. They can mouth a crab so gently you might feel nothing more than a scratching sensation in the rod. They will sometimes push the bait with their nose or take exploratory nips at it with their teeth. There are many schools of thought on just when to set the hook, but the best time is when the fish passes the bait back to the crushers in its mouth. It sounds easy, but chances are you will go through a lot of crabs to get the knack of it.
When you set the hook, lift the rod high and start reeling immediately to lift the fish a few feet out of the structure. Heavy braided line and a stout drag setting make this a lot easier. Once you sink the hook into a substantial blackfish, you will experience what many consider to be the best fight there is from a midsize bottom fish. For a lot of anglers, it becomes an obsession. They prize the big fish so much that they rarely keep fish over six or seven pounds to eat, releasing the bigger fish to grow older, larger and make more little ones.
Blackfish are delicious table fare with white, moist fillets that can be baked, sautéed or fried into an epicurean delight. Add it all up and you just might become addicted to matching wits and reflexes with the mighty tog. Blackfish are regulated by every state, so seasons, size limits and bag limits vary from place to place. Before you head out to hunt for tog, make sure to check the local regulations. Y
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