Tautog or 'tog' fishing is much like a game of tug of war. The initial moments of battle determine a win versus a long stalemate, usually with the wreck rather than the fish.
Tautog have as many names along the coast as they do mottling patches on their dark olive or black skin.
When these bait stealers eat your bait, they most often tap once, then twice, and you had better set the hook. That third strike will be the fish spitting out your bare hook.
If you have never fished for tog before, you'll be cursing these fish out within the first hour, I guarantee you that. There is certainly a knack and learning curve to catching tog. Busting buddies chops becomes the norm as these fish are fast and smart. The bigger the tog, the smarter and faster they become.
Tautogs have two conical teeth at the front of their mouth along with flat crushing teeth in the back of their mouth. Each set of pearly whites are designed for crushing and eating crabs, snails and clams.
Living among artificial reefs, wrecks, boulder fields, pilings and other forms of structure, tog offer a formidable opponent and a tasty meal.
On tautog fishing, commercial fisherman and charter captain Frank Masseria of Vitamin Sea Charters on Staten Island said, "The mistake most people make when tautog fishing is upon anchoring. It is critical to double anchor your boat. Two anchors will keep you on the spot under wind and tide. When desired, you can pay out some anchor rope and target a new spot on the reef without lifting your two-anchor set."
Whole crabs such as green crabs or Jonah crabs (also called white legger's) are pretty much the preferred bait when targeting tog. Most would agree that white legger's yield vicious strikes (and the most strikes) from tog, but finding white legger's can be difficult.
Like anything else, supply and demand dictates the market price, ultimately making white legger's expensive to say the least.
Tautog anglers typically use a two-hook rig without swivels. However, Masseria prefers to target heavily snagged areas requiring the use of one-hook rigs, he calls a speed rig.
"Speed rigs are attached to 50-pound Power Pro. I attach 40- or 50-pound monofilament in a 10-foot section to the Power Pro via a reverse Albright knot and when I am stuck, I pop the monofilament section free and retie. No swivels and one less hook to hang up on the wreck — it's efficient for me."
Masseria went on to say "If you are not snagging consistently, you are not in the right place. And the Power Pro; the bite is so dramatically different with Power Pro that I can smell the bite. Forget about feeling the bite."
Tog fishing usually lasts well into December. As water temperatures cool, these fish will migrate offshore in search of more consistent temperatures. Offshore wrecks and boulder piles make excellent winter-time choices if you decide to target these fish.
All I can say is wait on the first bite and set on the second bite. Setting the hook too soon or waiting too long will have you fit to be tied.
If you go:
• Plenty of tautog party boats and charter boats target these fish from Rhode Island down through Virginia all winter long.
• 6 ½- to 7-foot MH or H action muskie series rod matched with a Shimano Torium 14 or 16 is a great choice. The rod has plenty of backbone to pull the fish from the structure while handling heavy lead. This particular reel offers a high-speed retrieve, further assisting the angler when pulling heavy tog from the piece quickly.
• Fresh green crabs or white legger's are very popular baits.
Hire a boat
• Capt. Frank Masseria, Vitamin Sea Charters, Staten Island, N.Y., 917-439-6448
Party-boat blackfish trips
• Captain Jeff Gutman, VOYAGER Party Boat, Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., 732-295-3019
• Captain Paul Thompson, Deep Sea and Delaware Bay Fishing, Cape May, N.J., 609-884-1214
• Anglers Marina & Party Boat Fleet, Lewes, Del., 302-644-4533
Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).