End the season with a blackfish party-boat trip!
At 50 years of age, I have yet to see a truly warm-blooded outboard engine. When temperatures start to plunge in late fall, they all seem to begin the day mighty sluggish, if at all. Add in the challenges of dealing with run-down batteries, frozen tell-tales, stubborn starters, and an assortment of fuel issues, and the party-boat option for late-season blackfishing becomes very appealing.
Late fall in the Northeast can also mean snow-covered boat ramps, lack of working wash-downs at marinas, and cold winds that keep small-boat fishermen out of the action. Instead of throwing in the towel, anglers can stay on the fish by taking headboat trips. And, make no mistake, some of the best bottom fishermen use this option exclusively. My personal-best tautog was taken on the Niantic-based Mijoy. The 11¼-pound pool winner was part of a limit catch, taken in waters I simply would not have cared to run to in my own small vessel with the weather that day.
Sharing information and techniques is another benefit of plying the party-boat scene. Most of my trips begin with impromptu rig-tying tutorials or tackle discussions on the ride out to the grounds. Many regulars also give valuable intelligence on good boats and solid fisheries that are in other areas of the coast. It’s certainly a great way to keep your finger on the bottom-fishing pulse.
Another factor that makes late fall and early winter the right time for anglers to hit party boats is that many sportsmen have already racked their rods for the year to participate in hunting season. This makes for less-crowded boats, even on the weekends. While I will also take some time off in the fall to hunt, the ease of party-boat fishing allows me to continue to mix in some time on the water as well. Enjoying a morning trip on a head boat and then spending the afternoon on a deer stand makes for a nice experience—an experience that would be less enjoyable if I had to go through the effort of using my own boat. A New England cast-and-blast could also combine blackfishing with some pheasant or duck hunting, depending upon the sportsman’s locale.
Party-boat trips also offer an affordable way for beginners to experience a new fishery. I have often used my end-of-season tautog trips as an opportunity to invite anglers who may be new to bottom fishing. With a little coaching and preparation, you can ensure that those who join you will have a fun time. After all, the worst experience they might have is watching you bend the rod all day while they spend their time fruitlessly swinging at these notoriously crafty bait stealers.
When using hard bait like green crabs, the staple “boat bait” in the Northeast, make sure your guests rig up with single 3/0 circle hook rigs. My first choice for blackfish is the Gamakatsu octopus in either the off-set or in-line version. There are many other choices, but these have become my favorite when using crab for bait. There have been multiple times on party-boat trips when I have offered a circle-hook rig to a patron who was struggling and then watched him immediately catch fish. Any angler who can wait for a decent thump and then slowly lift the rod can catch with circle hooks. As for size, many anglers favor 1/0 or 2/0, but I have seen too many hooks of that size straightened out when faced with the brute strength of a tautog fighting to get back into the rocks. With anglers using super-strong braided lines and powerful reels, the stress on terminal tackle has never been greater. Take this into consideration when choosing hook size, or risk the chance of experiencing some “terminal” failures.
To help friends who lack the discipline needed to connect with circles, always make sure you have a plan B. On my trips, plan B stands for “baitholder.” If you bring a block of frozen clams, you can rig them on 3/0 baitholder hooks and let your rookies swing away. While it’s true that most trophy tautog are taken on hard bait, plenty of fish will chew on a clam or sandworm, if given the chance. And, because of the unique design of its mouth, it’s much easier to hook a blackfish when it is striking a soft bait than when it is demolishing a crab.
Once an angler gains some confidence hooking up with clam, it’s easy enough to switch over to crabs and circle hooks. Many times, however, not only have my beginners wanted to stick with the soft bait, but other patrons on the boat have asked if they could use some. For this reason, as well as for an option when the captain knows there may be some cod or sea bass still on the fishing grounds, many boats now carry clam in the late season.
While I may present two different baits by using a high-low rig when I am fishing with experienced guests, when my trips include new anglers, we all stick to single-hook rigs. Over the years, the hooks I have seen buried in fingers, hands and other extremities were primarily the cause of using multiple-hook rigs while blackfishing. A tautog’s slippery skin and smooth body, which makes it ideally suited for hiding in a rock crevasse, also makes it difficult to grasp while removing a hook. The most common scenario that turns a fishing tutorial into a first-aid tutorial is when an angler loses his grasp while handling one. As the heavy fish drops to the deck, it buries the second hook into some part of the unfortunate fisherman’s anatomy. When new anglers are present, keep safety the primary consideration and you will ensure the day will end happily.
I believe the recent growth in the popularity of chasing blackfish has to do with more than just their excellent value as table fare. Anglers are also discovering the challenges and rewards of pursuing these powerful members of the wrasse family. While hooking them takes plenty of dexterity, fighting them presents its own set of problems. Prying a pool-winning blackfish from a wreck or rock pile is never a sure thing. Like the old opening scene of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, an angler can go from the “thrill of victory to the agony of defeat” in seconds: a bouncing hit, a run that bends the rod to the reel seat, then line peeling from the spool suddenly stopping as the fish buries in its hidey hole. Visions of winning the pool are dashed as the fluid fight of a fish is replaced by resistance as solid as concrete!
Of course, the best advice is to avoid this situation in the first place by taking three to five quick turns of the reel as soon as you are tight to a fish. But, the sheer size and strength of some blackfish means they will be able to take some drag even when the reel is buttoned down tight. So, what options are available when they make it to the rocks?
I have seen several methods used to try to dislodge blackfish. Some sharpies will pull their line taught and pluck the string, like the shepherd boy David playing his harp to soothe cantankerous King Saul. Others will slack up on the line and wait the fish out, hoping the blackfish will swim clear of its own free will. While the second method has worked for me on occasion, most of the time I still end up with a severed line. I have come to believe that if the bite is hot, it makes just as much sense to force the issue by pulling hard enough to either clear the fish from the obstruction or break the line. Either outcome gets me back into the action. If the action is slow or I have good reason to believe it’s a blackfish of sizable proportions, I will give the free-spool method a chance.
From mid-November until season’s close, the head-boat option is a safe, carefree way to keep fishing. Of all anglers, boat owners themselves should know how much effort and cost goes into making a successful trip, especially late in the season. Showing up on a party boat with just tackle and lunch can be a real treat. This fall, instead of fighting the cold weather and all the challenges that come with it, get together with some friends, support a local business, and end the season with a blackfish party on a local head boat!