As the fall weather settles in, anglers across the Northeast are eager to get on the water and bend a rod before winter arrives. Fall offers a plethora of fishing options from both land and boat, but when that morning chill is in the air, there’s only one species that comes to my mind… tautog. Big tautog!
Whether you call them tautog, white chins, crab-wreckers, or blackfish, the commonality we share as Northeast toggers is simple: “The Tug is the Drug.” That subtle yet distinct feel of a biting tautog might drive the fish’s cult following insane, but it still is the happiest time of the fishing year.
The first step to catching a double-digit tautog this fall is through preparation and attention to detail. Here are some tips on baits and rigging to assist in dominating the elusive blackish.
Bait is King!
While the phrase above could be associated with any Northeast species, it especially applies to tautog. The number of variables that affect the outcome of a trophy blackfish hunt can get worrisome – things such as anchoring, boat positioning, water depth, water temperature, and fishing pressure, to name a few. However, one item you can control is bait. In the early fall, tog often hunt in the shallows looking for easy meals, and they are likely to find two of our more common crab species.
Some fishermen have the mindset, “larger bait, larger fish,” but this isn’t always the case, especially when tog are in the shallows early in the fall. There, they are foraging on smaller baits that inhabit a shallow water rock pile or mussel bed, and when fishing these areas, Asian shore crabs can be a lethal option.
Because of its small profile, the Asian crab makes a great option for a stealthy presentation. You can add several crabs on a hook and have several opportunities at connecting on those sometimes frustrating strikes. Asian crabs are equally effective when paired with the right tog jig.
As a kid, we used to go to the shore on low tide and flip rocks to get our own Asian crabs to use for togging. They are rarely available in tackle shops, so catching them yourself is sometimes the only way to get them for bait.
The next option is the most popular bait used by tog fishermen from Massachusetts down to Virginia: the green crab. Its lively profile, easy availability, and effectiveness is what makes it popular among fishermen all along the coast. Although green crabs are not native to our waters (they hitched a ride across the Atlantic from Europe on wooden ships in the early 19th century), they have found a home here and have become a regular forage for crustation eaters such as sea bass, scup, tog, and fluke.
The green crab is oily and smelly. Once cut or cracked open, its essence permeates the water, creating an enticing chum slick that lures in the tog.
Green crabs are readily available at most bait and tackle shops because of their abundance and hardiness. Putting them in a personal bait pen for long-term storage is an option for diehard toggers who need bait at a moment’s notice. These crabs can be as large as 4 inches across, becoming a large, whole-bait option to complement the quarter-sized “snack” green crabs.
Then there is the secret weapon, the game changer, the cheat code, the white legger (a.k.a. white crab). These large crabs aren’t readily available at bait shops because they need cooler water temperatures in order to live, and finding them in the shallows or under shoreline rocks isn’t common. Bait shops don’t usually carry whites because they take a bit more work to keep alive and have low nearshore numbers, which makes trapping them more difficult. Only a select few shops carry whites (and usually for a limited time), so when they do, you will pay a premium price for this “joker in your hand” bait.
White crabs are a primary food source for many species in deeper water. When fishing Nantucket shoals or Montauk early in the season, sea bass, fluke, scup, and juvenile striped bass are loaded with white crabs. Though not as common close to shore, these crabs are abundant at midshore and offshore structure. I once dropped a GoPro down on a wreck in 50 feet of water off Long Island and saw that it was covered with white crabs.
Among the PhishPhinders Community, which is comprised of many dedicated tog fishermen, we often say, “The white crab may not get as many fish throughout the day, but it will find the larger fish.” Time and time again, this has held true. These anglers have caught a number of 15- to 21-pound tog, and each one was caught on a white legger.
Rigs vs Jigs
I live by the “K.I.S.S.” method (Keep It Simple, Stupid). However, with that simplicity comes some very meticulous attention to detail—and the details are important when chasing tog!
The “old school” yet very effective way to target these Northeast reef donkeys is to use rigs, and there are many ways to fish them. My dad used to tie a snelled Virginia-style hook on a double-hook rig for me when I was a child, and we caught tons of tog. Although we are living in a very technologically inclined world with major advancements in fishing equipment, the K.I.S.S. method still holds true.
One of the most important pieces of rigging for tautog is the leader-to-braid knot; I prefer the enhanced Alberto knot. I use 10 to 14 feet of topshot, a standard that provides abrasion protection when a tog tries to get back into structure.
Personally, I like fluorocarbon. I’ve engaged in many debates over whether fluorocarbon is truly necessary for tog fishing, and at the end of the day, the catching tells the story.
My standard leader is 50-pound test because that size lets me to put pressure on a large fish in areas with structure and not worry about breaking off. When conditions or nastier structure call for it, I go to 60-pound-test leader with no hesitation, though 80-pound test is my ceiling.
My preferred rig is the slider rig, which allows me to get two hooks in one crab through the leg sockets or two hooks in one cut crab. A two-hook rig is very popular because you miss fewer sneaky bait-stealers, but a 1-hook rig gives you your best presentation and less resistance in stronger current.
The more natural the presentation, the better. Anyone can catch tog when the fish are chewing, but adjusting to the conditions will be the difference in who gets hosed and who gets the right bites.
Other two hook rigs include the legendary “Brooklyn Snafu” and the V-Rig.
One of the newer and most popular ways to target our favorite gamefish is jigging. The tog-jigging craze has swept the Northeast for a handful of years, and it’s a totally different style than the old-school way; however, it can produce not only quantity but major quality.
Let’s be very clear, not all toggers can jig effectively! Jigging has a very specific fudge factor that some either don’t like or can’t pick up on. I’ve watched some of the best tog fishermen I know strike out with the jig because they simply don’t know how to fish it.
To be effective at jigging, first make sure your setup fits the bill. A 2000- to 4000-size reel with a high-end drag, 15- to 20-pound-test braided line, and a rod with a light tip and firm backbone will help best present a jig to a tog.
The jig is all about presentation and a lighter leader optimizes that. Stick with the same 10 to 14 feet of topshot. I tie a full fluorocarbon topshot when fishing a jig as opposed to the monofilament topshot I use when fishing rigs.
The jig size and color can make a major difference, especially in shallower water. Many fishermen say jig color and size doesn’t matter, but I disagree because tog are extremely inquisitive. In stained or murky water conditions, loud colors like chartreuse, orange, and glow draw more attention than calm colors. However, there are also times when water clarity is great and you should tone down the colors.
My favorite colors are white crab, glow, and black. I use only 1-, 1.5-, and 2-ounce jigs. Anything heavier creates an unnatural presentation, which defeats the purpose of jig fishing.
There are a plethora of amazing jig makers to choose from, though my favorites are Salvo’s Custom Lures Boxer Jig and MagicTail Outfitters Game Changer Jig. The best way to fish these is simply burying the hook in the crab’s leg socket with the point exposed. I often see fishermen using jigs with the hook points not exposed, and they tend to miss more fish.
While this article gives a variety of tips on our favorite target species, there’s no better teacher than trial and error on your own. Get out there and try some different techniques and see what works for you. And, please reach out with any breakthrough applications that you may stumble upon. “Semper Paratus,” means Always Prepared. In the togging game, poor preparation produces poor performance. So, stay well prepared, and when you catch, make sure you catch and release the females and all larger tog. Let them go and grow to keep this fishery strong.
Captain Garrett Weir is the founder of PhishPhinders, a fishing community intended to bring anglers together to experience the camaraderie and excitement of fishing in the Northeast. Follow them on Instagram: @PhishPhinders