Many boaters and kayakers call it a season after the fall striper run, but for me, November heralds the beginning of the second season.
During New England’s cool autumn months, “togging” is one of my favorite types of fishing. November is a wonderful month for kayak fishing, and it is prime time for landing monster blackfish along the Southern New England coast. Blackfishing from the kayak is relaxing, and it can also be extremely exciting when a healthy ‘tog bears down and puts a bend in your rod.
Blackfish, or tautog, are stout, dark-colored fish with a mouth full of human-like teeth. These teeth are used to crush the mollusks and crustaceans that they find in and around rocks and boulder fields, wrecks, pilings, piers, breakwalls, jetties, and mussel or oyster beds. ‘Tog can be found from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, but they are most common along the coastline between Cape Cod and Delaware. As a blackfish grows, it develops a patch of white underneath its jaw, which has earned large blackfish the nickname “white chin.”
Fishing for blackfish from the kayak requires the use of an anchor. Many kayak anglers use an anchor trolley system, which is basically a loop of line alongside the kayak that takes the anchor line to the stern. Others will use a Scotty Anchor Lock system or a simple laundry detergent bottle filled with sand and tied off to a cleat. Whatever method of anchoring you choose, it is highly recommended that you make yourself stationary. Drifting over rock piles and other heavy structure is a recipe for lost gear and poor results when targeting these bottom-dwelling creatures.
Once you have settled on an anchor system, it is time to start thinking about gear and terminal tackle. In general, I use stout, 6- to 7-foot, medium/heavy- to heavy-action boat rods with conventional reels. The traditional boat angler can utilize a slightly shorter rod, but it’s a different playing field for a kayaker. Always remember that when you are fishing for blackfish or any other species of size and strength, you must be able to reach far enough forward with the rod to pass the line around the bow of your kayak if the fish decides to change direction. Otherwise, if you are holding your rod on one side of the kayak and the fish runs under the kayak and out the other side, the force of the fish can flip you. By using a long enough rod, you’ll be able to guide your line around the bow to the other side.
Many anglers, including myself, prefer braided line to monofilament because of its superior sensitivity. Blackfish tend to nibble on the bait, so braided line helps you detect even the slightest hit. I use 50-pound-test Power Pro braided line tied off to a three-way swivel. I then connect my hook, which is rigged with 30-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon line, to one eyelet of the three-way swivel. For weight, I attach a bank sinker to the other eyelet of the three-way swivel with a 10-inch piece of 15-pound-test monofilament. I like to use lighter line to attach the sinker; that way, it will break off and preserve the rest of the rig if the sinker gets snagged.
In general, blackfish rigs are either single-hook rigs or tandem rigs, with two hooks approximately 8 inches apart. The single-hook rig is less likely to hang up, but the tandem rig enables the angler to present two separate bait offerings. Some anglers will place the tandem hooks much closer together and use both hooks on the same piece of bait, thereby increasing the odds of hooking up when a large tog mouths the bait. My suggestion is to experiment with your approach and find what works best for you.
Green crabs are generally the preferred bait. They are easy to find at local bait shops and are plentiful along the shoreline. Some anglers will also use hermit crabs or Asian shore crabs, and there will be other times when sea worms will out-catch everything else. Again, experiment with your bait selection to determine what’s working on particular day.
Most anglers prefer to fish for ‘tog on the incoming tide, when the fish follow the tide in and feed in the shallower water. On the ebb, blacks will fall back and settle into zones of deeper water.
Now that you are on the water, it’s time to drop bait! After the bait hits bottom, periodically raise the rod tip to ensure you are not snagged. Doing this also allows you to feel the sinker and bait bouncing and sliding off rocks. When you find a deep hole between the rocks, get ready! Blackfish love to hunt in deep crevasses, so a variety of aquatic life will be waiting for your bait in these locations. Oftentimes you will quickly feel very slight taps from hungry bergalls (cunner) or juvenile blackfish. Don’t get too excited – be patient and wait for the “real” fish to hit.
Big blackfish bite in a very distinctive fashion: there’s usually a very faint tap before the fish swallows the bait and runs. At this point, reel in the slack and give a solid hookset. Once the fish is hooked, it is imperative that you get the fish out of the rocks. Keep the pressure on and try to immediately achieve at least five cranks of the reel to prevent the fish from breaking you off on the rocks. Once you have the fish off the rock pile, keep the rod parallel to the water line. This will allow the rod to absorb the violent head-shaking and strong runs typically associated with a powerful blackfish. Once the fish is yak-side, I strongly recommend that you net the fish rather than attempt to lip it with a Boga-style lip gripper. Lip grippers are not effective in gaining possession of this slippery, small-mouthed fish.
Fishing for blackfish from the kayak has its advantages. The heavy structure that attracts these fish can be difficult to reach from a traditional boat, especially large boulder fields where prop-damaging rocks are just below surface. A few years ago, I was in such a location with my guiding partner, Kevin Mucha,. We planned our trip to catch the incoming tide on a nice late-autumn morning with air and water temperatures in the high 40’s. Anchored up side by side in seven feet of water along a stretch of boulders, we were positioned just above a nice little hole that had been very kind to us in the past. Boat anglers were anchored all around us but could not navigate close enough to the rock piles, which gave Kevin and me a distinct advantage. For the next two hours, we had nonstop action on keeper togs ranging from 4 to 8 pounds, while many of the boat anglers grew frustrated.
Eventually the action slowed, so Kevin moved to another spot 30 yards to the north and I positioned myself approximately 20 yards due west of him over another set of boulders. Again, we saddled ourselves into a tight, boulder-strewn area unreachable for the boaters. As soon as Kevin’s bait hit bottom, a very aggressive tog wasted no time in picking up the bait and running. After a momentary standoff with both competitors holding their ground, Kevin finally tired out the hard-fighting blackfish and heaved her on his lap. I pulled anchor to get a better glimpse of the fish and was astounded to see a monster 12-pound ‘tog resting across Kevin’s thighs.
There are many benefits to blackfishing, but three of them stand out from the rest. First and foremost, I get to sleep in! Blackfish “sleep” during nighttime hours and do not feed under dark skies, so take your time in the morning and hit the water at your leisure. Second, blackfish is absolutely delicious. There are few fish in our waters that possess such a wonderful, light flavor. They can be cooked in a number of ways, all of which will leave you scratching your head and wondering why you didn’t try blackfishing sooner. Lastly, blackfishing provides an opportunity for us paddlers to enjoy one of the more relaxed methods of fishing. Take the time to enjoy the scenery, the wildlife and the good conversation that you so often miss out on when trolling and stalking the shoreline for other gamefish.
During this time of season, water temperatures can be dangerously cold, so you must take into consideration a few rules of safety:
- Always fish with a partner.
- Always wear a dry suit or dry top/dry pants/waders combo. If you are wearing waders (preferably neoprene-style waders), always ensure that you have a wading belt cinched tightly around your waist.
- Always carry safety devices such as a whistle, flares, and if possible, a VHF radio.
- Despite the cold air temperature, dehydration can and will occur. Always carry water.
- Always bring a spare set of clothes with you. If you capsize, you will need to change into warm, dry clothes as quickly as possible.
Lastly, the blackfish has been overfished, and we no longer have the great numbers enjoyed in decades past. Please keep only what you plan to eat, release all large fish, and adhere to state regulations regarding size and seasons.