A case for releasing female blackfish during spring spawning season.
Above: Joe Zagorski with a 21.25-pound blackfish caught with Captain Jerry Postorino aboard the Fish Monger off New Jersey in April 2016.
Three cents a pound wasn’t just highway robbery, it was an insult.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and we had almost two net bags of still very lively tautog in the trunk of Tommy Togger’s Plymouth sedan. Tommy was upset and a heated argument ensued; the buyer had us by the throat and was taking advantage of an abundance of fresh fish. As we turned to walk away, he raised his price to a nickel a pound, to which my mentor responded. “No thanks, we are going to fillet every last one of these fish and give them away to anyone in this neighborhood who wants them. Let’s see how many pounds of fish you sell this week.”
Tommy was a good and honest man, but God help the person who tried to take advantage of him. We drove back to the club and picked up a wide plank, four fillet and skinning knives, two saw horses and a big galvanized tub he filled with ice. We returned to set this up on the sidewalk across from the fish market and began filleting fish. Before long, we had drawn quite a crowd.
The fish monger came out and tried to talk Tommy out of his prank, but it was to no avail. Once he made up his mind, there was no stopping him. We had over a dozen big white-chinners filleted and on ice when the neighbors began showing up with pots, pans, and dishes.
“Are you sure there is no charge for this fish?”
“No maam, not one red cent and this is the freshest fish you will ever eat”
We had residents lined up for the free fish when the first police officer showed up.
“What’s going on here? He inquired, “The guy who owns the fish market claimed you were breaking the law.” Tommy explained our situation and the cop left with a container of fresh fillets and a big smile. I climbed more stairs that afternoon than I did while running my paper route, but everyone in that neighborhood who wanted fresh fish had plenty to eat, compliments of my old friend. That was during a time of plenty, when anyone serious about catching a bunch of old Leather Lips could pot some green crabs or crack some sea clams and catch enough to feed their family and friends.
Although the slow-growing tautog is staging a modest recovery in our waters, it has suffered a number of setbacks, including an all-out assault for a live fish market that brought out the poachers. Back in my formative years, there were few if any regulations on any of the rod and reel fisheries, leaving size, season and bag limits to the discretion of the fishermen. Most took as many as often as needed, while a very few others were motivated by their own more restrictive standards.
It was my good fortune to have studied at the side of a few such insightful men, including Tommy Togger. Tommy seldom took a winter flounder under 14 inches, or a tog much less than 15 inches. Then he got what the caretaker called religion and began releasing every single female tautog he caught—and there were many. His friends insisted he was crazy, but he was way ahead of his time and a positive influence on me. Tommy would haul a heavy female over the rail, carefully remove the heavy Kirby hook from her jaw, then have a conversation with her. “Go back home and take care of business.” Then he gently released the big roe female back into the water.
In the 50 years I have been in pursuit of old bucktooth, I have witnessed a subtle transition from what was once a meat fishery to a sport fishery. Tautog fishing has evolved from tarred handlines and heavy rods and reels to one of light tackle, braided lines, and more recently, tautog jigs. What would Tommy, who used heavy tarred line and 8-ounce sinkers, think of a fisherman using a state of the art Maxel reel, a light 7 ½-foot composite rod, 30-pound braid and a two-ounce tog jig? Some New York and Jersey tog sharpies are even using light and super sensitive spinning outfits with amazing success.
The same fish we couldn’t get a nickel a pound for are bringing as much as $ 6.00 a pound in the live fish market today. Thankfully, there are very stringent conservation measures regulating this species, which has rightfully attained a sporting class status right up there with fluke and black sea bass. Over the past several years my friend, Captain BJ Silvia of Flipping Out Charters has been releasing large ripe females and encouraging his fares to do the same. His message has been well received, and if we could persuade a few other charter skippers and anglers to release females, it would be a tremendous benefit to a very slow-growing species.
Mass DMF has studies that show tautog taking six or more years to reach two to four pounds. Those roe-laden eight and ten pounders that Tommy Togger and BJ released will be spawning as many as 600,000 precious eggs, depending on size and age, to rejuvenate this important fishery.
On a beautiful early May day last season, BJ’s Humminbird Helix was displaying targets feeding along the irregular wall of a productive undersea reef. My old Garmin has served me well for almost a decade, but his machine was displaying tog with such clarity and definition that the only details missing were their ages, sex, and weight. During the very enjoyable process of filling our three-fish limit we released several egg-bearing tog, none quite as impressive as the two huge females between 8 and 10 pounds that BJ carefully sent back to populate this popular and emerging sport fishery.
As the tog fishery presents one of the first species to kick off our season, any ripe females you chose to release will go a long way to re-populating the fishery.