Daytime fishing for stripers has changed greatly over the last few decades. On my trips to Cuttyhunk Island in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was easy to keep occupied catching stripers in the 20- to 36-inch range on pencil poppers throughout the daylight hours. An afternoon’s catch of 25 fish or so wasn’t out of the ordinary if I worked at it. Over time, on more and more trips, daytime catches diminished to a small handful or no fish at all. This didn’t happen on every trip but, statistically, the chance of a busy afternoon catching bass was pretty slim. It was those challenging mid-day trips in the boulder fields that opened my mind to surf fishing for tautog.
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A few years ago, during my club’s annual fishing trip to Cuttyhunk, I saw Steve Hasselbacher, a fellow member of the Connecticut Surfcaster’s Association, return to our enclave at Pete’s Place with a pair of decent blackfish. He’d noticed them and a large black seabass while looking down from a rock he was fishing from. He went back to shore, stripped the hair off a bucktail, turned over a few rocks to find some Asian grapsid crabs, and got back to work.
Previously, my blackfishing had been limited to kayak fishing back home in Connecticut because it was a great way to access waters untouchable to larger crafts powered with propellers. After seeing Steve’s catch, I realized Cuttyhunk has no shortage of boulder fields filled with blackfish that boats can’t penetrate.
I talked with Steve and soon began swimming out with my friend, Andy Kuczma, to the outer rocks that surround the island to search for blackfish. It wasn’t a very complicated thing to do and was immensely productive. A typical session of a few afternoon hours resulted in anywhere from a handful to a few dozen fish.
Over the last two years, I’ve also been refining my approach to wetsuit tog fishing, making it more productive and much simpler. On the day before a trip, I take students from whichever class I have during low tide to a piece of shoreline behind one of our Sound School classroom buildings to do our civic duty and remove invasive Asian grapsid crabs from the local ecosystem. We put them into a few buckets with some wet seaweed, then when I get home, I put that into a sixpack cooler. Crabs can also be caught on location since these small, invasive crustaceans can be found lurking between boulders or under small rocks just about everywhere from New Jersey to Massachusetts.
Extreme Toggin’ Tackle
When surf fishing for tautog I wear a $40 wetsuit with some knockoff Under Armour-style underwear that reduces friction between my skin and the neoprene, plus it keeps me a bit warmer in the chilly North Atlantic water. I pull an inexpensive-but-comfortable pair of hiking boots studded with machine screws over my neoprene socks. I use the same 9-foot Lamiglas SuperSurf rod that I use for most of my striper fishing and a ZeeBaas reel with 30-pound braid and about 4 feet of 30-pound Trilene Big Game monofilament leader. I put a Tactical Anglers Power Clip on the end of the leader with a Palomar knot so that I can change what I’m throwing quickly and easily. I have a 3-tube surf bag on a belt that takes the weight off my neck and back; it also keeps my investments safe and secure while I’m swimming out in rocks and waves. In the front pocket, I carry a measuring tape and a pair of line clippers. I tuck a pair of pliers in back of the tubes and secure the lanyard to a ring on the bag. (I tuck the lanyards in so I don’t end up looking like the old Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown tangled up in his kite string from a bad kite flying experience.) I also carry a lanyard with a plastic lipper that keeps a fish from escaping while I measure it on a small, slippery rock in the waves while holding the tape and my rod.
In one of the plug tubes, I put a Crystal Light tube (capped to keep water out) with a handful of blackfish jigs inside. I have a variety of sizes so I can find what I need at the moment depending on wind, current, depth, and distance. Andy likes using blackfish rigs with bank sinkers and hooks on a leader, but I keep my terminal tackle simple to avoid messes. (Making messes is my greatest life skill.)
I prefer jigs with short but stout hooks and a body shaped to keep the hook point upright to avoid snagging in all that bubbleweed surrounding the island. A flat Upperman (lima bean) style jig lies on its side and puts the hook point right onto the rocks and weed, dulling the hook while also getting snagged.
I use the other two tubes to hold a pencil popper or two, a spook, a tin and maybe a plastic swimmer or three in case I see some surface action or just want to change things up for a few minutes.
To carry my bait out to the rocks, I use an eel jug that another friend, Toby Lapinski, gave me many years ago. It consists of a one-gallon commercial salad dressing or mayonnaise jug (ask someone at a local restaurant to give you one) wrapped in stealthy black duct tape and drilled with holes to let water in and out. There are holes in both the jar and cap, with a piece of line between them to keep me from losing the cap. There’s a shoulder strap taped to the jug for easy carrying when I’m swimming with my gear. I use enough seaweed in it to keep my crabs from drying out, but not enough to impede me digging them out and getting pinched too often.
Targeting Tog from the Rocks
I start by methodically probing the surrounding waters until I find fish at a spot I can work effectively. I begin by just dropping the jig straight down and sometimes catch fish that are straight under my feet. I don’t neglect fishing the shoreward side of my rock, either. I don’t keep a crab in one spot for more than a minute because I don’t want to spend my time soaking them in barren water. I gradually increase the distances I’m casting, searching along rock edges that I can see, then blind-casting and gradually increasing the length of my cast. If the wind or current is strong I avoid fishing into it since it will put slack between the crab and me, making it hard to detect bites. Casting downwind, at least to some degree, helps keep a tight connection.
If I feel some tapping on my line, I don’t set the hook immediately. Sometimes, it’s small fish and waiting for a few seconds may give a larger fish the chance to come and steal the crab. Other times, it’s a fish biting on the legs or the edge of the crab. A more solid tug often follows, and that’s when I set the hook (or miss and feed the fish.) If I hook up, I try to pull the fish away from heavy structure and keep it up near the surface. The fish invariably tries to use the rocks to escape from whatever is worrying it, including my hook and line. When I get a fish closer to me, I try to keep it up on top and let it run around a bit to tire it out since the hook is unlikely to work its way out of those thick lips. I don’t want the fish going under the rock I’m standing on and have the line rubbing against it, and it’s much easier to unhook the fish when it’s not struggling quite so hard. If you have a knife, you can slice under the gills to bleed out the fish if it’s a keeper, which will improve the quality of the meat.
When I put on a new crab, I break the claws off, and maybe a few legs, then drop those down, hoping to chum in some more fish. It also helps ensure that the crab doesn’t pinch me while I’m hooking it. If I get robbed pretty steadily, I use smaller crabs so there is less for a fish to bite without contacting the hook. That sometimes works.
When I have my jig further out, I let it sit a minute or so and then pull it in a bit, let it sit briefly, then repeat. I don’t let it sit long between turns of the reel because I’ve already covered that ground, and I think the movement sometimes attracts fish that otherwise wouldn’t find the crab.
When I catch and measure a keeper, I slide it on to a spearfisherman’s fish stringer. It’s easy to swim with and doesn’t get tangled, untied, or in the way. I run my belt between the top two rungs so it will never come off. It opens like one of those old Duolock snaps: slide the pointed shaft up through the gills and out the mouth, then close it back up. Nice and easy, but secure.
So, if you want to do some daytime fishing but the stripers aren’t cooperating, get out there and try surf fishing for tautog. They’re challenging, fight hard, and taste great.