Tautog Fishing Tips for the Fall

Kevin Blinkoff lifts a big Buzzards Bay tog on a foggy October morning.
Kevin Blinkoff lifts a big Buzzards Bay tog on a foggy October morning.

If a striper blitz popped up 10 yards from us – which was entirely possible for an October morning on Buzzards Bay – we would have missed it completely in the dense fog. We weren’t looking for something quite that in-your-face, however. With Captain Nat Chalkley at the helm, our target was 30 feet below the surface—a small wreck, only a bit larger than Nat’s boat, that we hoped was loaded with blackfish.

October and November are excellent months to target tog in New England. While the fall is most often associated with top-notch striped bass fishing, in truth, October is very much a feast or famine month for striper fishermen. Between the periods of blitzing bass and blues, there are often lulls, some lasting a week or more as anglers wait for more fish to arrive from points north. October tautog fishing, on the other hand, is as reliable as the sun rising in the east. These fish will be migrating offshore to deeper water as things cool down, but they aren’t in quite the hurry the bass are. When the tide is moving, blackfish will be actively feeding on crabs and mussels around rocky structure and wrecks.

When we reached Nat’s numbers, the fish-finder showed a sharp rise of 4 to 5 feet off the bottom where the ship rested on the Buzzards Bay floor. After making some adjustments to the boat’s positioning to compensate for the tide and light wind, Nat sent down the anchor, and Kevin Blinkoff and I sent down high-low rigs baited with green crabs. It didn’t take long for some of the wreck’s inhabitants to latch on. I swung and missed on my first hit, but when a tautog snapped up the second crab, I planted the hook. As I announced my success, Kevin was in the process of swinging a keeper blackfish into the cockpit and Nat was setting the hook into a tog of his own.

There are a few things that make blackfish one of my very favorite fish to catch. For one, they are incredible fighters. For a fish with such a portly figure, blackfish pull like a mule, and will beat your gear like a rented one. Also, hooking them is an art form. Most anglers can count on missing a large percentage of the blackfish that gnash at their bait—but tog are usually willing to give you a second, or even third chance. Lastly, when you find a good piece of structure that hasn’t been picked over, the fishing can be nonstop.

Captain Nat Chalkley targets small structure in 20 to 40 feet of water for October blackfish.
Captain Nat Chalkley targets small structure in 20 to 40 feet of water for October blackfish.

And it was pretty much nonstop at our first drop in Buzzards Bay. Given the relatively small size of the structure, I couldn’t believe just how many blackfish we put in the boat. I also couldn’t believe that a spot this good was overlooked by the vast majority of anglers, but it was.

With such fast action, we were pretty selective with which tog we relocated to the cooler; after all, what fun would it be to limit out in the first 30 minutes of fishing? After an hour, the average size of the tog had decreased significantly, and the bite was slowing down. Nat announced it was time to move on, hauled the anchor and plotted a course for his next waypoint.

The Benefit of Small Structure

Blackfish are homebodies, and will stay on a piece of structure for some time, only leaving when water temperature drives them out or fishermen pick them off. For this reason, the more fishing pressure at a location, the slower the fishing as the season wears on. Large areas like Cleveland Ledge in Buzzards Bay hold enough tog that it sustains decent fishing through substantial fishing pressure–but there is still a decrease in the quality of the fish available. As keepers are culled, eventually only short fish will be left behind.

At the next spot, a single large rock surrounded by featureless bottom in all directions, the action was once again hot right off the bat. The rock, though rising a full eight feet off the bottom, covered a good deal less bottom than the wreck, and as we swung on the anchor,occasionally, our baits would be just outside the zone the blackfish were willing to venture. It was incredible just how tight the fish were oriented to this rock. It showed how important precision anchoring can be when targeting blackfish.

Since blackfish are adept bait stealers, a high-low rig will double your chances of hooking a biting fish.
Since blackfish are adept bait stealers, a high-low rig will double your chances of hooking a biting fish.

Nat certainly knows this, and takes his time making sure his boat is directly over the hotspot. A miss of only a few yards could send you packing without so much as a sniff. Using both the depthfinder and the GPS is crucial to getting on top of small structure. Side-scanning sonar is especially helpful, as you can more easily locate the structure if you are off the mark.

Finding Your Tog Hotspot

Zeroing in on an off-the-beaten-path blackfish hotspot begins with figuring out what depth you’ll want to be fishing. Blackfish migrations take them from deep water to shallow water and back to deep water throughout the course of the season. When targeting blackfish in May and June (where allowed), you’ll often be looking at water less than 20 feet deep, as most big blackfish will be moving into bays and estuaries to spawn, staging on nearshore structure along the way. As water temperatures drop in the fall, blackfish move to increasingly deeper waters, settling in for the winter on deep offshore structures when the water temperatures drop below 50 degrees. In early fall, temperatures from Cape Cod to Connecticut usually hover between 63 and 55 degrees. Big blackfish will often hold on structure between 20 and 40 feet—before moving deeper—perfect depths to precisely anchor your boat over the structure.

Finding a potential tog hotspot can be as simple as gazing over a paper chart of your area. Focus on the appropriate depths and look for wrecks, reefs or elevated pieces of rocky bottom. Inspired by the success of my outing with Nat, I wanted to look for some other likely locations so that I might replicate the trip’s success on my own. A 10-minute scan on the Captain Segull’s Buzzards Bay Sportfishing Chart revealed more potential tog-holding structures than there are tog-fishing boats on most weekends. Electronic charts are also great resources, and with the detail and frequent updates available on charts like those from Navionics, anglers
can really zone in on some blackfish goldmines.

Small, out-of-the-way structures are less pressured and can be more likely to produce a big “white chin” than heavily fished locations.
Small, out-of-the-way structures are less pressured and can be more likely to produce a big “white chin” than heavily fished locations.

As always, inside information helps. Other fishermen, spear fishermen or divers may be willing to clue you in on some good, out-of-the-way structures. And don’t discount doing some scouting of your own.

Keeping your eye on your fish-finder while fishing drifting for blues, stripers or fluke, or while running and gunning for false albacore earlier in the season, might reveal a productive structure that is “off the books.” Side-scanning sonar is particularly useful here as it allows you to have eyes on a wider swath of bottom.

Head out on the water with a number of locations plugged into your GPS, and stay mobile as you search for blackfish. Ever accommodating, tautog aren’t shy about letting you know they’re around. If you haven’t had a few hits after a 15-minute layover (provided the tide is moving), it’s time to move on or reposition your boat over the structure. If one place you scouted turns out to be a dud, move on to the next and try again. You can always fall back on the larger, more heavily fished structures if your attempt at finding a tog spot to call your own falls short. Odds are, however, if you’re dropping a fresh green crab to a piece of structure in the month of October, there’s a tog down there waiting to give you a great battle and some tasty fillets.

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