What can be said about fishing in October aside from making the best of all opportunities you encounter? I hate to say it, but the end of another boating season can now be seen on the horizon, and for many, it could very well end any day. Decreasing water and air temperatures, various fishing seasons are ending, and general deteriorating weather patterns all combine to make October a tough month for some boating anglers. But for those who are willing and able to stick it out, the tenth month can provide some exceptional angling opportunities.
Whether you refer to them as blackfish, tautog or simply tog, Tautoga onitis has a way of getting under your skin and into your soul, or at least it has for me. While I am a surf fisherman at heart, I have developed an undying love for targeting blackfish in recent years. There is something quite appealing to me about the converging factors of accessibility, challenge, raw power once hooked and, not to be outdone, exceptional table fare to be had with blackfish. I have fished for them from shore, from my kayak, on party boats and private boats, and they all afford unique benefits and challenges that I have not found in any other local species. In essence, blackfish are simple to catch—you just need a hook baited with a piece of bait and a way to get it to the bottom. But from there, things can get exponentially more complicated, although they need not be.
I recently started taking my at-the-time-8-year-old son blackfishing with me, and it allowed rethinking how technical I had gotten in my approach to blackfishing. Where I would oftentimes overthink everything from moon phase to tide stage to jig weight and color, I was now more concerned with simply adding enough weight to effectively tend bottom, and my son almost immediately found success. Well, that is, after he began to get a hang for the tap-tap-tap-pause-tap-wait for weight-set the hook process of converting a bite to a bent rod.
There are two primary rigs used to target blackfish: jigs and rigs. While both methods have their time and place where they excel, neither works best all the time. I find that in shallower water, as well as tide stages where there is less current, jigs are more effective. Essentially if I need more than a 2-ounce jig to tend bottom, I switch to a rig. A rig can be anything from your standard single-hook dropper to a hi-low double rig to a snafu rig (2 hooks embedded in the same bait) or perhaps some other local, secret hot setup. I switch to the rig when fishing very deep and the current gets moving.
For jigs I go as light as possible with some spots I fish, especially from my kayak, fishing best with jigs as light as ½ ounce. I could probably get away with a completely weightless presentation in these spots at certain stages of the tide, but I have yet to test out this idea. From that starting weight, I switch to increasingly heavier jigs, stepping up by 1/2 ounce, as the current increases. Once I reach the 2-ounce mark I decide to either stick with jigs to as much as 3 ounces or opt for a rig. The decision here is generally made on feel, but it ultimately boils down to how much more the current is anticipated to increase before beginning to decrease once again. If I am at or near peak current, the heavier jig usually buys me enough time to fish effectively until it starts slowing down again. However, if there is still a good amount of current to come then it’s off to rigs.
Fishing a jig involves little more than dropping a crab-tipped jig to the bottom and staying in touch with it. This means constantly raising and dropping your rod tip if the boat is bobbing up and down. You want to keep a good feel while not unnaturally jumping the bait off the bottom. A little movement can be ok at times to alert fish to your presence, but this can also be detrimental to your success when there are bait stealers like porgy and choggies present, and I feel that sometimes it might even spook your intended target. Some anglers recommend putting a bit of slack into the line, and this ensures no unnatural movement is added to the crab and jig, but I do not like the disconnect it produces from exactly what is going on down below.
Fishing rigs are much like a jig except I go to greater lengths to always keep the sinker on the bottom without any additional movement, and this is a time when I accept some slack in the line from rod tip to hook point. With the crab hanging seductively off the leader, either right on the bottom or suspended slightly off the bottom depending on how it is configured, I find that less movement on a rig is far more productive.
Hooking a blackfish is where things get difficult and is something that challenges even the most experienced of toggers! A lot of people will tell you to “wait for the weight” when considering the timing of setting the hook, but I find it is not as simple as this. Sure, some bites progress from tap-tap to feeling the weight of the fish as it swims off with the bait and hook in the mouth, but not always. I have hooked a lot of blackfish over the years by setting on what many would consider too early, and for me, each hookset is unique and based more on the feel of the moment than anything. I try to imagine what is going on down below, attempt to determine whether what I feel is a junk fish or desirable, and wait until I think the bait and hook are in the fish’s mouth. Do I swing a miss a lot? Sure, but no more than my counterparts and I have had plenty of days where I was the high hook so there must be something to my method.
Lastly, I’ll speak on bait. Universally the green crab is top tog bait, but there are most certainly geographic preferences. I have caught blackfish on green crabs, Asian crabs, fiddler crabs, hermit crabs, surf clams, blue mussels, squid, sandworms, white leg crabs, periwinkles and even strips of fish. While I have even landed tog on bait-less metal and epoxy jigs meant for other species, a general rule of thumb is that you want to use some sort of natural bait, especially those of which the blackfish naturally in their rocky environment. Crabs and rocks go together, and therefore they receive top billing.
Set up your blackfish rig or jig by simply impaling your bait of choice onto the hook and send it to the bottom. If the crab I have selected is overly large, or the hook is small on a light, I will often cut the crab in half and remove the legs. If there are lots of bait stealers present, then I will make sure to remove the legs regardless of crab size. Cutting the crab also helps release scent into the water and be beneficial on days when the bite is slow or you have just arrived on a piece of structure, but again, when bait stealers are a problem, it can lead to more trouble than it’s worth.
As you can see, I have dedicated this entire installment to a single species, something I have not done at all this season, but there is very good reason for it as fishing for blackfish can just be that much fun, and now is the best time of the season to target them!