Tautog, Tautoga onitis, or blackfish, are becoming ever more popular a species to target in the saltwater here in the northeast every year. Part of that is because of the declining quality of striped bass fishing, and part of it is the length of time the season lasts. Well after the last little tunny has left and fluke fishing is over, when the last of the seasons migrating stripers are popping up here and there, the tautog bite is still going strong. But if you aren't from the Northeast, or you don't fish saltwater, you probably know nothing of this species. And, even if you do know a thing or two about tautog, you may not believe they can be caught on the fly.
Tautog are a member of the remarkably diverse family Labridae, the wrasses. Wrasse come in a striking array of shapes, sizes, and colors, and aside from being diverse they are a notably intelligent group of fishes; more on that to come. Tautog are varied in coloration despite their commonly used nickname in the Northeast, blackfish. Tog can be mottled, brown and grey, white and black, with patches of bronze, copper, sometimes even teal or green. Juveniles are typically much more colorful than adults.
Large adults are sometimes called "white-chinners" because their lower jaw is often white in coloration, whereas smaller younger individuals are darker. Tautog are generally similar in appearance to another wrasse that inhabits the same areas and the same structure, the bergall or cunner. Tautog are more deep-bodied than cunners. Cunners have a pointed head, tautog have a round head. A large adult cunner is far smaller than even an average tautog. Both have rubbery skin, small scales, a spiny though not visibly so dorsal fin, and are very difficult to keep a hold of because of a thick but not especially unpleasant protective slime layer.
Tog can be found from South Carolina to Nova Scotia but are especially abundant from Virginia to Massachusetts. They inhabit a wide depth range from well over 100ft to just six inches of water. Migration in and out of shallow water depends on temperature, when the water is at its coldest tautog will be wintering offshore at the deepest extent of their range. As the water warms in the spring, tautog move inshore to spawn. The species shows strong preference for hard structure, be it rocky shorelines, reefs, bridge pilings, or wrecks; however they also occasionally can be found over shallow sand or mud flats. Tautog feed on a variety of crustaceans, clams, aquatic worms and sometimes other fish, but their affinity for crabs is well known. Equipped with big flat teeth and a strong jaw, they are perfectly adapted to cracking open the shells of crabs and sucking out the meat. Molar like teeth toward the back of their mouth can even crush up barnacles.
Tautog spawn during the spring in and around estuaries. I personally routinely see large adult tautog in the same places every spring, often holding to the exact same big boulders or bridge pilings each year leading up to the spawn. Some research suggests offshore spawning may occur to some extent, as well as drift of eggs and larvae from inshore waters. It seems the youngest life stages of tautog rely heavily on underwater vegetation for concealment until they reach sub-adult size and join the bergalls on the inshore rock piles. Eel grass is notably important. From NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-118, Tautog (Tautoga onitis) Life History and Habitat Requirements, Frank W. Steimle and Patricia A. Shaheen:
"In the Weweantic River Estuary (Massachusetts), the greatest abundances of eggs and larvae were collected over eelgrass (Zostera marina)-vegetated sites and near bottom (Stolgitis 1970)."
Several studies reported that young tautog (less than 10 cm) prefer vegetated over unvegetated bottoms (Briggs and O’Connor 1971; Sogard et al. 1992; Dorf 1994; Dorf and Powell 1997). These preferred, vegetated habitats are reported to range from primarily eelgrass beds (Goode 1887; Grover 1982; Orth and Heck 1980; Heck et al. 1989; Sogard et al. 1992; Szedlmayer and Able 1996) or a mix of eelgrass and algal associates [i.e., sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca), Enteromorpha sp., and Polysiphonia] (Briggs and O’Connor 1971), to beds of mostly Ulva (Nichols and Breder 1926; Sogard and Able 1991).
Though like virtually all fish they grow quite rapidly as juveniles, tautog are actually a slowly maturing and slowly growing species. A tautog doesn't reach maturity until three or four years of age, with females taking on average longer than males. The incredible 28.83 pound all-tackle world record was estimated to be 22 years old and the species is estimated to live as long as 34 years or more.
Now, I've thrown in the seeds here and there, maybe you have noticed maybe you haven't... but the combination of the tautog's habitat, life history, and flavor have put them in a rough place as their popularity grows. Unfortunately, this isn't the sort of species that is popular entirely for its sporting qualities, and they do have that in spades. I mentioned earlier the intelligence of wrasse. Anyone that has spent time fishing for tautog can't deny their knack for making off with the bait without getting hooked. Tautog seem to be very inquisitive, and reacting to sounds and smells and coming in to inspect things closely. I've heard stories of spear fisherman scraping their spear on a rock to pique the interest of hiding tautog, whose curiosity then leads them into the shooter's sights. The fighting capabilities of tautog are equally impressive. They don't have long term stamina but their muscular body and big, broad tail give them all the power they need to rush back into their rocky lairs after being hooked. Set the hook on a tautog and you'd better be ready to give that fish all you've got. Unfortunately, what comes to mind most in association with tog is how good they taste. I am the last to say tautog aren't a good eating fish, they are absolutely delicious. I keep a couple most seasons, and enjoy every one. But our affinity for tautog as table fair, in combination with declining fisheries for other species like fluke and striped bass, the rising popularity of tog fishing, and their ecology is leading to declining numbers. The vegetated bottom young tog rely on for survival is being decimated up and down the coast, especially eel grass. And according to ASMFC, tautog are overfished and overfishing is occurring in Long Island Sound, New Jersey, and the NY Bight, and are overfished in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. It's important that we anglers start to see the value of tautog as more than just food. I'm not going to stop eating tautog just yet, and I'm not suggesting you need to either. But harvesting selectively is a good idea. Tautog don't migrate that much, your local population is pretty much your local population with a little bit of exchange between other populations. Keeping big, genetically strong tog in the gene pool is a good idea, so as much delicious meat in on that 10+ pounder, you should probably let that one swim and keep a smaller one instead. Consider going out and catching tautog just for fun sometimes with no intent to put meat in the box at all. They really are a lot of fun, great sport on light tackle... and with that let's delve into targeting them with the fly rod.
When I initially started targeting tautog on the fly I was told by quite a few people that I probably wouldn't catch any. It was difficult, and that wasn't surprising. Everybody was targeting this species with crabs on fish finder rigs and jigs, sometimes on sand worms in the spring, but hardly ever on artificials. I had to accept that, no matter how hot the bite was, I was going to have to settle for far fewer and smaller fish than I could catch on crabs. But, getting the chance to catch even one of these bulldogs on fly tackle was worth trading for the numbers.
I've found that it can be difficult to nail down a pattern to catch tautog on the fly, they are very moody and can be at times startlingly easy on artificials and at others very difficult despite taking a bait readily. Though tautog do feed on the flats, in CT they do so mostly in mid to late spring when it isn't legal to target them, so I primarily fish for them around man-made structure like jetties or bridges when the season is open. I also fish for them from boat or kayak over reefs, along breakwaters, or around islands. Crab flies like the Merkin and Simon's HoverCrab can catch a tog or two, and in situations where big tog can be sight cast to they might be the best choice. But I've caught most of my fly tautog on stonefly nymphs like Strolis' Shimmer Stone, and on simple small Clousers. Red over white, orange over white, and olive over yellow in sizes 2, 4, and 6 are my favorites, tied short. Less than an inch of hair beyond the bend of the hook is preferable as tautog are liable to nip the fly once very quickly and then never come back for a sniff again. I fish these flies on a 20 ft leader, 17ft of 20lb test Berkley Big Game to 3 feet of 16lb, either directly to the fly or to a small drop shot weight. Essentially, this is salt water mono-rig nymphing. Lob the fly or fly and weight around rocky structure and try to work it around boulders and into the holes where tautog might be residing. Sometimes I'll drop flies right into holes in jetties. When you feel a tick, set with a quick jerk in tandem with a strip. Set too hard though into a rock or an unyielding giant tog and you are liable to blow up your rod, so be careful setting the hook with this sort of vertical tight-lined presentation. If you get so lucky a to convince a tog to eat a fly and manage to set the hook, the next 15 seconds will determine whether or not you actually catch that tog. There's not much space between that angry fish and its rocky hiding spot, and it will try really, really hard to get back there. I don't own the perfect fly rod for this job yet but some of you may already have it. It's the unfortunately discontinued G. Loomis Short Stix 10/11, a beefy but also short lever that was designed with input from my friend Ian Devlin along with Mark Sedotti for entirely different purposes but may well accidentally also be the ideal tautog fly rod. I remember when I first held one in my hand a while back, knowing basically nothing about it, and my first thought was, "this would be great for tautog". That was when I was first starting to target the species and I was getting very frustrated with with conventional 9ft fly rods, I found them too long too be effective, and just not what I needed to set the hook into a tog then wrench it away from the structure. I've even gone down to 5/6wt glass rods just to get better vertical hooksets even though it meant I had less power to then land the fish because I was so tired of missing bites. I am confident any rod rated 8wt or above at a length of under 8 feet is preferable if you can get your hands on one. Not that many people are out looking for a dedicated tautog rod, but these short fly rods are incredibly versatile anyway so you can just add reefing tautog to the list of things they'd be great for.
Situationally it is possible to sight fish for tautog, and if you can see them that is ideal because you can judge their reaction to your presentation. Whether it's just to fish hanging around rocky structure or to tog tailing on the flats, sight fishing is one of the greatest learning opportunities you could be presented with. And you never know when it might happen, here's former fishing editor of Field & Stream, Joe Cermele, on the boat with Captain Eric Kerber of On a Mission Fishing Adventures, catching tautog on the fly at night on a lighted bridge:
Tautog on the fly is really one of those few remaining "final frontiers" in fly fishing in this part of the world. It is worth trying, especially since tautog and other bottom dwelling species often make themselves targets when other more traditional fly rod species don't. They've become one of my favorite fish to fish for. Being such a quirky, energetic, interesting looking species meant it didn't take much to earn them that.
Until next time,
Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
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