Massachusetts Spring Tautog Fishing
March 25, 2011
By Capt. John Galvin
While striped bass, bluefish and fluke get the lion’s share of inshore angling attention in New England, it’s the humble tautog that often marks the start of the saltwater fishing season for those who can’t wait to wet a line. In southeastern Massachusetts, ‘tog start to move inshore around the end of April, or when the water temperature hits the mid-40s. By the time the first dandelions start to pop up on lawns from Falmouth to Sakonnet, the fishery should be in full swing.
Where to Fish
As most anglers know, tautog like to hang around structure, including rocks, mussel beds, wrecks and pilings. Isolated rocks and wrecks on an otherwise flat and featureless bottom are always prime spots, serving as oases for crabs, worms and other ‘tog food. For example, mostly sandy Nantucket Sound contains several wrecks that produce excellent spring ‘tog fishing (the 2 wrecks off Oak Bluffs, near Hedge Fence shoal, are perennial hot spots).
The waters off Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard are ‘tog utopia in the spring, as the massive boulders and rockpiles that litter the bottom here hold lots of crabs and mussels, and give the fish plenty of places to hide from predators. The same holds true for the Sound side of the Elizabeth Islands, as well as Woods Hole, Robinsons Hole and Quicks Hole.
In Buzzards Bay, you’ll find no shortage of prime ‘tog structure. Cleveland Ledge, Mishaum Ledge, the Bow Bells, Nye Ledge and Bird Island Reef are 5 well-known hot spots. As such, they draw large crowds of fishermen, including commercial pin-hookers, who can quickly remove the biggest fish from a spot. Once that happens, you’ll need to pick through a lot of small ‘tog before landing a keeper.
Find a Honey Hole
You’ll do much better if you make an effort to seek out smaller, harder-to-find spots that receive less pressure. Study a chart to locate some reefs or wrecks in 10 to 40 feet of water, then check them out in person. To find these structure spots, you’ll need a depthsounder. When you reach the general area, idle in progressively wider circles while watching the screen for signs of structure and fish.
Fish the deeper spots in late April/early May, then move shallower as the waters warm in May. (Tip: You can often tell what depth to fish by observing the partyboats and commercial fishermen.)
Anchoring is generally preferred in ‘tog fishing—and precise anchoring is the key to success. Anchoring not only keeps the boat in position over the part of the structure that holds the most fish, it allows the angler to keep his line straight up and down and hold bottom more effectively.
Deploy the anchor well upcurrent or upwind of the reef or wreck and let out line until the boat is directly over the highest part of the structure. It’s a good idea to set a second anchor off the stern to keep the boat from swinging too much. This will keep you over the best spot and help prevent snags. By the way, you will be well served to buy a wreck anchor (the kind with bendable tines) for tautog fishing.
Once the boat is anchored, each angler should fish from a different part of the boat. Sometimes a matter of just a few feet can make a big difference. Let out or take in more line to fish different parts of the structure without resetting the anchor.
Depth & Current Considerations
As any serious ‘tog fisherman will tell you, if you don’t get a bite after 5 minutes, you’re in the wrong spot. Re-anchor over another part of the structure, or run to a new area altogether. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right depth zone. Don’t be afraid to drive around to several different spots, watching the depthsounder for signs of life on the sounder.
If you are clearly marking fish on your sounder, but not hooking up, check the tide. Tautog feed best in moving water, and tend to shut off during slack tide. The current doesn’t need to be moving fast, but it has to be moving. Sometimes it means waiting for the current to pick up before the fish start feeding. Be aware that you will need to use heavier sinkers as the current increases to keep your bait on the bottom, so bring a variety of sizes ranging from 2 to 6 ounces.
Best Baits & Gear
Fiddler crabs, green crabs, Asian crabs, clams, shrimp and seaworms all work for tautog, but the fiddlers and green crabs work best. Fiddler crabs are hard to come by here in New England unless you catch your own; however, most tackle shops carry green crabs. Cut the crabs in half and place a half on each hook, leaving the point exposed. Be sure to bring a lot of crabs, as ‘tog are expert bait stealers. When the fishing is hot, it’s easy for 4 anglers to go through a couple 5-gallon buckets of green crabs in a 6-hour period. Fortunately, any leftover crabs can be saved in for the next trip.
There are a variety of bottom rigs for tautog, including specialized versions for fishing ultra-snaggy structure, but a basic dropper loop rig works fine. You can fish 2 droppers off the main leader, or just one, as shown in the following video.
Braided line provides a big advantage when fishing for tautog, as it allows you to feel subtle bites and will help you set the hook firmly in deep water. Braid is also thinner than monofilament, so it forms less of a belly in strong current. This helps you prevent the fish from ducking into the wreck or rocks once it’s hooked. Lastly, don’t be shy about using heavy line for ‘tog fishing; many anglers go with 60-pound test or more. This isn’t subtle sport, after all.
The rod should be in the 7- to 8-foot range and have a sensitive tip for detecting the subtle bites of a tautog. The tip should taper quickly to a stiff midsection and butt, and provide backbone for pulling a big fish away from the bottom.
Conventional reels are preferred in tautog fishing. You don’t need anything fancy, although a high-speed reel can help you get the fish heading toward the boat after the hook-set.
Currently (March, 2011), anglers in Massachusetts may keep 3 tautog measuring 16″ or more per day. The season is open year-round. A saltwater fishing license is required to fish in state waters.
New England Boating: How to Tie a Basic Tautog Rig
If you have any questions regarding tautog fishing, let us know below.