Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fifty Days

Fifty days. That’s not a big window, but that’s what we get here for fall blackfish season. There are short spring and summer seasons too, yet there is something special about targeting these bottom-hugging brutes on crisp fall days. This year’s opener fell on a Thursday, smack in the middle of a Nor’easter. No sane angler got out until Saturday when the Sound finally calmed down. That meant just one day’s worth of keepers were culled from the inshore haunts before I got out there Sunday morning with buddies Mike, Dan, and Chris.   

It had been a year since any of us had targeted blackfish and there was a feeling of anticipation on the boat during the chilly ride to the breakwalls. We weren’t alone. Even from a couple miles away we could see dozens of boats that looked like white specks against the rocks. We motored along until finding a vacant stretch a respectable distance between two boats, dropped anchor and inched the stern tight to the wall. Chris tossed a line fixed to a metal bolt that caught between two granite slabs and tied it off to a cleat. The duel anchor system is popular when targeting tog, allowing anglers to stay put over one spot, in our case a rod’s length from the wall in 10 to 15-feet of water. Blackfish are so structure dependent that a few feet in either direction can make the difference between a desert and an oasis. 

Tautog eat all sorts of crustaceans and shellfish, but crabs are hands down the preferred bait when targeting them. It seems like you can never have enough on hand as tog are masters at cleaning hooks with their human-like teeth. It’s not just them down there either; an underwater camera would likely reveal a mob of small black sea bass and cunners pecking away at your offering as well. The two species of crab most often used for blackfish in Long Island Sound are both invasive to the area, the Asian crab and green crab. Asian crabs are smaller on average, usually fished whole. The green crabs grow larger and are either fished whole or cut in half or quarters depending on their size. What works better is all personal preference. Some anglers stick to the go big or go home theory. Others lean toward Asian crabs because it’s faster and easier not having to deal with cutting—just pierce the crab with a jig and drop it down. I like to mix it up and experiment with both and let the fish decide.

On board for this outing we had 12 dozen Asian crabs and a bag of greenies for good measure. All of us had our sights set on jigging with light-ish tackle. The tide wasn’t ripping that morning so we got away with using jigs from one to one and a half ounce. There were high hopes for a boat-wide limit (3 fish per angler, 16-inch minimum). That would allow each of us a fresh dinner and some filets to vacuum seal for the freezer. Mike had the hot hand to start, landing the first two keepers. Pretty soon we all got in on the action once we got a handle of the rocky bottom below the boat. The key to finding larger fish seemed to be locating holes and crevasses that blackfish were hiding out in. Those same holes added to the challenge of landing a bigger fish if you were lucky enough to hook one.

With this style of fishing, it helps to have braided main line to better feel light bites and a long, heavy leader to stand up to the abrasion that comes with the territory. I needed all of my four-foot 40-pound leader when I battled my best fish of the day that almost never saw the net. When my jig sank down a few additional feet into one of those holes, it was greeted by a tap, tap, crunch. With the drag locked down, I tried like hell to pull the fish out of its lair but it bulldogged back down into the rocks until I felt myself hung up on bottom. Completely stuck. No headshakes, nothing. Somehow patience prevailed and after letting it be for 30 seconds that felt like 10 minutes, the blackfish worked itself out of the snag and continued to pull hard until it was flapping on the deck. I was proud of this one—not huge but my biggest to date and certainly the most memorable fight.

Over the course of a few hours that morning, we chipped away and eventually got our limit and released a bunch of shorts, a number of them just under 16-inches. Mike added a keeper black sea bass, which was a welcomed bycatch. Right up there with the fishing was the banter and camaraderie that comes along with togging. In a way blackfishing reminds me of some of the ice fishing that I do—friends jigging and BSing in close proximity, pausing once in a while to drink a beer or wolf down some food. I also like that it’s not super competitive out there. There are boats upon boats full of anglers, but they are all respectful to one another and everyone seemed to be bailing fish and doing their own thing. After a triumphant ride back to the marina, we got a workout fileting the 12 blackfish and bonus sea bass. I ate some of my share that night. I kept it simple with salt, pepper, and butter in a cast iron pan. It was as delicious as I had remembered it and couldn’t have been fresher. I’m not sure if that will be my only togging trip this fall, but if it is it was definitely one to remember.

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