With Blackfish It’s Location

One of the toughest fighters pound for pound in our local waters
Stubby, stout, and not much to look at, blackfish gain their stellar flavor by feasting on a diet of green crabs and other hard-shelled species like lobster and mussels. Jon M. Diat

Blackfish, or tautog or tog as they are also commonly referred to, will not win many underwater beauty contests. Compared to other fish like the exalted and highly prized striped bass, they’re just not the prettiest to admire from up close or from afar. But despite their outwardly dull appearance, don’t underestimate their popularity. 

Stubby and stout with a rather large girth and a uniform, dullish black and brown color, especially seen in smaller-size fish, the blackfish more than makes up for its rather unremarkable appearance by being one of the toughest fighters pound for pound in our local waters. And by feasting on a diet rich in crabs, lobster, mussels, and other hard-shelled specimens, its flakey white flesh makes it one of our more popular inshore fish for eating. 

It was with this in mind that I made my maiden voyage on Friday morning to pursue some tog. Dinner was calling.

With the season opening up the day before (anglers can now retain four fish over 16 inches), the beautiful early morning sky radiant with iridescent pink and orange hues backed by the dense and overly warm air made it feel and look more like late June than early October. Noticing that my water temperature gauge read a balmy 71 degrees at my dock, I fully realized it would be prudent to limit my expectations of the day ahead as blackfish prefer much cooler water temperatures ranging from 50 to 65 degrees.

I set a northerly course for Plum Island with half a bushel of lively green crabs for bait. The water temperature dropped a bit on the ride out to the grounds, but not by much. 

After a smooth 50-minute cruise on the oily-calm waters of Gardiner’s Bay, it was time to find suitable real estate on which to anchor up. Blackfish, like their tough exterior appearance, prefer to live in a very rough neighborhood. Their highly preferred residency consists of rocky, distressed bottom, dense mussel beds, long-gone wrecks, and other sticky hangs and ledges. Setting anchor even a few feet away from such prime structures will result in a long, fishless day. As the old real estate adage goes: location, location, location. 

With the anchor successfully dropped on a dense patch of rocks, the incoming tide, which was just off the recent full moon, was humming along at more than two knots. Not exactly prime time, but the tide was expected to reach full slack in about 90 minutes and would offer better conditions. Baiting a freshly split green crab in two pieces on a hi-lo rig and a 12-ounce sinker, I quickly lowered my rig into the strong current. In less than 20 seconds, I felt the telltale taps of an inquisitive tog seeking an early breakfast meal. And a few seconds later, the first fish of the day hit the deck. Well under the minimum size, the spunky fish was quickly released to fight another day. 

As the tide began to ease up, the action continued at a torrid pace, but a fish approaching 16 inches was just not in the cards, despite my prime location. It was clear to me that I was fishing near a nursery school, as it was overpopulated by juvenile tog and small sea bass. Clearly, the parents had left the kids alone that day and were spending their morning in another location. 

Notwithstanding my empty bucket, the day was still a success in my view. The combination of beautiful weather and fish actively biting, albeit small in size, is certainly hard to beat. I’m also grateful we have a number of fine fish markets around to help fill the void when you’re after fresh fish. 

Over at Tightlines Tackle Shop in Sag Harbor, the proprietor Ken Morse confirmed the slow start to the blackfish season. “The waters are very warm for this time of the year,” he said. “I’ve sold a ton of green crabs, but just about everyone who fished said they were inundated by small blackfish. Keepers have been few and far between.” Morse added that the action along the ocean beaches is improving, but it’s nothing to get too excited about. “Again, we really have not had fall weather yet. Even the fishing for false albies has been picky, too, of late.”

At the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, the owner Harvey Bennett was in a chatty mood about the improved, local fishing scene as he unfurled a Basque flag outside his shop on Montauk Highway in Monday’s stiff southwesterly breeze.  “Many people don’t know it, but the Basque people were fishing for codfish off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland well before Christopher Columbus discovered the new world in 1492,” he said of the group of people from a region in northwest Spain and part of France. “They had a rich whaling history, too. And I’m amazed how many people recognize the flag when they drive by the shop and want to talk about it. Very cool.” 

Fishing history lesson aside, Bennett was enthused about the action for striped bass. “Lots of bass from Gurney’s to Wainscott to the west with many nice-sized fish being landed,” he said. “Mixed in are some blues, weakfish, and a good amount of shad. For boaters, the bass bite has been very good at the fort at the north end of Gardiner’s Island. And if you want blowfish, they are big and plentiful in many areas, especially Napeague Harbor.” On a side note, Bennett added that he now has all the tools necessary to repair Van Staal reels. The pricey reels are considered to be the Rolls-Royce of surfcasting rods.

The action at Montauk continues its strong pace as well. “Striped bass fishing has truly been excellent,” said Ben Mahler at the Star Island Yacht Club in Montauk. “Lots of big fish continue to be landed in the usual spots around the point.” Mahler added that the blackfish action was just getting started, while porgy and sea bass catches continue to please many.

When the winds are not blowing, anglers continue to find some consistent action with sharks. Capt. Ron Onorato of the Captain Ron weighed in a hefty 268-pound mako for a recent charter. A fittingly successful way to end his offshore trips for the year.


We welcome your fishing tips, observations, and photographs at fish@ehstar.com. You can find the “On the Water” column on Twitter at @ehstarfishing.