Blackfish: ‘Biting Like Ticks’

The bottom-feeding world of blackfish
Gary Thompson, left, and his brother Don presented three cod and blackfish they caught on Monday aboard the charter boat Blue Fin IV. Michael Potts

   With a week left before the close of the 2012 striped bass season for sport fishermen and with schools of herring schooling right outside the Montauk Harbor Inlet, things could be worse. Bass are still being caught, although the bite has slowed and the fish are smaller.
    For boating anglers, what’s lacking in the striped bass department is being made up for in the bottom-feeding world of blackfish,  a k a tautog from the Algonkian language.
    “They’re biting like ticks,” was how Richie (Nasty) Nessel put in on Monday, with plans to head out to the tautog grounds the next day.  
    ’Togs, as they’re called, can grow to grouper-like sizes, up to about three feet long and weighing over 20 pounds. Most harvested from this area weigh in the two to eight-pound range, with an occasional monster thrown in. Lately the blackfish being caught at Southwest Ledge are bigger than those at the otherwise tried and true, rocky grounds around Fisher’s Island.
    Blackfish, Tautoga onitis, are bucktoothed. They are a member of the wrasse family and are found from Nova Scotia south to the Carolinas. Their impressive front teeth have evolved to crack open the shells of mussels, crabs, and clams. The baits of choice are white, green, and hermit crabs. Hermits are highest on the tautog menu, but they are also expensive, about $80 per bushel.
    Many a blackfish is lost because the angler has not developed the practiced feel for the fish’s eating habits, and its habitat. Hooking them requires the angler to first feel his or her rod for the taps that indicate that the tasting, the initial shell crushing, has begun. An early swing at this point will take the bait out of the blackfish’s mouth. It’s in the second eating stage that the hook is set, after the fish begins to eat. The timing is telegraphed by a more steady tapping.
    The second hurdle is to remember why the tautog’s skin is slimy. It’s to help it move along reefs and slide past rock outcroppings without injury. Once hooked, they will attempt to hike behind and between rocks. Best to reel and pull gingerly so as not to part the line.
    Michael Potts, captain of the Blue Fin IV charter boat, agreed the blackfish fishing had been good, and that the cod catch was beginning to improve. He said that while the striped bass bite had begun to taper off, herring were relatively thick in Fort Pond Bay and as far east as Shagwong Point as of Tuesday.
    He said the absence of gannets — the diving birds whose cascading attacks on baitfish mark the presence of feeding fish — nearshore was explained by the corresponding absence of feeding predators that normally chase their small prey to the surface.
    But wait. At this time of year, anglers might focus on the prey, herring in this case, as food and not bait. Pickled herring is a Christmas necessity in many households. With big schools near at hand, it would not take more than an hour to land enough herring to supply all of East Hampton Town with holiday herring.