People either love it or they hate it! What's that? Tautog fishing!
Tautog fishing takes a lot of patience and good supply of hooks and
sinkers. The one good thing about tautog fishing is that you can do
it from the shore. The other good thing about tautog fishing is that
the conditions do not have to be perfect. The water can be cloudy,
the wind can be blowing, and yet the tautog can still be biting.
We have our annual tautog runs two times of year. Though tautog bite
all summer long and sometimes into the winter if the conditions are
mild, the larger fish bite in the spring and in the fall. The spring
run generally starts some time in April and runs through June. The
fall run starts in September and runs through November.
"How do you catch tautog without getting hung up?"
If you're not getting hung up at least "every once in a while" you're
probably not catching tautog. Tautog live in areas of structure such
as rocks, ledges where there are lots of barnacles and debris,
underwater concrete slabs or riprap. Offshore, they live in shipwrecks
or artificial reef sites. As soon as they get hooked, these strong
fish head right for the structure, often causing the angler to become
hopelessly "hung up."
To do your best to avoid getting snagged so often, there are several
things you can do. First and foremost is use common sense. If you
cast to a certain spot and continuously get hung up, do not cast there
anymore. Move up or down the rock jetty or bulkhead and try another
spot. (Hint: A "hot spot" during an outgoing tide may be "snag city"
on an incoming tide.)
The trick to tautog fishing is to cast out far enough without casting
out too far! If you cast too "short" you will get hung up immediately
on rocks or the bulkhead where you are fishing. If you cast too "far"
the current will move your sinker too fast and you will get hung up on
an underwater ledge. Experiment with your casting distance,
increasing it as the tide slacks and decreasing your distance when the
tide runs hard. You want your sinker to stay relatively still on the
bottom after you cast out. It can move a little, but you don't want
it to move a lot.
The next thing to keep in mind when tautog fishing is to "keep it
simple." When tautog fishing from the shore you need to use only one
hook and one sinker. You want no metal top and bottom rigs or sinker
snaps. Most anglers make a very simple rig out of 40-pound test
monofilament leader material. Tie a double surgeon's loop at the end
of a 4 to 5-foot piece of 40-pound test leader for the sinker and then
tie a second double surgeon's loop a few inches up the leader and
insert a loose Octopus styled hook (a #2/0 or #3/0 Mustad #92553BL).
Keep the loop 3 to 5 inches long, no longer. Tie a barrel swivel to
the end of the 40-pound test monofilament. Don't make your rig too
short, especially if your line on your reel is 20-pound test or
lighter. Underwater rocks play havoc on your line. You want your
leader material to take the brunt of the rock abrasion.
Many anglers use 40-pound test on their reel and make these rigs
right from the line off their spool. This works fine because a tautog
fisherman does not need to cast out very far. You do need to have a
"surf size"-spinning spinning reel if you want to spool up with
40-pound test monofilament line. Other anglers have had good luck
using the new super lines such as Berkley Fire Line, Power Pro, or
other brands of Spectra fiber line in the 30 to 50 -pound test range.
When you use these ultra-thin diameter lines, you can get away with a
smaller reel. You want to make your leaders out of 40-pound test
monofilament and tie the leaders into the "braid" line with either a
barrel swivel or a uni-knot. It is very easy to feel the bites with
the super "braids" and since there is no stretch, it is easier to pull
"hung up" rigs out of the rocks.
Another common problem when tautog fishing is having a big fish on
and then having the sinker get hung up in a rock. You can feel the
fish, but can't budge the line. Some anglers use a rubber band on the
sinker, so when it gets hung up you can break it easily and still get
your fish. Simply loop the rubber band through your surgeon's loop and
then loop it through the eye of the sinker. It's easy and it works.
Tautog are fast and you need to be faster! As soon as you hook a
tautog, you want to get your rod tip up and start cranking so the
tautog's head stays up so he does not go under a rock or ledge. Even
if the fish is large and fighting hard, keep your rod tip high and
pump the fish up. If you have never tautog fished before but have had
any experience with grouper fishing in Florida or other southern
areas, it is similar. If that fish gets its head down and goes into a
hole, it is often, "all over." Since you need to keep the pressure on
the fish, it is necessary to keep a fairly tight drag. (If you are
using a no-stretch "braid line" you will want to loosen the drag up a
little more than if you were using monofilament.)
"I heard that you need to set the hook on a tautog before it even
bites?" No, this isn't true and almost impossible to do anyway. The
trick is to feel the tautog take the bait and wait until the fish gets
it in his mouth before setting the hook. Once you feel the weight of
the fish, set the hook. All fish bite differently on different days or
tides. Big tautog will often "slam" the bait and while small tautog
will "pick" at your offerings. Tautog are often harder to hook during
a slack tide than during a running tide. Experiment around, and if
you are successful at catching one or two, try to remember exactly how
you were holding the rod and how you set the hook. Do it again!
If you have the time, watch the veteran tautog fishermen and see what
they do. Don't fish; just watch and you will be surprised what you
"What do I need to go tautog fishing? Where should I go?"
Even if you are not an avid tautog fisherman, it is something to do
when you can't hold bottom in the surf with a cinder block or if you
just have an hour to "kill" and don't want to do anything complicated.
During tautog season I always keep a 5 gallon bucket in my truck with
10 flat 2-ounce sinkers, a 10-pack of loose hooks and some 40-pound
test leader material, a pair of kitchen shears and a couple barrel
swivels. When I want to slip out tautog fishing for an hour I grab
either a dozen green crabs or a pint of sand fleas. (Double the
above for a two-hour tautog outing and hope you don't need that many
When it is cold and nasty in the spring and fall many anglers like to
go surf fishing when the wind is blowing from a westerly direction and
go tautog fishing along the bayside when the wind is blowing from an
easterly direction. This means that the wind will be at their back in
either case (thus they are more comfortable) and the water in front of
them is calm.
Tautog generally bite before and after the flounder run, giving
anglers another species to fish for. In the fall of the year, anglers
are also likely to catch sheepshead, red or black drum, and even
stripers while tautog fishing. In the summer and early fall,
triggerfish are also around. All of these fish are very good to eat!
Popular tautog fishing places in Ocean City on the bayside are: the
bulkhead from 2nd through 4th Streets, 5th Street, 6th Street, the end
of the Oceanic Pier, and near the draw of the Route 50 Bridge.
Anglers, of course, fish for tautog at the Ocean City inlet and
seawall. Indian River Inlet is also a very popular tautog haven.
Indian River has the advantage of having two rock jetties and sea
walls so anglers can fish with the wind at their backs whether the
wind is blowing from the south or the north.
"Does that really matter?"
Not if the wind is blowing 5 to 10 miles per hour, but if the wind is
howling at 20 to 30 miles per hour it is always nice to have it at
your back. It is more comfortable and easier to control your cast.
Controlling your cast and getting that sinker right where you want it
is important to successful tautog fishing. Once you do it a few times
you will learn to find the deeper holes where the larger tautog are
hiding. You can actually feel the sinker fall in a hole when you
nudge your line in. This is where you will get that "bite."
"How about the bait?"
Tautog like crabs or clam, but they especially like crabs. The little
sand fleas (or sand crabs) that you dig on the beach are a great
tautog bait. So are green crabs that you buy at local tackle stores.
Any other kind of crab you can catch works good for tautog.
To hook a sand crab, insert the hook point into the apron of the crab
and out the outer shell approximately an eighth of an inch.
To prepare a green crab, most anglers use a pair of kitchen shears to
cut the crab in half. Then, you want to pull off the shell and insert
the hook in one leg socket and out another. I like to cut the legs
off as well. If the tautog are running large I like to use the
whole body section. Cut off the legs, pull off the shell, and insert
the hook in one leg socket and out the claw socket. (I save the big
pieces for the slack tide.) Small crabs can be used whole with the
legs and shell intact. Hook them near the swimming fin.
Tautog fishing is not for everyone but these fish, pound for pound,
fight harder than any fish around. If the sheepshead and drum are
biting, tautog fishing can be "double the pleasure." It's worth trying
it at least once or twice. And hey, they're all good to eat as well!