MONTAUK'S MONSTER BLACKFISH
by Tom Schlichter
While most anglers at Montauk last fall set their sights on striped bass, slammer blues and, perhaps, some fast-moving false albacore, a few skippers in the know passed up the much heralded fall run of Long Island?s premier fall game fish in favor of hard-fighting blackfish. Although it attracts much less fanfare than the linesiders, choppers or speedy little tunas, catching blackfish is considered by many hard-core fishing veterans to be one of local fishing?s top challenges.
"Show me someone that can consistently catch blackfish," one Montauk skipper told me a few years ago, and I?ll show you a fisherman that?s got my respect."
Indeed, blackfishing is one of those intangible lines that separate the wannabees from the real fishing experts. Learn to catch blackfish and you can learn to catch any other fish in the sea. Show off a couple of bulldogs, as big blackfish are known, and nobody will question your angling ability. The words "luck" and "blackfishing" are rarely used together while "skill" and "blackfishing" are frequently linked.
Although it may sound intimidating, blackfishing can be a blast once you get the hang of it ? and the action at Montauk last season certainly justified the means as the bite was strong and the fish ran large with many bulldogs in the six to eight-pound class reported. How do you get in on the fun? First of all, you?ve got to convince yourself to take a break from jigging, trolling, chunking and live lining. If you are heading out for blackfish, make them your number one priority for the day. Second, you?ve got to find the right kind of bottom with the right kind of temperature. Get these points in line and you?re halfway to a solid catch.
FOCUS ON THE TARGET
The keys to finding blackfish lie in water temperature and structure. Most anglers are aware that blackfish love to hang around underwater obstructions and rocky bottom, but they frequently fail to consider that this member of the wrasse family also requires that the water temperature range between 50 and 60 degrees. To stay in this range the fish move inshore and off throughout the season, coming to the shallows in spring and fall and holding deep during summer and winter. At Montauk the inshore fall run peaks during mid to late October - although you can hammer fish on select pieces of bottom well into November.
Blackfish relish snag-infested "live" bottom that hosts an abundance of crabs, mussels and baby lobster. When the tide is slack, the blacks hide within crevices, holes, depressions and cutouts. As the tide begins to push, they take up feeding positions at the head and along the lead outside edges, scoffing up tasty morsels like green crabs that get caught in the current and tumble past. At the height of the tide, the chunky-shaped blacks tuck inside or behind structure to get out of the current, returning to their feeding stations as the tide relents later in the day - thus their reputation for feeding at the start and end of a tide, when currents are generally mild to moderate.
Since the blacks rarely wander more than a few yards from structure during their feeding forays, it is vital to anchor-up so that your baits will touch down within a few feet of a boulder, wreck, mussel hump, bridge abutment or whatever is holding the fish. For this reason, experienced blackfish fans usually double-anchor their boats from the bow and ease back until they are almost directly over a selected piece of bottom. As a rule, the biggest blacks prefer the nastiest, snag-infested real estate, so if you aren?t losing some tackle, you aren?t fishing in the right place. Early in the season, the best of the action calls for a run north toward Plum Island and Fishers Island. As the fall progresses, the Cartwright Grounds, Southwest Ledge and, some years, the New Grounds, see the best catches. Of course, if you?ve got a set of numbers closer to port, it?s always worth a try before making these longer runs.
GEAR UP FOR A REAL BATTLE
When it comes to tackle, a six-foot, medium action rod and sturdy conventional reel should get the job done in most Montauk areas. It is important, however, that your reel be spooled with a quality line touted as "abrasion resistant" since ?tog live in such rough environs. Depending on how deep you fish and how strong the current, you can target these fish with lines as light as 17-pound test or as heavy as 30-pound test. The rule is to use the lightest sinker that will let you hold bottom but expect to need six to ten ounces of lead on most outings.
As for the terminal end, simplicity is key. The more hardware added, the greater the chances of tangling the line or snagging bottom. While many anglers opt for a high-low rig, I prefer a single-hook set-up. I use a clinch knot to tie a 30-inch leader of 30 - 40-pound-test monofilament to a black barrel swivel at the end of the main line, then add an end loop to the opposite end to hold a bank sinker. I next tie in a pre-snelled, size four, Virginia-style blackfish hook, via a dropper loop six to eight inches above the sinker. A neat tip I?ve learned over the years is to add a simple over-hand knot two inches above the sinker. This weakens the line so that, if the sinker gets stuck on the bottom, you can break off without losing your hook - or a trophy black that has gotten your sinker snagged.
A MATTER OF TIMING
Finding blackfish and getting bait to fall right in front of them is only part of the battle, setting the hook and hauling ?em up is the other. The hook setting seems to be especially frustrating to novice anglers and with good reason. Blackfish, you see, sport two sets of teeth: a pair of buck teeth just behind the lips used for picking meals from their perch, and a molar-like set used to crack and grind the shells of crabs and mussels.
When a blackfish picks up a bait, the item is held by the front teeth for a moment, then sent back to be pulverized by the second set. Try to set the hook on the first tap and you?ll pull the bait away. Not until the bait is passed back can the point be firmly set. Wait too long, however, and the hook is expelled with the crushed crab sell.
It?s a timing thing, hooking blackfish, something that requires practice to get the knack. Keeping a finger to your line to feel the difference between the pick-up and the swallow will help you learn when to make your move. When you do set the hook, set it hard so the point penetrates the tough skin that surrounds your quarry?s mouth. Lift your rod up high, over your head with your arms fully extended toward the sky, as you feel the point stick. This will lift the fish up and away from the bottom so that when it turns to dive it will come up a few feet short of the nearest hang-up. Only once the fish is clearly headed toward the surface should you lower your arms to a more normal fighting position. A tight drag also helps prevent these brawlers from returning to their lairs - but don?t go too tight or a big fish might snap the line at a knot.
AIN'T EASY BEING GREEN
Although blackfish will scoff up clam and worm baits, green crabs are the primary bait at Montauk. Forget fiddlers and clams, they catch plenty of small and medium-sized blackfish but the large, hard-shelled green crabs stay on the hook long enough to interest slower, more cautious lunkers.
Using green crabs requires a bit of work. Those with shells smaller than a silver dollar can be offered whole. To rig these, break off the legs on one side and insert the hook though one leg socket and out another so the point is fully exposed. Leave the legs on the opposite side.
Larger green crabs should be split in half or even quartered. Remove the top shell and split the crab from front to back. If it's a really large crab, divide each section in half again. Now, remove the legs and claws and insert the hook though one exposed leg socked and out another. Again, be sure the hook point protrudes fully.
There is another great bait for blackfish, but it?s tough to come by: giant hermit crabs. A few bait and tackle shops sell these, but most anglers have to gather their own or bribe lobstermen to put them aside as they pull their traps. Hermit crabs are one bait that big blacks will race too. Pull them out from their shells and hook each once through the soft-fleshed abdomen. Lower gently to the bottom so they don?t rip off the hook and hold on tight to your rod. If you only have a few, save them for just before slack tide when the current is barely moving. That?s when the biggest fish bite best.
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