Safely tucked in for the night between boulders that surround a lighthouse, the tautog lies motionless – semi-dormant or fully asleep. Under the beam of a Scuba divers light, the fish often barely stirs. But when touched, it bolts from its sanctuary and swims out of sight.
Tautogs are found in coastal waters, from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, but they are most abundant from Cape Cod to the Delaware Capes. Their usual habitats include jetties, bottoms with large rocks, shipwrecks, piers, docks and mussel beds. Some of the young fishes use patches of seaweed such as sea lettuce or eel grass beds as nursery habitats. As juveniles, they can be greenish or light brown in color. Older fishes are dull brown or black, with blotches on their sides. Larger males can have a white patch on their chin - thus the name “white chin.”
They are daylight feeders. Their peak activity occurs at dawn and again around dusk. They feed mainly on mussels, scallops, some snails, barnacles, sand dollars, crabs, hermit crabs, lobsters and occasional marine worms. Using their canine-like teeth, they can scrape off barnacles off the rocks or snap up blue mussels by shaking their head back and forth, tearing away the creatures’ anchoring threads. There can be audible crunch as they bite into a crab’s shell or another hard creature. Their prize is then crushed and sorted with teeth in back of their throat, called pharyngeal teeth.
Cool autumn temperatures trigger adult migration to deeper water. They enter a dormant state (torpor) at temperatures of less than 41oF. Juveniles overwinter at their home sites, wedged between structures or partially buried in silt or mud. Then, in the warmth of spring waters, the adults return to the mouth of estuaries for spawning. During this time, dominant males become more aggressive towards other males. Their attention also turns toward females. The males begin to perform what is known as a “rush.” Swimming rapidly toward a potential mate, they veer off within inches of her. Laden with eggs, the female’s body becomes more rotund and a patch over her eyes and mid-body (saddle) becomes visibly more white.
A spanning run begins near the sea bottom. Swimming together toward the surface, they frequently position themselves nearly belly-to-belly. As they reach the surface, the female releases her eggs and her partner releases his milt. Fertilization takes place in the churning waters. The tiny buoyant eggs, develop in the currents. After about two days, the larvae hatch and drift in the plankton until they reach a length of about 13/32 inches. At that point, they go to the bottom. Females mature at about 4 years of age; males at 3 years. A 4-year-old female produces about 34,000 eggs; a 13-year-old can spawn as many as 457,00 or more eggs. Tautogs can live up to 34+ years. Most caught by anglers tip the scales between 2 to 4 pounds. The IGFA World All-Tackle record, caught off Ocean City, MD (January 2, 2015), weighed in at 28 lbs, 13 oz.
The best months for landing one of these hard fighting fishes are said to be May through mid-June (mainly shallow areas - less than 20 feet -down to 3 feet) and late September through late October. A rising tide washing over shallow rocks that are inhabited by blue mussels, are good places to try your luck. Inlets and breakwaters, if not already overfished, can also be choice sites. Using a fish-finder from a boat, look for clusters of rocks tightly scattered over a bottom, shipwrecks or artificial reefs. They all can produce results. Also try to find infrequently fished spots; that is where you are more likely to land large “white chins”
Bottom fishing is the only way to catch tautogs; lures or plugs do not work. A heavy, 7-foot rod with 40+ pound braided line and 5 to 10 feet of fluorocarbon leader are often recommended. At the end of the leader, tie a 4 to 5-ounce bullet-weight sinker using a surgeon’s knot. Thick (strong) J hooks are attached 6 inches and twelve inches above the sinker.
Using clam bellies or worms as bait, can be frustrating. Along with tautogs, they tend to attract a host of bait stealers. But mussels do work as bait. Hook one through its siphon (neck), leaving the shell slightly open for its juices to escape. Green crabs and Asian crabs (both of which are invasive species) along with fiddler crabs are however, for many anglers, a favorite bait. Hermit crabs are also favored.
When baiting a hook with smaller Green, Asian or fiddler crabs, remove two legs. The hook can be run through one leg socket and out another. Larger crabs can be cut in half.
When a line is cast, let the sinker hit bottom and then take up the slack. Rarely move the bait. When a large tautog strikes, it will drag the sinker along with the bait. Set the hook and begin reeling it in before it can head for its hideout among the rocks or parts of a wreck.
These fishes with their firm, white, sweet flavored flesh, produce a great meal. They can be grilled, broiled or baked. They are also used in cooking up a fish chowder. YUM — enjoy them!
To learn more about the region’s marine life:
Go to YouTube and enter in Search: Long Island Sound Marine life
All photographs by the author