One of my favorite species is the blackfish, “Tautoga onitis”, the scientific name, often called tautog or simply “togs” by many anglers. This term bothers me slightly because “tog” is a word that means a coat.
An interesting fish that has a face only a mother could love. They have blubbery fat lips to protect against the shellfish and crabs they eat, bad teeth for crushing their primary food items and firm, white delicious meat. Skin that is like leather to protect against rocks and the barnacled world in which they hide. They pull hard but don’t always hit hard. They live around rocky reefs and pilings where their favorite foods are abundant. Catching them requires precision placement of one’s boat so lines are as close to solid structure as possible. If the baited hook is not pretty right in where the fish are hiding, blackfish will not chase a meal very far. They pull hard up and down in short bursts but aren’t a species that will run much line off a reel. Their environment dictates the use of fairly stout gear and heavy abrasion resistant line to haul them out of sharp rocks and the snaggy places where they live.
A mid-sized blackfish was the first marine game fish I caught as a kid, using a simple hand spear. Reverse time nearly 60 years, I was eleven or twelve visiting a friend who lived in Niantic during the summers. We had an exchange program I’d go to his place for a week or two and he’d come to mine. Our moms had been friends since they were young children so it was a good reason to get together.
One summer Robby said in addition to the usual fishing equipment to bring a mask and snorkel, which he taught me to use. After buying a frog spear that we attached to a broom handle, we headed to McCook Point Park which had a swimming beach and a rocky shoreline where we could use our spears to harpoon winter flounder which were fairly abundant in those days. At the time Niantic Bay and “river” above the railroad tracks was a flounder wintering and breeding area. Water temperatures were cooler then and the area held flatfish pretty much year round. Most of the Connecticut coastline had populations of flounder, prior to their decimation at the hands of unregulated local trawl fisheries, heavy rod and reel fishing pressure and rising water temperatures.
The mask and snorkel were so we could swim around the shallow rocks and spear flatfish. I was not comfortable swimming in the waves and breathing through a small plastic tube, so I simply stayed in the shallow water and waded waist deep, bent over with my face in the water. There were enough fish around that after spooking a few I began spotting them before they took off and sticking them like a maintenance person spearing paper and trash.
I was wading around some shoreline rocks when I spotted a five or six-pound blackfish, which looked gigantic to my inexperienced eyes. It was hiding on the shady side of a weed covered rock right beside my feet. It kind of lay sideways to get a better look at me, a fatal mistake, I stuck the spear into its gill plate, reached down and held it on the flimsy spear and ran to the shore, absolutely thrilled with my catch.
That night the flatfish and that blackfish was the main course for supper and it was delicious. I’ve been a fan of this species ever since.
Fast forward a few years; a couple of high school friends and me began fishing and snorkeling in the waters from Groton Long Point to Fishers Island and hunting blackfish with our spear guns. There were loads of tautog around in those days before the species became as popular as they are today. There simply was not the number of fishermen and therefore much less pressure on this species. Sadly, like literally every popular sport and commercial species they went through a death spiral during the times before regulations were stringent enough to sufficiently protect breeding populations so literally everything went into some level of decline. Most have recovered but only a couple species have reached population levels as large as they were shortly after World War II.
At that time there were enough fish around I would simply go into the water with a number in mind and get them. I don’t like to freeze fish so my behavior is that of a hunter-gatherer, take a fish or two per trip rather than a limit. Make a catch, eat them for a couple of days and go again the following week. There were enough quality blackfish around that I could be picky and essentially wouldn’t even take aim at a blackfish that was under five or six pounds, and shot many that were in the ten-pound range. My personal best ever, a monster that weighed 18 pounds but forgot to measure its length.
One of those spots, my favorite had black mussels covering the rocks, which is the reason blackfish were so abundant. I would often hear them crunching the shells while swimming. I would simply follow the sound and spear the fish that was making it, scrape a few mussels into a sack and be home with enough for a delicious meal, often in less than an hour. Add some fresh Connecticut grown corn and a couple of cold brews to go with the broiled blackfish fillets and boiled mussels and you have a summer time feast that is hard to beat.
I haven’t done any spear fishing in many years, getting too old and beat up for that. During the fall I get out a couple of times with one of my friends to fish for blackfish around the Groton New London area. Success is a matter of timing the tides and being able to hold the boat over the fish in prevailing winds and currents. We always have a rod rigged with lures to cast to any bluefish or stripers after we’ve caught enough blackfish for a meal or two.
This time of year bluefish are schooling and feeding heavily as the temperature drops and push them offshore to their wintering grounds offshore and to the south.
Stripers are different. They feed on the same concentrations of menhaden, silversides and other bait as they migrate towards their primary wintering grounds in either the Hudson River or the Chesapeake Bay. Along the way, smaller schools peel off of the main body of fish to feed their way up into large coastal rivers and bays, where they may spend the winter when cold temperatures move in abruptly and trap them. I suspect it’s not intentional, though it could be a behavior they have developed over the centuries.
Some may winter around warm water outflows from power plant discharges; those fish that travel up into large rivers such as the Thames or Housatonic create the wintering populations. As a result, there are many discreet winter fisheries that vary greatly in size from many thousands to small pods of fish.
Bear in mind when striper numbers are high, that abundance is reflected in the number of fish that over winter in a given location. When the population is depressed, the wintering spots may be or seem to be devoid of fish when there are only small schools in those areas.
During the peak of the winter fisheries in the Thames River during the late 80’s into the early 90’s, the upper river from the Pequot Bridge near the Mohegan Sun casino to Norwich Harbor would literally fill up with stripers. Norwich Harbor at the peak of the high tide would hold schools numbering in the thousands packed like sardines in two or three large schools.
It was common to locate a school of stripers that literally blotted out the bottom ten to twenty feet of the depth finder screen. Despite the super dense schools, like fishing for anything anywhere, some days they fed and some days they have lockjaw. On a good day, we would catch and release fifty fish each on average during a tide. Other days when they were turned off landing a few fish could be a challenge, though we never got skunked on a day when the fish weren’t cooperating we would struggle to catch a few stripers.
These over wintering bass were almost all schoolies ranging from 18 to 30 inches. Occasionally one of us might catch a legal fish and of the hundreds we landed over the span of a couple decades of winter striper fishing my best ever was something like 38 or 39 inches, with most legal fish being 28 to 34 inches.
The most extreme case of the harbor being packed with fish took place just after Christmas one year. Eric had a brand new depth finder that Santa brought him, so as soon as he had a chance we launched the boat in Norwich.
As we pulled out into the harbor on a clear, freezing cold mid-winter day. He turned his new machine on; as we approached the spot we expected to find some fish he said: “Either this machine is messed up or we have forty feet of stripers under the boat.” I stood up and peered into the water, which was relatively clear for the Thames. Four or five feet down I could see nothing but the backs of fish. The screen showed 40 feet of striped bass in 45 feet of water in one of the deeper holes that usually held fish, so it was our usual starting point.
One thing I’ve investigated for decades, kept accurate records and even calculated the statistical correlation between barometric pressures and how well or poorly the fish were biting. Generally speaking high and rising pressure tends to make “catching” worse than our expected average catch. Dropping barometric pressure associated with incoming storm fronts tends to bring with it better, catches compared to an average expected catch. The correlations were stronger for freshwater species than marine. I think that moving tides in the ocean have a stronger influence on how well fish bite than barometric pressure and is the primary reason for this difference. Of course, temperature and time of day are the two major factors for both freshwater and marine species that are more of an influence and have a stronger relationship to how good and poor the fishing is than barometric pressure.
That day when we had forty feet of fish under us was a cold, clear “bluebird day”, the worst possible conditions made even worse by the freezing single-digit winter temperatures. Water was freezing in our rod guides. Despite bumping our jigs off fish constantly, I caught a single fish just before we quit and my partner sniffed the skunk.
Sadly shortly after that period of super striper abundance along the coast, angler pressure was focused on stripers, primarily because other species that would have siphoned off some fishing pressure had shortened seasons creating long periods of time when stripers, at least in Connecticut waters, was literally the only popular species with an open season. The pressure took its toll on striper populations.
For a few winters, it was not worth launching the boat to fish the upper Thames during the winter. Though the Housatonic which is closer to the source of western Long Island Sound’s population of stripers did hold some fish that Eric fished quite often. I had other fish to fry so to speak so never made any trips to that decent winter fishery.
A good thing is the bass are making a comeback of sorts. There have been increasing numbers of schoolies around over the past few seasons which bodes well for the future, providing the breeding success continues and the population remains steady or increases. Heavy flooding rains at the wrong time during the spawning season can severely damage a year class of bass. Weather and spawning success are the two unknowns that cannot be managed.
We are coming off a warm wet fall, if conditions stay as they have been, fall fishing for blackfish, scup, stripers and bluefish will fade slowly as winter conditions approach. If things suddenly flash freeze all bets are off. Let’s hope for the best. To our readers have a wonderful holiday season.