Blackfishing is one of those intangible lines that separate the wannabees from the real fishing experts. Learn to catch blackfish consistently and you can learn to catch any other fish in the sea. Show off a couple of bulldogs, as the biggest 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.
Most anglers are aware that blackfish love to hang around underwater obstructions and rocky bottom, but they frequently fail to consider that “tautog” or “’tog,” as New Englanders call this member of the wrasse family, also require that the water 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. On Long Island, the inshore fall run peaks in mid-October and early November while deeper action continues in the ocean and Long Island Sound until the season closes on December 14. Minimum size for blackfish in New York waters is 16 inches and the creel limit is four fish per day for each angler.
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 cut-outs. 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 or calico 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 blackfishermen 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.
When it comes to tackle, a six-foot, medium action rod and sturdy conventional reel should get the job done for most inshore scenarios. It’s important, however, that your reel be spooled with a quality line that features a top-shot of abrasion resistant leader 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 12-pound test or as heavy as 30-pound test. The rule is to use the lightest sinker that will let you hold bottom. For inshore action, mono lines work fine. To get deeper without adding too much weight, braided lines have the edge.
As for the terminal end, simplicity is key. I prefer a single-hook set-up, using a clinch knot to tie a 30-inch leader of 30 – 40-pound-test Ande pink monofilament to a black barrel swivel at the end of the main line, then adding an end loop 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. I choose the Ande over other lines for this application because I like its abrasion resistance.
Finding blackfish and getting bait to fall right in front of them is only half 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.
Although blackfish will scoff up clam and worm baits, crabs are a better choice as they seem to limit the number of attacks from pesky bergalls. Many anglers use fiddlers, but I prefer green crabs because, being large and hard-shelled, they 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 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 stores sell these up and down the coast but, mostly, people gather their own or bribe lobstermen to put them aside as they pull their traps. 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.