It’s cold outside, the docks are deserted, and the public boat ramps are quiet. Yet there’s enjoyable saltwater fishing available to Mid-Atlantic anglers willing to brave the elements.
All winter, fishing the numerous wrecks along the Delaware and New Jersey coasts can produce outstanding action with hard-fighting and great-tasting tautog, also known as tog and blackfish.
Tautog are powerful, thick-bodied fish that hunker down in wrecks and rockpiles. These crustacean crunchers use their thick lips and huge front teeth to crush and devour mussels, blue crabs, speckled crabs, green crabs, fiddler crabs, sand fleas and even lobster.
A few Mid-Atlantic charter boats and party boats fish right through December, January and February, enabling anglers to enjoy exciting wintertime wreck fishing action with hefty tautog.
During the spring and fall, tog are caught on the rocky bases of lighthouses, jetties and other inshore structure. In the winter they’re found on deeper ocean wrecks from just off the beach to 25 miles out. Three- to 5-pound tog are common, fish above 7 pounds are considered an excellent catch, and 10-pounders are trophies. Wrecks receive very little fishing pressure in the winter, enabling fish to build up in big numbers. In fact, the IGFA All-Tackle World Record tautog, a huge 25-pounder, was caught on a New Jersey party boat on Jan. 20, 1998.
Try Charter Fishing
A few anglers fish in their own boats on calm winter days. However, even getting wet from spray can be dangerous this time of year. Unless you own a big boat, you’re better off fishing in the safety and comfort provided by larger charter boats and party boats with heated cabins (some have heated handrails).
In the Delaware coastal town of Lewes, Capt. Jerry Blakeslee on the charter boat Grizzly is available for wintertime wreck fishing trips. Call him at 302-684-8635. A little farther south, Capt. John Nedelka fishes all winter long aboard the charter boat Karen Sue out of Indian River Inlet, and he can be contacted at 302-539-1359. Traveling north to Brielle, New Jersey, the Jamaica fishes the wintertime wrecks and its phone number is 732-458-5014.
Captains will anchor their boat directly over a wreck and anglers will drop their rigs straight down to the structure. Conventional baitcasting reels work best because in this situation they provide better line control than spinning reels. Stout fast-action rods and strong line are needed because hooked tog will attempt to bulldog their way deeper into the wreck, and the line will break when it rubs against the structure. A rod with sweep in the tip is ineffective because when it bends it provides time for tautog to muscle its way to freedom.
Tog Are Bait Stealers
Top wintertime tog baits include clams, chunks of green crabs and blue crabs, and even sand fleas. Tog are notorious bait stealers. Even with their thick lips, strong jaws and intimidating teeth, they can gently remove bait from a hook. But superbraided lines help tremendously because they don’t stretch, and they enable anglers to detect even the lightest taps. Anglers should set the hook firmly, hold the rod tip up, and keep reeling to lift the fish from the wreck.
Tautog or blackfish are tough, powerful fish that hang out on wrecks and rockpiles and they use their big teeth and strong jaws to crush and eat crabs, clams, sand fleas, and other crustaceans.
Thin-diameter superbraided lines also cut through the water and get down to the wreck better than thicker lines that encounter more water resistance. While superbraided lines are very strong, monofilament is more abrasion resistant when rubbed against the wreck or the bottom of the boat by a hooked fish.
Attach a 3-foot leader of 50-pound test monofilament to the end of the superbraided line with a uni-knot, Albright knot, or via a swivel. At the bottom of the mono leader, tie a perfection knot to form a loop to hold a 3-ounce to 10-ounce sinker. About 5 inches above that knot, tie a dropper loop in the leader and slip a size 3 or 4 Virginia-style blackfish hook onto the loop. These rigs are inexpensive and easy to tie, with no hardware other than a hook and a sinker. It’s a good thing they are inexpensive because wreck fishing involves numerous snags and lost rigs.
When you go wintertime tog fishing always bring more clothes than you think you’ll need (bundle up like a deer hunter). Dress and prepare properly and on calm days, even when it’s cold, tog fishing can be fast, fun and very rewarding.
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