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Headed North?

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Cobia in Buzzards Bay? Indeed you read that correctly! An angler out for striped bass in late June caught a cobia instead and sent photographic proof to MarineFisheries. Not long after, more accounts and photos of strange catches came in from other anglers. Many were bait fishing for tuna off Jeffries and Stellwagen banks when instead of their typical catches, anglers pulled in small bonito. Even the occasional tropical fish, carried by the Gulf Stream to Cape Cod or into Massachusetts Bay, has been seen. An African pompano was recovered in Beverly Harbor and multiple spotfin butterflyfish have been seen on an artificial tire reef in Yarmouth. Accounts such as these have become more frequent in Massachusetts in recent years.

Seeing cobia in Massachusetts waters is rare. However, some species usually seen south of the Cape have started establishing in northern regions like Boston Harbor and areas in the Gulf of Maine. Boston Harbor, Massachusetts Bay, and Ipswich Bay have always been great places to recreationally fish for striped bass, winter flounder, bluefish, and multiple groundfish species. In recent years, the species list has grown to include newcomers such as black sea bass, tautog, and summer flounder (or fluke). In certain places, many anglers not only encounter these new species, but are actually targeting them! Now it’s not uncommon to find a fisherman with four or five different species of legal sized fish on a given day. The fun part is that anglers can multitask while fishing. While “chunking” for striped bass, anglers can also be bottom jigging or bait-fishing near a rock-pile for black sea bass.

Tautog (commonly called ‘Tog) now seem to be in great enough numbers north of Cape Cod that both anglers and spear-fishermen have been targeting them from Boston Harbor to Cape Ann, north to the mouth of the Merrimack River. Some fish have also been caught as far north as Great Bay in New Hampshire. ’Tog are very stout and strong, living on or close to hard structure where they find territorial nooks.

Tautog mainly consume invertebrates and love to eat crabs. The enormous population of the invasive green crab has provided a great food source for tautog that can easily crush the crabs with their powerful jaws. The feeding habits of these fish also mean that they have a delicious and robust flesh that doesn’t flake and has excellent flavor.

It’s easy to know when you’re hooked on a ‘Tog. Immediately after realizing they have been hooked, tautog swim hard for the bottom, often breaking off the line on whatever hard structure is around. When hooked up, it is important to quickly gain the upper-hand on these powerful fish by applying steady pressure to get the fish headed towards the surface.

Much like tautog, black sea bass have also become a more prominent resident in northern areas. Black sea bass are related to grouper and likewise tend to congregate near rock-piles and around bridge pilings. Some anglers argue that black sea bass are the best tasting fish native to Massachusetts waters with a flesh that is a little less robust than tautog, but with even more delicious flavor when pan-fried or grilled.

Black sea bass are sexually dimorphic, making it easy for an angler to tell the difference between males and females by looking at the fish. Females are dark grey to black in color while the males are darker with bright blue or purple on the dorsal area near the head. Males also have a raised bump on the top of the head and can have filaments coming off of the top of the caudal fin (tail). Like groupers, black sea bass also change sex as they age. Black sea bass are born and mature as females, changing into males later in life (the cause for the switch, however, is not well understood).

Knowing the differences in flounder species has also become important for anglers in northern waters. The larger and more “toothy” summer flounder have been journeying to areas like the mouth of Plum Island Sound and the Merrimack River for the last 10 years. In the past, northern anglers were not able to keep summer flounder, due to season closures before their arrival to the area. However, the 2012 season was longer and allowed for those fish to be retained by northern anglers. With a subtle bite and good fight due to their larger size, the summer flounder is a challenging fish to catch and definitely requires lots of patience. Don’t forget to bring a net for these guys!

While these more southern species are coming into northern waters more and more each summer, they still don’t have the same population numbers that exist in their native southern waters. However, these species can still be found, so don’t be surprised if you accidentally catch them while targeting the more common northern species. If the trends continue, the numbers of southern species seen in the north will continue to grow. Keep your eyes open for any new species the next time you’re on the water, and make sure you know how large the keepers need to be. Get out there and get em’!


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