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Reef Fish

Saltwater Marine Fishing Regulations Rhode Island Saltwater Fishing

Rhode Island’s Reef Fish:

The Tautog

The majestic striped bass may be the state fish of Rhode Island but many of the regulars down on the docks and piers of the ocean state believe another candidate warrants consideration. Those folks would say that the tautog, or blackfish as it’s known to the west of us, is a more appropriate choice.

After all this, denizen of the rocky shores shares many characteristics of by the typical Rhode Islander, they are a robust, stubborn, and quite crafty fish who don’t like to travel long distances. Unlike the fickle striper who leaves Rhode Island waters for warmer climes in the winter, these sturdy fish are year round residents. They will leave the shallows of the beaches and bay in the winter to move into deeper local waters to hunker down and take what the New England winter offers them. In the spring they make the short journey back to the shallows to spawn and feed. This small journey for the tautog is akin to a south county resident driving north of the towers, a noteworthy event. Tautog prefer to live in areas with abundant structure such as rocky reefs where they eat various types of crabs, and shellfish. Their diet requires some impressive dentition which is the likely reason they are best described as a “handsome” fish. Looks aside, they are a very tasty fish who won’t give up without a good fight.

Not the easiest fish to get on a hook anglers should possess a patient and determined mindset while pursuing these white chinned beauties. The best times of year to try and catch one are during the spring and fall months. An old timer once told me that when the dandelions show up in your lawn it is time to gear up for tautog fishing. Fishing is closed annually in June and July to protect spawning tautog. In the fall, wait for the leaves to turn and then head out to the rocks. Tautog rigs are readily available at most tackle shops and consist of a sturdy leader with one or two #3-5 hooks and a place to attach a sinker. A beefy rod and reel combo with braided line is recommended as these fish are notoriously hard on tackle. Common baits for tautog fishing include clam bellies, clam worms, and crabs. The green crab is the most popular as it stays on the hook a little longer than the soft baits. Soft baits are used more frequently in the spring but the green crab is always a good choice. Crabs are usually chopped in half with the legs and claws removed. Use the leg holes to thread the hook through the body. Which leg holes to use and whether all legs and claws need be removed is a closely guarded secret amongst anglers and varies from vessel to vessel. Some find it more effective to remove the top of the carapace for the “tasty morsel” effect.

Fishing usually is best accomplished from a boat anchored on a reef or from a rocky shore. The key is to find areas with lots of relief such as deeper water adjacent to shallow rocks, mussel beds, or a pile of rocks on an otherwise flat bottom. Drop your rig down into the deeper water and lower it until you hit bottom. The trick is to slowly bounce the sinker off the bottom letting it rest for as long as possible before it gets snagged and lost to the sea. This is the time when patience will come in handy as many a rig will likely be lost when first starting out. If the fish are around the action should pick right up. Like many fish tautog are more active feeders a couple of hours before and after the tide changes, high tide is your best bet. If you are in a good spot but the action is slow, try pulling in or letting out some anchor line to move around a little. Location over the reef is key with tautog, a few feet can be the difference between a great day and an exercise in futility.

Tautog are thieves! There is no way to sugar coat it that is what they are, this is when determination comes in handy. The strike will be quick and will often clean your hook right off. A two hooked rig helps with this, after your first bait is hit get ready for the inevitable second strike and set the hook. Once the fish is on the line it will not come up to surface willingly, it is good practice to keep your rod tip up high for the first bit of reeling to keep the heat on the fish and hoist it out of the rocks. Failure to take command of the fish immediately may result in said fish swimming into the safety of a nearby rocky crevice. If this happens wait for the profanity to subside and don’t force the issue too much, put your rod in the holder and let it sit for a while. Keep an eye on the rod and hope for the best, sometimes the fish will actually swim out of its hole when it perceives the danger has passed. Once the fish comes out the rod will start to bob around presenting another opportunity to get that fish in the boat. If the second chance fails or the fish never comes out, a sharp object will be required to cut line and start from scratch.

That’s the basics, once you’ve caught your limit, fillet the fish and remove the skin. Be sure to keep an eye out for the rib bones, they usually need to be removed after the fish is filleted. It has nice white flakey flesh which is best baked, broiled or cooked in a fish chowder. Happy fishing!