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Spring Blackfish
By Rich Johnson

The arrival of spring each season brings visions of giant blackfish (Tautoga onitis) to the minds of many sinker bouncers. Whether you fish from Montauk and Orient Point on the Island’s east end, or City Island and the NY Bight to the west, spring is blackfish time. The tautog, as it is sometimes referred to, is prized table fare and a formidable foe when hooked. It makes dogged battles every time and gives a good account of itself for even the smallest runt of the litter.

Blackfish may attain weights of 25 pounds and live 30 years as it feeds mainly on crustaceans and bivalves. Their menu includes crabs, lobsters, barnacles, mussels and anything else with a hard shell, but will accept worms, clams and squid particularly during the spring season when their mouths are tender from the spawn. Not a very picky diet, which makes it a very willing participant in the fishing game. While many anglers chase after blackfish each fall, it is the spring season and particularly the month of May when blackfishing hits its peak activity by fish and anglers alike. More real “slobs” are caught each spring and most of the world record, light tackle blackfish have been caught during the spring season when tog roam the shallow water mussels beds, making light line fishing a realistic angling opportunity.

BRIEF HISTORY. Over the years, the recreational fishermen made up about 95% of the total blackfish catch, that is until the Asian live fish market put a big dollar sign on the back of the tautog in the early 90’s. There was a time when a live blackfish brought over $5 per pound! As with anything carrying a price tag on its head, now everybody had to catch blackfish. This included commercial fishermen who until this time only accounted for the other 5% and used blackfish as by-catch or for lobster bait. With the high dollars, of course poachers all came out of the woodwork to take advantage of the easy dollars involved. You see blackfish will hide in any crevice or cranny they can find on the bottom. This is what makes them so susceptible to fish pots and fish traps and the amount of unregistered and unlicensed fish traps over the years led to the fast decline of the blackfish population.

A few seasons back, the ASMFC, a federal body of representatives from the East Coast states, put a mandated limit on and required a 55% mortality decrease in the blackfish population. Without going into all the details, the entire blackfish population harvest had to be cut by this margin of 55%. To do so, both the recreational and commercial sectors of the fishing game had to make adjustments in the harvesting of this tasty critter.

So to reach this 55% percent mortality reduction, the ASMFC instituted a limit on the number of blackfish a recreational fishermen could catch. The size of the blackfish was also increased from 13 inches to 14 inches and a bag limit (number of fish kept) was reduced from 10 to only 1 from June 1 until October 7. So with this in mind, May is the last month you can keep 10 blackfish per trip until the fall season in October.

TACKLE. Blackfish live among rubble, rock piles, jetties and any place normal tackle would get beat up. This is why most gear is heavy, conventional tackle consisting of 30 to 40-pound test line and stout rods and reels to handle the pressure they can put on an angler. In the spring however, you can find blackfish in shallow water areas, allowing you to scale down your tackle, because now you’re fishing in open water. Seven-foot rods with smaller reels and 15 pound test give you more of a challenge and there are not as many places for blackfish to pull you in and break you off.

This lighter tackle can work well around the back bay bridges in the spring and North Shore anglers have found surf fishing from shore in among the boulders can produce large blackfish. Baits this time of year should include worms, clams and squid, although sometime during May they will switch over to crabs so you should bring along a few just in case. Remember spring is the time when many of the large females will be caught and full of eggs increasing their normal weights. These are the ones to release and take the males home for dinner. Males have a blunter or square head and large males will have white chins. This should help make telling he difference easier for you.

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