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Six veterans on chasing blackfish

Sage advice from seasoned local anglers on finding and hooking the territorial tautog

Northeast fishing

Sage advice from seasoned local anglers on finding and hooking the territorial tautog

One sorrowful look at both calendar and near-empty marinas tells you the boating and fishing season in the Northeast is all but over. But, before your second love is tucked away for its winter hibernation, you have the chance to make one or more trips in search of blackfish, a hard-fighting, great-eating bottom-feeder very active as water cools before the onset of winter.

To help the average angler catch more tautog, as blackfish are often called in southern New England, we polled several people who’ve been fishing or in the sportfishing business a long time. Here’s what each had to say about catching more blackfish on what might be the last good weekend of the boating year.

Ricky Mola is a second-generation tackle shop owner. From his vantage point at Fisherman’s World in Norwalk, Conn., Ricky has advised hundreds of fishermen on how to catch everything that swims in western Long Island Sound. One of the most popular spots in his area, just outside Middle Passage in the Norwalk Island chain, sits the wreck of a large tugboat and the barge it was pulling. This spot produces dozens of large blackfish per fall for those who know how to fish it. You do not want to anchor right atop the wreckage, a sure way to lose rig after rig to the junk pile most wrecks become after a time on the bottom. Instead, tie off your anchor line just on the edge of the wreck, just after you first mark it on your fish finder. That way your rigs and bait will be close but not always tangled up. If you’re not sure about anchoring, toss a marker buoy off to one side of the wreck then use that as a visual range to back down as you let out anchor line.

Allen Fee grew up on the Mystic River in historic Mystic, Conn., and is co-owner of Shaffer’s Marina, not far from the popular Seaport that draws boaters from all over the country. Blackfish are very territorial critters, sometimes not venturing far from their rocky haunts, the type of habitat necessary for successful blackfishing.

If you don’t get any hits at first, try letting out another 20 feet or so of anchor line and await results. Chumming is a must to draw blackfish to your baits, usually a green crab that’s been cut in half with the hook inserted into one of the leg sockets. Smaller green crabs as well as fiddler crabs can be used whole, sometimes after lightly breaking the shell to let juices seep out into a running tide, bringing fish to the source of the smell. You add to this process by tossing over pieces of unhooked crab or bringing along some shells from skimmer clams with meat attached. Break those up with a fish bat and toss those over also.

Al Golinski and his wife, Emme, run a successful furniture business in Massachusetts, but always budget plenty of time to go fishing off the Rhode Island coast from their vacation home in Misquamicut. The two are avid anglers, holding between them 18 World or Line Class records from the International Game Fish Association, the world’s sportfishing record keeper. Both are very passionate about their sport, so much so that they put thousands of dollars into a reclamation project for a 25-foot Sea Vee they bought in Key West then had transported north for complete makeover.

When he has novice anglers on board, Al opts for a single-hook rig that offers less chance to become snagged in the rough bottom blackfish call home. He owns pairs of heavy-duty scissors to cut the hard shells of green crabs into two or four parts, depending on the size of the crab. Some people head home when the tide goes slack, but Al stays put, chumming with broken crabs and switching to a light spin rod with 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jig on the end of the line. On that he’ll hook a small crab or piece of larger crab, then drop it to the bottom. His guests, kids included, have caught blackfish over 10 pounds this way.

Capt. Frankie Blount, owner of the Francis Fleet out of Point Judith, R.I., has been a professional angler all his adult life. Today his business includes four large party boats, tackle shop and an upstairs restaurant that caters to early-rising anglers as well as numerous transient boaters.

His advice: If you see a boat catching fish as you pull up to a certain locale, don’t try to anchor close, thinking you’ll get a share of his bounty. Being the territorial creatures they are, blackfish may not wander far for baits. It’s better to find another piece of rocky bottom and try your hand there. Blackfish will bite through all stages of the tidal cycle, including times of the month when currents run hard. However, it will be far easier on novices to time their arrival to the slower stages of the tide. It will require less weight to hold bottom and your guests will be able to better feel the bites.

Capt. Charley Soares of Swansea, Mass., has been fishing in saltwater for more than 40 years. He’s been both a guide and, of late, a successful fishing writer, penning articles in national books, On The Water magazine, New England Fisherman and the Fall River Herald News, where he is the sportfishing writer.

Soares tells anglers to not rear back on the pole at the first tug of a blackfish. Wait until the second hit, when the fish has the bait securely in its mouth, before setting the hook. It’s also a good idea to make sure all conventional reels (by far the best choice for blackfishing) are fitted with level winds so excited newcomers will not wind all the line into one side of the reel when they get their first fish. Their chance at a second catch may be sidetracked until you dig out the bird’s nest that occurs when line is not wound evenly. When releasing undersized or smaller fish, handle them with a wet towel so as not to remove the slimy coating from their skin. That’s Mother Nature’s protection against disease and bacteria. Blackfish are very hardy and, when given half a chance, will live to provide sport and food on another day just before your boat heads into the barn for the long winter ashore. n

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.