With the first day of winter rapidly approaching, the cold and short days have noticably settled in. But I need to remind you of last December, when surf temperatures by now were already in the mid to low 40s, the sound locked into the 30s and troutsicles just days away.
This being said, fishing options have narrowed down to just a precious few. Businesses often tout 24/7 access, but the mantra of coastal Carolina anglers goes one step farther , 24/7/12 for the 12-month, year round access to saltwater fishing opportunities.
During so-called off season months, anglers along the central coast can venture out to the "east side" of the Cape Lookout Shoals for big king mackerel, work the shoals for the winter run of stripers, or venture out to the "Knuckle" for a giant, and I mean giant, bluefin tuna.
What do the bottom fishermen, the lead chunkers, do when the last of the sea mullet are gone and even the final contingent of the puffers, the blow toads, have moved on? How about trying the blackfish, a.k.a. tautog, or just â€˜tog for short. So what's a â€˜tog you ask? They even seem to get less respect than puffers, but both are some of the best table fare known.
These feisty fighters and are truly premiere munchers and crunchers of the fish family, crunching on gastropods, mollusks and crustaceans, and unlike many local targeted summer fish species, have a wide range of cold water tolerance.
Pick a calm, mild winter Carolina day, with water temperatures in the 50s, and you can safely venture out for these delectable fish.
Baits? They are crustacean eaters, so baits would include fresh shrimp if you can get them, fiddler crabs, rock crabs, sand fleas, or fresh or frozen squid. Another great bait is fresh clams, and you can use the discarded shells and clam remnants as chum.
Tautog are totally structure-oriented and are in many ways similar to sheepshead in that respect, so if you are not getting hung up, you are not where the fish are.
Some of the best winter 'tog spots include the Cape Lookout Rock Jetty, Fort Macon Rock Jetty at the State Park, the rock jetty off Radio Island that goes into the Beaufort Channel, the rock pile off the Barge Wreck (just west of Cape Lookout), some of the inshore artificial reefs, like AR 315 and 320, the Morehead City Port Wall, and yes even bridges like the Emerald Isle High Rise Bridge.
For 'tog rigs, you don't have to get fancy, you just need small strong hooks with either a Carolina type rig or a more traditional type bottom rig, with a single hook though and a bank sinker, not as pyramid sinker, since there is just too much structure and youâ€˜ll get hung up and lose too much gear. You'll need 30- to 50-pound test with very small hooks, usually No. 4 or No. 6.
Getting the tautog to bite is one thing, hooking them is another. Just like sheepshead, often by the time you try to set the hook, it's already too late. They're gone and so is your bait. One approach is to drop the bait down and twitch it from time to time.
With crunchy baits, use the three-tap approach to hooking them. When they first bite you first feel two light taps. Supposedly the tautogs are crushing the shells and spitting out the debris. Then on the third tap, they eat the bait, so set the hook when you feel the third tap. When using shrimp or squid, try to set the hook during the first two taps.
Finally, remember these fish are good eats, some of the best. Many claim that they are one of the best eating fish. Most fillet and skin them, but any way you'd prepare a flounder works with a tautog.
So keep your eye on the weather and seas, and the next time you start to get cabin fever and crave some of our local winter "fruits de la mer", think blackfish, tautog or just plain â€˜tog.
So how is the tautog bite right now? Excellent at the Cape Lookout Jetty and the Port Wall, where fish from 2 to 6 pounds have been reported. Also at the Lookout Jetty, there are also sheepshead, red and black drum and, oh, of course, speckled trout.
The trout bite continues to be pretty good. Anglers fishing at the Haystacks have been catching fish, and the specks are also showing up in the surf around the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, Fort Macon and the jetty behind Shackelford Banks.
Bluefin tuna are also starting to show out at the Knuckle Buoy at the south end of the Cape Lookout Shoals, but these fish are very small, all under 50 inches so far. Hopefully soon.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and tight lines in the new year to all my readers.
(Richard "Dr. Bogus" EhÂ-renkaufer of Emerald Isle is on the radio every Monday at 7:30 a.m. on WTKF 107.1 FM and 1240 AM. Call him at (252) 354-4905.)