Tautogology

When I was a kid I saw some fishermen bring a mess of tautog (Tautoga onitis) into the Town Dock and lay them out on the planks for a hose-off. I’d never seen a fish like it before, and was really fascinated by the horrid red tumor-ish looking thing on their white underbellies. They are known as “blackfish,” “oysterfish” and the “poor-man’s lobster.” Yesterday I caught and ate my first one ever.

Tautog is a word from the Narragansett tribe, originally “tautatog”  and first noted by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, in his 1648 lexicon of the Narragansett language. They are members of the wrasse family and are remarkable looking fish, with thick rubbery lips and snaggle-toothed mouths with blunt teeth for crushing and grinding shellfish and crustaceans, their preferred diet. They spawn inshore in the spring and move off a bit to rocks and wrecks during the summer, migrating to deeper water over the winter. The fish are renowned for being one of the better eating fish in New England, especially in fish chowders, and are said to be tricky to catch given their penchant for diving back into the rocks when hooked up.

With the fall fishing season being measured in weeks if not days, I feel a strange longing to get on the water as much as possible these autumn weekends and put my time in before I put the boats away and settle into another winter of my discontent. So yesterday, on a brisk Columbus Day weekend Sunday, I called around the local bait and tackles looking for crabs — the preferred fall bait of the tautog — found some in Falmouth, and off I went for two quarts of green crabs, some six ounce bank sinkers and four pre-tied rigs.

My son and I took the skiff out through Seapuit and the Osterville Cut and immediately questioned the wisdom of pounding through the three-foot seas to the best tautog spot in the area, a ledge of rocks a mile or so off of Centerville. I could only run the boat at slow ahead while trying to dodge the spray and I could feel the negative vibes radiating off of my passenger as one wave after another soaked us down, rendered my sunglasses useless, and foretold an expedition that would probably redefine “fool’s errand.” But we had $10 worth of crabs to use and I was determined not to throw away good bait just because of a healthy northeasterly breeze pushing a chop into our face. Real men fish when they can, not when it’s nice.

After twenty minutes of slow going I saw the surf crashing over the exposed pile of snaggle-toothed rocks — a bad sight that made me happy to have a VHF radio aboard should something catastrophic happen — and made a slow approach, looking for the best way to anchor in the building seas without crunching the lower unit of the outboard on the pile of glacial till. My son made ready with the anchor, I motored upwind to one side of the reef, told him to let it drop, and waited until it dug in and the boat pointed up into the wind.  We were too close on the first set as only  five feet lay between us and catastrophe. So I went back into gear, took the tension off the anchor line and had him pick it back up for another set about twenty feet off. The advice on fishing tautog was simple: find the obstruction and get close as the fish lurk right around the rocks picking off barnacles and crabs. Setting the baits too far away is useless because the tautog won’t venture very far from their shelter.

With the anchor set and no signs of dragging to our doom like the wreck of the Hesperus, I was confident enough to turn off the engine and make ready with the rods. We were using old fiberglas trolling rods owned by my grandfather — wooden handles, yellow and blue thread around the guides, with old Penn conventional reels filled with 50 lb. test monofilament. I tied on the rigs, clipped on the weights, and, seeing that the boat was pitching way too much to safely play with hooks, took a safe seat, opened up the chinese-food paper quart container, and took out the first victim — a little green crab.

Fishing with bait is a bit violent. Guaranteed to get an “eww” out of the audience, and working with crabs is a bit sadistic. I ripped off the claws and legs until I had a half-dollar sized circle of crab body. In goes the hook, one on top and another below in a classic hi-lo bottom rig

I slung-cast both sets of bait right beside the ledge, handed one rod to my son and kept one for myself.

The boat kept pitching and rolling like crazy. An open 18-foot skiff, in mid October on Nantucket Sound without a single other boat around to offer rescue should the worst occur and Cousin Pete out of town for the weekend and thus unable to answer any panicked cell phone calls to come out in his boat and save us (and I didn’t renew my BoatUS tow policy this summer).  But we had life jackets and a radio so I wasn’t too concerned, just vigilant as we were on the verge of pushing our luck as the white caps built and the wind blew harder off the land in the direction of Hyannisport and the Kennedy Compound.

“Whoa.” My son went from skeptical to interested. I turned and saw his short rod bent double.

“Caught in the rocks?” I asked skeptically.

“Hell no. This is a fish.”

The rod bounced the way they do when there are fish on the other end as he reeled, fighting the submerged surprise. I got ready to assist. Bracing myself against the rolling of the boat as the anchor line creaked and rubbed in the chock. And then, from the green depths, was a black shape. I leaned over, guided the line through my hand to the leader, and swung the catch inboard.

It was a tautog. A black, slippery, pugnacious tautog with the big red “vent”, its exaggerated anal opening all red and protruding due to the crushed shells that pass through it, sort of the fish equivalent of a diet of crushed glass and razor blades mixed with hemorrhoids and fissures. I got a hold of the very cool looking fish, let it calm down, grabbed the fishing pliers and worked the hook out, laid the fish along the ruler on the edge of the cooler seat, and finding it well over the 16″ minimum, tossed it in the bucket for dinner.

Then it was my turn. I landed a little one, about a foot long, and gave it the obligatory good luck kiss on the head and sent it back to grow up.

Thirty minutes, fifty unlucky crabs, and the bucket was loaded with the limit of six squirming fish (three each). I tossed the remaining crabs over the side to fend for themselves or appease the hungry Tautog God, then broke out two beers and a pair of chicken sandwiches slapped together from Saturday night’s leftovers. All was well with the world.  It doesn’t get much better for a guy than to catch fish with his eldest son on a sunny day (and then watch the Red Sox snatch an epic victory from the Tigers later than same day).

The “fun” part began when we got home. I banged a nail into a plank to keep the fish from sliding around while I filleted them and got very up close and intimate with my food. Which is how it should be. The tautogs’ stomachs were filled with crabs and shells (CSI Cotuit, Dave Churbuck fish coroner). I stripped out the guts and gills and set aside the heads and racks to make a fond de poisson (fish stock). While that bubbled away we hit the grocery story and bought the fixings for a Bahamian fish chowder. It was good. The tautog went to their maker in a very good and spicy stew and will see further duty tonight in Baja-styled fried fish tacos.

 

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

5 thoughts on “Tautogology”

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing the adventure. Also, I’ve heard the term “poor man’s lobster” used to describe Monk fish. Any relation? It sure looks more attractive than a monk fish.

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    1. No relation Rex. Tautogs are wrasses — think of those little fish that clean the teeth of sharks, those are “cleaner wrasses — they are characterized by thick lips, strong crushing teeth, and a penchant for scavenging around for little crabs, clams, barnacles, and other hard-shelled pieces of food. Tautogs are probably the most significant “food wrasse” — they look, in a drab New England kind of way, like very conservative tropical reef fish. They don’t move any further north than Cape Cod. And yes, they are very firm fish and hence the “poor man’s lobster” sobriquet.

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  2. A few years back I was shore fishing in Scorton Creek and a guy came along with a fish carcass and carefully placed it in the shallows and put a large rock on top. When I asked him what he was doing, he said “I’m going fishing for Tautog. I’ll come back in about an hour and that carcass will be covered with green crabs.” Sounds like a great way to get cheap bait and also to thin the population of green crabs, which I understand are an invasive species.

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