Sportfishing Adventures with Capt. Jerry McGrath

Capt. Jerry with fish


Fishy Script
from Capt. Jerry

The Fine Points of Blackfishing

Blackfish are among my favorite species of fish to catch.  They are terrific battlers and their culinary value is hard to beat on any dinner table.  However, it is the challenge of being able to capture these hard-nosed creatures on a consistent basis that continues to capture my fancy.  This is not one of those how-to basics of blackfishing.  Rather, its intention is to focus on what is considered to be the finer points of successful blackfishing.

Position.  If you want to catch blackfish, or tautog as they are known to many, you must go to their exact location.  Sounds reasonable, you say?  In this world of ours including the advanced technology of LORAN and Sat Nav, this should be fairly simple.  However, this point is frequently overlooked by many anglers.  Yes, today's LORANS, given the right conditions, can locate a popular blackfish haunt within 50 feet of accuracy.  But, very often, this level of accuracy only generalizes the area to be fished.  The skills to be able to home in on where the fish exactly sits (or swims) are crucial to success.  There are some points during a given fishing season when blacks will be caught along the open bottom or in wide stretches of rough underwater terrain, which do not require such strict navigating skills.  These times, however, are for the most part exceptions to the rules.

Use a Marker Buoy.  This is one method that can assist in pinpointing the tautogs' precise location.  Let's say you are hovering your vessel over a favored group of boulders known to attract these prey.  When the numbers on your LORAN coincide with an indication of rock formations shown on your fish recorder, it is best to first drop the marker buoy before you drop the hook.  When the buoy is in place, you can more easily position your craft over the known haunt.  And, once at anchor, you have a visual advantage since you have actually created a range from which you can adjust and readjust your vessel.

On some occasions, I have found it necessary to make as many as a dozen adjustments of my position in one spot before I met some degree of success.  This did not require 12 hauls of the anchor, but only one or two.  The adjustments were made by slackening or tightening the anchor rode by just five or six feet at a time.  Some days, successful blackfishing is a matter of only a few feet and sometimes inches.  Have you ever been witness to one angler outfishing everyone else by outrageous proportions on a small craft?  I have.  Sometimes it's a case of the expert outdoing the novice.  But often, it is a matter of being in the right angling position.  The bait must be placed directly in front of the tautog in order to entice him to eat.

Let's Talk Bait.  What's the best bait?  Hermit crabs are fare and away the preferred food of all tautog.  Hermits are the filet mignon of baits.  The crème de la crème.  I've witnessed many a feeding binge during the doldrums of summer due to the employment of hermit crabs.  And during the preferred seasons of spring and fall, it's been my experience that a blackfish will seldom choose the customary baits (green crabs, fiddlers, clam) over an enticing hermit.  In fact, there are times that watched charter and party boats move from an area, for fear of embarrassment, because of the lack of this bait for their customers.  This brings us to another subject: availability of hermits.  Few tackle shops carry them and when they do, it is an expensive proposition.

Obtaining Hermit Crabs.  There are two ways of acquiring them.  One is to dredge your own.  The second is to purchase them from commercial lobstermen.  The former method requires the use of one or two scallop dredges to be towed behind your boat for the first hour or so of your fishing day.  Physically, it is demanding and can be rather time-consuming and gas-consuming, depending on the economy of your engine.  You also must know when the hermits hang out.  The latter method is perhaps the most practical, since the hermits seek refuge in the ever present lobster traps that inhabit the depths of our local waters.  I have yet to meet a lobsterman who was unwilling to save me a bucket of hermits for a few wholesale dollars.  And while you're at it, ask him to save the calico crabs as well.  They also make excellent baits.  If live storage is a problem, the hermits freeze well, especially if cracked from their shells and salted down with liberal amounts of kosher salt.

Your Tackle.  As far as tackle goes, two items should not go unnoticed.  One is the type of rod to be used.  It is important that you use a rod with a soft tip, which should easily be able to tell you when Mr. Bulldog is ingesting your bait.  A thick stiff-tipped rod will not enable you to feel the bite, nor will you be able to quickly set the hook into the thick skinned blackfish.  Additionally, the rod should be seven-and-one-half to eight feet in length.  The longer length gives you an advantage, since it allows you to pull the hooked tautog that much farther away from the rocks or wreck.  Keep in mind, it is important, once the fish is hooked, to keep the rod in a vertical/diagonal position and quickly reel down to the fish.  Novices frequently will hook the fish and, without reeling, bow the rod back to the water level, thus allowing the fish to find its way back to the rig grabbing bottom.

The Right Hook.  Another tackle factor is the type and size hooks to be used.  The Virginia style is the standard, since its barb is purposely shortened for quick penetration into the thick skinned black.  The size of the fish you wish to catch should dictate what size hook should be used.  Let's say you are fishing the jetties of a south shore inlet where the fish average around 1 to 3 pounds.  Certainly, the size 5 or 6 hook will suffice.  On another given day, you might be angling for the large bulldogs that inhabit the depths of the Fisher's Island grounds in the late fall.  During this time, you should opt for sizes 2 or 3 to ensure the hooks do not bend out.  Most tackle shops stock only the smaller snelled hooks.  You will have to order the larger size hooks and snell your own.  If your tackle dealer cannot assist you, these large hooks can be obtained through mail order houses, Terminal Tackle being one.  Their address is P.O. Box 427, Kings Park NY, 11754, or call them at (631) 269-6005.

The factors that I've outlined should assist you in catching more fish.  Be aware that these suggestions are often dependent on the desire and willingness of the angler to follow through.  I've seen many an angler scoff at the extra effort involved in these finer points.  The choice of catching more blackfish is yours.

Fishing, Then and Now

Having spent many enjoyable summers while growing up as a kid at the Baiting Hollow beach community and having been a year-round adult resident of Wading River for over 35 years, I feel somewhat qualified to comment on fishing the waters and beaches in our local area. Please note: I emphasize “somewhat”, because fishing is rarely a finite and predictable activity. Many times, high expectations will result in disappointment and low expectations will lead to catches of the year. It is a sport and perhaps what makes fishing so much fun. It is the challenge and also the reason why so many anglers start to hyperventilate with anticipation as that very first, beautiful day of spring arrives each year. Before I tell you about my favorite leisure activity and what you might expect during the upcoming 2006 fishing season, let’s reflect on what angling life in the Long Island Sound was once like.

As early as 1958, my dad and I would start fishing for blackback (winter) flounder around the second week in April. Our methods were very simple and rudimentary. We used the standard Chestertown flounder hooks, lead weights - no more than 4 ounces, and pieces of worms and ribbed mussels for bait. The skiff that we sailed in was a light-weight 16 ft. aluminum craft that our neighbor / friend had nicknamed the “Grey Ghost”. It was originally powered by a Scott-Atwater outboard engine which required the crudest method of fuel refill. One had to lift the 5 gallon gasoline can above the engine and carefully pour the very flammable liquid through the largest funnel available directly into the gas tank attached to the motor. Certainly not a fuel injected system, this was no easy task, even during tabletop sea conditions. I vividly recall my dad, after one re-fueling session, extinguishing a fire with his jacket that had been ignited by an exposed “spark” plug. But that is a topic for another article. We rarely anchored and captured most of the flounder one mile to the north of Baiting Hollow beach while drifting our rigs in approximately 25 ft. of water. Occasionally, we would venture to the west in the Devil’s Playground area off of Wildwood State Park and catch some of those delectable flatfish. It was there that my father got his largest flounder ever, which was just shy of 4 lbs. We called them snowshoes and on a very good day we could harvest over a dozen snowshoes (fish over 2 ½ lbs.), along with many others that were slightly smaller. Boy, those were the days!

Once the lilacs and dogwoods bloomed in early May, it was blackfish time. This fish, also known as tautog, is an incredible species featuring the physical characteristics of large, protruding teeth used to scrape barnacles off of rocks, and big heads which are most prominent in the largest of blackfish, also called “bulldogs”. These slow-growing creatures spend the majority of their lives hiding and foraging for food in rugged structures such as rock piles and shipwrecks. Since L.I. Sound is host to so many areas of structure as a result of the legacies of the glaciers and storms of years’ passed, it is the perfect habitat for these hard-fighting fish. Besides being delicious tablefare, the blackfish is very tricky to hook and capture. Dad and I learned that the hard way and certainly “paid our dues” until we could capture these fish with some degree of consistency and regularity. A key factor was being able to fish exactly over structure i.e. anchoring and fishing precisely on the piece of bottom. Sometimes 2 – 3 ft. could make all of the difference in the world between success and failure. Anchoring and re-anchoring over a dozen times was often necessary. Our foremost location to catch blackfish was the proverbial “fishing hole” located just to the east of the Baiting Hollow cottages. There, in 18 ft. of water, lay numerous large boulders which provide the necessary structure for blackfish to call home. Locating the area was done by the use of shore ranges, not by using the modern equipment of today such as LORAN, GPS and fishfinders. Originally, the native Riverhead / Polish farmers taught us that we would be at the “fishing hole” when our hooks picked up red moss. Once the moss was snagged, successful catching was bound to follow. During those times, fiddler crabs, which we dug from the local salt marshes, were the baits of choice, along with green crabs which were either purchased or found among the small beach boulders during the tail end of the  ebbing tides. Hooking a blackfish was no easy task. Most times, it required the angler to wait for a second tug on the line. Often, impatient neophytes lifted immediately on the first tug … and score a BIG MISS. The prudent angler waited and eventually was rewarded, as we were, with many fond memories of blackfishing successes. To date my largest tautog of 13 lbs. was taken at the BH “hole”.

Mixed in, frequently, were the ubiquitous blowfish, nicknamed “Chicken of the Sea”. The tails from these amazing sea creatures were a delight to dine on, particularly on Friday nights for traditional Catholic families such as my own. Also noteworthy, during this period, were the hordes of mackerel that would invade the North Shore waters. Hundreds could be caught in no time by using mackerel trees which imitated sand eels, the popular prey of mackerel. It was truly outrageous at times. A vivid memory still exists with me of my dad and his fishing buddy practically sinking the “Grey Ghost” one spring with close to a half ton of mackerel. Needless to say, our old Cypress Hills/Brooklyn neighborhood was inundated with lots and lots of “holy mackerel” to dine on that week.

Later, into the summer months, fluke and bluefish became available. Many of the fluke, also known as summer flounder, could be found by fishing near the shoal waters of Rocky Point, Herod Point and Roanoke. We often found them in the shallower waters in front of creek entrances such as those at Wading River and Baiting Hollow. Fluke like to eat other fish, particularly those that are native to our waters. Therefore, spearing (shiners), sand eels, and peanut bunker, combined with small squid strips were best bets. Rigs were simple and drifting was the general rule for catching these flatties. Often, when the fluke finding slowed, it was usually because of the voracious bluefish, which are well-known for their bullying, predatory habits. These fish, ranging from one to ten pounds, could scatter and chase all of the competition, resulting in feeding frenzies of chopper blues, wildly diving terns, and fishermen who were deluged with tremendous rushes of excitement. Many fond experiences are still stored in my fishing-memory bank of these bluefish bonanzas.  

Besides idolizing Mickey Mantle during my youth, I also aspired to be like Willie Miloski. Yes, Willie Miloski, Sr. from Miloski’s Poultry Farm in Calverton. However, I did not wish to chase and butcher fowl. Although I have been known to act like a turkey at times, I wished to chase and capture the prestigious striped bass as Willie would regularly do each morning before opening his shop. Frequently, I would greet Willie and his companions at the shoreline as they unloaded huge 30, 40, and 50 lb. bass from his tiny skiff. Mind you, this was from Baiting Hollow, not Montauk. Such feats even caught the attention of Frank Keating, the outdoor writer from the now defunct Long Island Press in Queens. The late Keating penned the story about Willie’s feat of harvesting two trophy fish in one season that were nearly 60 lbs. Most of his striped bass, a.k.a. linesiders, were lured to the boat by slow-trolling long, red surgical tubes which imitated eels and/or large sand worms. It was these fish which had eluded the lines of my dad and mine but would so frequently find their ways to Willie’s. The feats of this Calverton poultry farmer have helped lead me to the state of fishing in 2006 which I will discuss in a moment.

The world of saltwater fishing has changed dramatically in many ways since the periods dominated by Elvis, bobby socks and endless bounties of fish. Today, the “REGS” (regulations imposed on saltwater anglers by state and federal agencies) dictate much of what a saltwater sportfishing angler can do. Stringent restrictions are imposed on the catching of almost everything that swims with fins. Gone are the days of catching snowshoe flounder. They barely exist, as do the once ubiquitous blowfish. Fluke regulations allow only a small amounts of these fish to be taken during restricted seasons and they must be of the larger variety in size (currently 17 ½ inches in total length). Striped bass were threatened by toxic chemical contaminations, specifically PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), and, at one time, during the 1980’s, a moratorium was imposed by the DEC (Department of Conservation) for the harvesting of striped bass. Mackerel infrequently swim in our Long Island waters, particularly in the L.I. Sound. Populations of cod, whiting, tuna, shark and many, many other fish species are way down. Some say that the American eel is headed for endangered species status. And on a personal level, I haven’t caught a kingfish or tommy cod in over 25 years. Much of this current situation has been caused by blatant overfishing by both commercial and sport fishermen and serious environmental factors such as pollution. Steps are being made to correct the shortage in fish stocks, but it is often a slow process consistently involving political battles and controversial legislations.

Fortunately, some of this fish mess has been addressed and corrected. The best example is the condition of the striped bass fishery. Once seriously threatened to extinction, the popular linesiders have rebounded phenomenally, because of fish management regulations which worked. The striped bass are back! Many of us have experienced bass-catching times as good as the Miloski days. Fluke, although strictly regulated, have increased in numbers and their future looks bright. Porgies, also called scup, are practically everywhere after a periods of being hard-to-find. Today, although it will never be like the good old days, the future does look brighter than most anglers imagine. Plans are in progress to address the winter flounder issue. Actions are underway to face the American eel situation. Tournaments have implemented minimum size and creel limits. Additionally, more and more people are realizing that catch-and-release is just as much fun as keeping every fish in sight. One or two for the dinner table is practical. Twenty-one or twenty-two is wasteful.

From the local standpoint, there is an impressive, new boat ramp at the Wading River Creek, located at the far western end of Creek Rd. After a ten year drought, the Town of Riverhead and LIPA (Long Island Power Authority) officials have worked out a plan to dredge the mouth of the creek regularly. If you trailer your boat to the ramp, you may pick up the necessary parking permits at the Wading River Bait & Tackle Shop, located across from the Wading River duck ponds (in the old Post Office building). Matt Maccaro, proprietor, avid fisherman and lifetime Wading River resident, will also be able to advise you on the necessary rigs, lures, and baits which may be used for the fish to be caught in our area. I would also suggest that you use many of the techniques, rigs and approaches that I have mentioned from the days gone past. Subscriptions to The Fisherman and Saltwater Sportsman magazines would not hurt, and in the spirit of using   modern technology, a click on will result in a wealth of information, as well as the most up-to-date fishing reports.

Finally, after many seasons and adventures of fishing in practically every waterway on Long Island, I feel like the “Return of the Native”. My latest challenge to myself is to return to some of the old methods of catching fish, such as those used by Willie Miloski years ago. I also want to try the Shoreham pipeline for scup since their recent return. Standard bottom rigs with clams for bait will work best. Furthermore, I want to use those live scup for catching striped bass. This method is relatively new to Long Island anglers and is rarely used by locals. So, some day, if you see me launching the Nostalgia V (a 20 ft. Grady White cuddy/center console) at the end of Creek Rd., be sure to say hello. Perhaps, we can exchange fishing war stories, trade a fishing method or two, and catch a few jumbos in the Miloski tradition . TIGHT LINES TO ALL!


©2005 - Questions?