The tautog (or "tog"), a popular inshore game fish,
has ranked as high as fourth in recent years in poundage taken
by recreational anglers in Massachusetts. This species lives along
the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, with the
greatest number lying along inshore waters from southern Cape
Cod to the Delaware Capes. It does not sustain a significant recreational
fishery north of Massachusetts.
The tautog is a stout fish with a blunt nose and a thick-lipped
mouth that has large conical teeth in front and flat crushing
teeth in back. The single dorsal fin originates over the gill
slit and runs back nearly to the tail. The anterior three-quarters
of this fin possesses a series of stiff, sharp spines, and the
paired pelvic fins have one spine each.
the "white chin"
The color of the tautog's dorsal area ranges from dark green
to black, with these shades mottling a lighter background color
of the sides. The belly is only slightly lighter than the sides.
The white chin characteristic of large tautog has led to many
anglers to call this fish the "white chin."
Although capable of reaching large sizes, tautog are very slow
growing. The largest tautog caught with hook-and-line in Massachusetts
weighed 22 pounds 9 ounces. However, the average fish caught by
anglers is 6 to 10 years old and weighs 2 to 4 pounds. Males typically
grow faster and live longer than females. The maximum age for
males appears to be about 35 years.
Both sexes mature at 3 or 4 years of age. The fecundity (number
of eggs produced in a spawning season) of females is directly
related to their size and weight. Female's 12 inches long and
1 pound in weight produce about 30,000 eggs, while female's 20
inches long and 5 pounds produce about 196,000 eggs per season.
In the northern part of their range, tautog are typically
encountered within several miles of shore in water less than 60
feet deep. More southern populations can be found somewhat farther
offshore. Tautog frequently follow flood tides inshore to feed
in the intertidal areas, and drop back to deeper waters with the
following ebb tides.
Tautog are found in association with cover, hovering around steep,
rocky shorelines or hiding near wrecks, wharf pilings, piers,
jetties, mussel and oyster beds, and bolder-strewn bottoms. They
generally stay within localized home ranges while feeding and
resting. While on their summering grounds, tautog establish a
"home site", a protected spot in which they rest every
night. Small tautog do not venture far from their home site during
the day, but adults range more widely when feeding.
Tautog do not undertake long seasonal migrations, but tend to
move inshore as water temperatures rise in spring, and overwinter
in large groups offshore in waters 50 to 150 feet deep in areas
where the bottom is covered with large boulders. Fish less than
10 inches long may remain in shallow estuaries throughout the
winter. Some fish remain offshore all year, exhibiting no movement
except when searching for food or cover.
In Massachusetts, tautog reproduce from May until August, with
peak spawning activity occurring in June at water temperatures
of 62 to 70 degrees F. Most spawning takes place inshore in areas
dominated by eelgrass beds. Although they intermix in large groups
for the rest of the year, tautog tend to remain in small, discrete
groups during the spawning season. After reaching sexual maturity,
many fish return to the same spawning area each year throughout
The fertilized eggs are buoyant, floating for about 2 days before
hatching. Within 4 days after hatching, the larvae begin feeding
on microscopic plankton.
Juvenile and adult tautog are exclusively daytime feeders, with
feeding peaks at dawn and dusk. They are usually so inactive at
night that divers can easily catch them by hand, as they lie motionless
on the bottom. Tautog feed upon shallow water invertebrates such
as mussels, clams, crabs, sand dollars, amphipods, shrimp, small
lobsters, and barnacles. Juveniles and adults living around shoreline
ledges feed heavily on blue mussels; their flat grinding teeth
are well suited for crushing the hard shells of such animals.
Tautog population levels had been generally stable since colonial
times. This species historically had little market value, and
thus had not been commercially exploited. In more recent times
the poundage taken by commercial fishermen increased markedly.
Between 1983 and 1986, the commercial landings of tautog increased
nearly three fold. Additionally, recreational landings increased
abruptly. The increase in commercial harvest, generally occurring
throughout coastal areas of southern New England to New Jersey,
was due in part to an increase in the tautog's market value as
other traditionally more valuable commercial species become less
abundant and harder to catch and a market developing for live
Slow-growing and localized species such as the tautog can be
reduced in abundance very easily by exploitation. One of the first
signs of overexploitation of such species is a marked reduction
in the average size of fish harvested; this phenomenon was noted
in local tautog populations. In response to these warning signs
of overfishing Massachusetts developed very restrictive regulations
in 1994 and restricted tautog catches even further in 1996, in
response to the development of a coast-wide fisheries management
plan. The past few years have seen greatly reduced commercial
landings and a slowly increasing level of abundance in response
to restrictive management. However, increasing recreational catches
will result in additional regulatory adjustments in 2003.