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 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 their lives.
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 tautog.
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.
Tautog are hard fighting, tough on tackle, and excellent on the table. They are one of the first species available to anglers in the spring and one of the last available in the fall. Anglers are particularly successful from April through May, and in the fall when tautog are concentrated in the greatest numbers along shorelines. While the best fishing is centered on Cape Cod, tautog can be caught all along the Massachusetts coast from Cape Ann to the South Shore. Tog are caught either from a boat at anchor or by casting anywhere along Massachusetts' rocky shorelines. Anglers use bait such as a large piece of sea worm, whole or halved crabs (green, rock, hermits, or fiddlers), and pieces of conch, snails, or cracked clams.
A rod with "backbone" is required to catch this battling fish. Most anglers choose a medium-action spinning or conventional rod with 20 to 30-pound test line, and use a "no hardware" 2 hook rig with a sinker tied to the bottom.
It is important to stay alert casting or lowering the bait into the water, as fish often hit the bait as soon as it reaches the bottom. All slack line should be taken in as soon as the bait stops sinking. Once a fish picks up the bait, let it tap once or twice, and set the hook hard, lifting the tog away from the bottom before the line becomes entangled in rocks.
The fine flavor of the tautog has often been linked to that of the red snapper. Traditionally, it has been considered an ideal chowder fish. Its firm, mildly flavored flesh also lends itself well to baking and broiling, when using recipes developed for species such as striped bass.