Tautog are a stout fish with a blunt nose and thick lips. They have one long dorsal fin which has sharp spines, as do their pelvic fins. Tautog have large conical teeth in the front of their mouths and flat crushing teeth in back. They range from dark green to black on their dorsal side with mottling down to a lighter belly and a white chin. While the largest tautog ever caught with hook and line in Massachusetts weighed nearly 23 pounds, the average fish caught by an angler weighs 2–4 pounds.
Where they live
Tautog range from Nova Scotia to Georgia, but are most common between Cape Cod and the Chesapeake Bay. They make inshore/offshore migrations triggered by water temperature. In spring, as the water temperature approaches 48°F, adult tautog migrate closer to shore to spawn, where they remain through the summer until water temperatures drop below 52°F in the fall. When in the cooler waters north of Cape Cod, tautog stick to shallower areas of less than 60 feet. South of the Cape, they can live up to 40 miles offshore in waters up to 120 feet deep.
Tautog prefer to aggregate around structure. As juveniles, they use shallow estuaries with vegetation such as eelgrass as nurseries, moving into deeper waters to join the adults as they grow. Adults utilize rocky outcrops, boulders, jetties, and other similarly complex habitats for shelter. They select a home site, from which they may stray during the day to feed, returning at night to become dormant and possibly sleep.
Both male and female tautog mature at 3–4 years old, generally 7–12 inches in length. Larger females produce more eggs; while a 12-inch female weighing 1 pound can produce about 30,000 eggs per season, a 20-inch, 5-pound female can produce six-times that. Spawning occurs inshore, from April through July. Fertilized tautog eggs float on the current for about two days before hatching, and larvae begin feeding on plankton within four days of hatching. Juveniles are typically found in estuaries with vegetation, where they will spend the winters rather than migrating offshore with the adults until they are around 10 inches long. Tautog are slow growing and can live to 35–40 years old.
Tautog must be carefully managed owing to their structure-oriented nature which can make them easy to harvest, combined with their slow growth rate which can hinder recovery from overexploitation. The fishery for tautog is primarily recreational; only about 10% of the harvest coastwide is attributed to commercial fishermen. Their value as a commercial target only increased in the 1980s as other species became more depleted.
Under the interstate plan, tautog management switched to a regional approach in 2018 due to the species’ limited north-south migration and differences in biology along the coast. Massachusetts and Rhode Island form the most northern management region. The two states have nearly consistent recreational fishery regulations and similar commercial fishery controls including state quotas. Beginning in 2020, commercial fishermen will be required to tag each harvested fish with single-use metal tags, as part of an effort to combat illegal harvest and sale of tautog.
Tautog in the Massachusetts–Rhode Island region are estimated to be stable and not experiencing overfishing, benefitting from consistent and thorough management that keeps the population from being overexploited. Tautog in the regions further south were assessed to be overfished in the last assessment, and the states responsible for overfishing were thus required to reduce fishing mortality in 2018.
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 still available in the fall. April through May are particularly rewarding months, along with fall months when tautog are concentrated in greatest number along the shorelines. The best fishing for tautog is generally on the Cape, Nantucket Shoal, Vineyard Sound, and Buzzards Bay, but they can be caught along the entire Massachusetts coast.
Tautog can be caught from a boat at anchor or by casting from rocky shoreline using bait such as a large piece of sea worm, whole or halved crabs (green, rock, hermit, or fiddler), conch pieces, snails, or cracked clams. A rod with “backbone” is required to catch tautog due to their hard fight on the line. 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.
Because tautog often hit the bait as soon as it reaches the bottom, stay alert when casting or lowering bait into the water. 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, lifting the fish away from the bottom before the line becomes entangled in rocks. When fishing in deep water, it is best to reel in slowly to reduce mortality associated with barotrauma (caused by a quick ascent) when releasing undersized fish. Take care when handling tautog due to their sharp fin spines.
Tautog is a popular choice to be used in chowder, with its flavor compared to red snapper. Its firm, mildly flavored flesh also lends itself well to baking and broiling. You can also use recipes intended for species such as striped bass with tautog meat.