Baiting up for Tog
With chilly water temperatures settling in to stay for a while, more East Coast anglers are gearing up to seek out the less-than-glamorous, but prized tautog. The pursuit of this cool water wreck-dweller is certainly worth the endeavor, considering they taste much better than they look, and offer quite the tug for your money.
Serious tog anglers know that live, fresh bait paired up with a simple but effective rig is key for a successful blackfish bounty. For an appealing rig, a very sharp 6/0 to 7/0 hook on a 4-inch dropper loop centered on a 2-foot section of 50-pound monofilament line will do the trick. And since tautog
enjoy dining on a variety of crustacean treats, it is no surprise that the top five bait choices for tempting the elusive blackfish include blue crabs, clams, green crabs, fiddler crabs, and hermit
crabs. Top tog seekers tend to have an aptitude for which combination of bait to tote along to compliment their particular tog venture. Yes, that would be a combination. Tautog have a reputation for becoming a little finicky, especially when the water temperature drops into the forties. Having a back-up bait as an alternative during a fussy bite may entice more takers, turning a mediocre day into a success.
The old standby, and most certainly the most popular tog bait, is the common blue crab. Most toggers consistently pick the blue crab as one of their top tog bait choices for anytime of the season. These critters are typically readily available throughout most of the year, and can be found live at most tackle shops and seafood stores. Be sure to request female crabs, or sooks, which are easily identified by the wide apron on their bellies, while the male crabs, or jimmies, have only a thin strip.
It is important to keep the crabs alive until they become tog food. Storing blue crabs directly on ice or in icy water will kill them, so to keep them alive, spread several layers of newspaper or cardboard over of a layer of ice in the bottom of a cooler and place the crabs upright on the paper. Carefully spread a layer of wet newspaper over the crabs to help keep them moist, cool and happy.
When baiting up, break off the claws first for easy handling, blue crabs develop a nasty disposition when they are about to become lunch, and it will only take one agonizing pinch to remind you if you forget. Pull off its back shell by lifting the edge of the shell with your thumb, and cut off all the legs up to the second knuckle, using a pair of handy bait-scissors. Once bait-worthy, cut the crab into two to four pieces depending on its size. Feed the hook through a leg or knuckle opening, and continue to feed the hook through the crab, until it pops out of the body exposing the barb. The orange, slimy goo inside the crab is what makes the female crabs so enticing, so if it washes out, replace your bait. Blue crabs are particularly tamper-resistant, and will tend to stay on the hook better than most other tog offerings.
Chowder clams are probably the second most popular tog tempter, and are also easily found at local seafood stores throughout the year. Clams can be used anytime during the season, but seem to perform particularly well in the fall. Transporting the clams in a bucket kept out of direct sunlight is fine, and for future use, they can be kept alive temporarily in the refrigerator, but if you have access to a boat slip, clams are always happiest, and thrive longer in water.
To prepare the clams as bait, crack the chowders by whacking two of them firmly together, and discarding the shells. Cut the clam into two pieces from the foot toward the belly. Baiting the hook is personal preference, but my best luck comes with the clam threaded on belly first, leaving the foot to hold on the barb of the hook. No matter which baiting technique is used, remember that tautog are proficient bait-swipers!
Northern region toggers tend to prefer green crabs as a primary choice for tog ventures, mostly because they are easily found throughout the season. Green crabs are cute little crabs ranging in size from 2 to 3 inches across. They sport a dark green hue, and a relatively large set of claws capable of an eye-watering vice-grip on any arbitrarily exposed skin. Although they are smaller than their blue crab cousins, the storage and preparation for both is very similar. With the green crabs, smaller portions can be expected, so two baits can be obtained from one crab, with many opting to use the smaller crabs whole.
Often referred to as “tog candy,” fiddler crabs are most certainly the top blackfish bait for the early fall and late spring bay and inshore tog season. These small, quick crabs, measure about an inch or so wide, and present with a dark brown color. Fiddlers are found scurrying about in wet marsh
areas, and can be accessed at low tide during warmer climates. Local tackle shops will carry live fiddler crabs when they become available during the more temperate fall and spring months.
It is best to transport and store fiddlers in a ventilated bucket or container, ensuring there is no means for escape, or you will be hunting for fiddlers in every nook and cranny of your boat. A well-aerated cardboard box filled with shredded newspaper will suffice for long-term storage, if necessary. Although fiddlers are an excellent bait, they are very difficult to keep on the hook, so each bait will serve an as one-shot deal. After missing a bite with these little guys, pull in your empty hook and rebait. No bait preparation is required for fiddler crabs, simply thread the hook through a leg membrane, then through the body, and you are ready for fast tog action. Although always best if used fresh and alive, unlike other tog baits, fiddlers can be used with some success after being frozen.
Hermit crabs are an outstanding all-season tautog bait, and happen to be my personal favorite. It is my opinion that if the tog do not hit a hermit, then they are not biting. Unfortunately, hermit crabs are also the hardest tog bait to locate, the least forgiving to maintain, and the most difficult to prepare as bait, so many anglers consider hermits to be more trouble than they are worth.
Hermit crabs seek out and adopt discarded conk and snail shells as their own, crawling about the ocean floor toting these shells as their homes. With out their shells, they are extremely vulnerable, presenting a tan crab-like body, but tapering only to a soft, membranous tail-end. Heavily dependant on commercial crabbers, dredgers, and the size of their harvest, hermit crabs are hit and miss when it comes to availability. If hermits are your desire, be sure to call ahead to your friendly local tackle shop to check on their hermit inventory, and always choose an alternative bait to compliment your supply. Hermits can be successfully toted to your togging destination in an open bucket, kept out of the sun, but long-term storage is extremely difficult, and very unpredictable.
To prepare hermit crabs as presentable bait, the outer shell must be removed. This is more difficult than it seems, and often requires some elbow grease and patience, so I suggest taking along a two-foot section of a 2 by 4 board, and a hammer to help with this project. To remove the crab from it’s shell, place the crab on the board with the shell turned so that the opening is facing up, then firmly whack the flattest area of the shell near the opening. This will cause the tail inside to release, and crack the shell at the same time, allowing the very agitated hermit crab to become dislodged.
To thread these critters onto a hook, pass the barb first through the “chest” area of the hermit, and continue threading the hook through the body and the soft tail, until the barb pops out of the hard tip of the tail. Although these baits tend to stay on a little better than fiddler crabs, they are quickly stripped by eager tautog, so be prepared to rebait frequently.
After deciding which combination of bait is best for your particular tog excursion, don’t delay in procuring your bait. And choosing live, fresh bait when it is available will make your tog outing a success.