Tuesday, October 6, 2009

One Fish, Two Fish, Blackfish, Bluefish...

It is now nine days into our deer archery season, it's 41 degrees outside, a few bucks are starting to show up around the house and I find myself still in a fishing frame of mind.

My recent trip to New Jersey has a lot to do with that, but I usually don't start hunting until after the first wave of over-anxious public-land bowhunters crash over the local WMAs anyway, so until this weekend I'll just keep thinking about fishing.

And speaking of fishing, besides the marlin I did catch other fish. False albacore, bluefish (well, OK, only one and it weighed maybe a pound), herring and this ugly thing. The blackfish. Tautog. Or simply "tog."
But whatever the name, the tog is a perfect case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

My first full day in Jersey, Joe and his friend Darren Dorris, saltwater editor of "New Jersey Angler Magazine" took me offshore on Joe's boat. We were hoping for bluefin, dolphin, false albacore and whatever else we could catch.

As it turned out I did get to catch a few false albacore but the weather was going to hell, the wind was picking up and we had to pack it up and head inshore long before we wanted to.

Joe and Darren are pros at Plan Bs, however, and today's plan B would be tog fishing off the jetties. Not knowing what the hell a "tog" was, I just smiled, nodded and kept my mouth shut.

Presently we arrived at the chosen jetty, swung the boat around and tried to idle in place as the waves crashed against the rocks. Darren and Joe took turns rigging rods, driving the boat and cutting the green crabs we'd be using for bait while I sat there trying to look nonchalant about the rocks we seemed destined to smash against with each huge wave that rolled under us.

As they rigged rods the guys tried to explain to me what tog fishing was like. "Tog fishing is all about developing a feel for the bite," said Joe. "It's a very subtle take and it might take some getting used to. You develop a touch for it, but until you do it can be kinda frustrating"

Joe's a master of understatement.

Darren handed me a rod, a conventional lever-drag Penn that - besides not having a level-wind - wasn't too different from the baitcasters I was used to. That was good. And the rod was rigged almost exactly like a typical catfishing set-up back home. Baited hook above a three or four-ounce weight.

Touch, smuch. How hard could it be? I took the rod, cast it close to the rocks, tightened up the line and waited, ready to set the hook on my first tog. I was confident, because one of the things I've always prided myself on as an angler is my sense of feel, my intuition for what's going on down there.

So here I was, on the back of a boat with a good four feet of vertical movement as it rode the waves. There was simply no way to maintain a consistent feel for your bait. But I wasn't worried. Wasn't I the fish whisperer, with an almost superhuman ability to detect a fish's hit? Of course I was.

Suddenly I felt a little tap on the line, and my finely-tuned sense told me a tog was down there taking my crab. I dropped the rod tip, got ready and with a mighty arc set the hook. On a rock.

Now about my hookset. It's a little...dramatic. I grew up pitching big Texas-rigged plastics into weedbeds, the kind of fishing where if you didn't rear back and try your damndest to break your rod as soon as you felt that tap, you probably weren't going to land any fish. It works great for bass in heavy cover, but it sometimes causes problems with other species and other situations.

Like now. My "finely-tuned" fish sense was telling me "set the hook" every time my weight bumped along the bottom. Between the movement of the boat, the rocks and those sneaky goddamned fish down there stealing my crab on every cast I was - to put it mildly - looking like an idiot.

And I was beginning to question whether these damn things even existed. Hell, for all I know we were on the Jersey equivalent of a snipe hunt (hey, let's take the new guy "tog" fishing, nudge nudge wink wink...). And then Joe set the hook on a fish that put a good bend in his rod. I guess they did exist, after all. I was finally going to see my first tog. After a few seconds it broke the surface and Joe swung it into the boat. I looked down at it, rubbed my eyes, looked again and exclaimed "That's a tog? Good gawd, that's the ugliest f***ing fish I've ever seen!"

And it was. I mean, just look at the damn thing. I know ugly, and that was definitely it. It was humiliating. Not only was I being made a fool of, I was being made a fool of by the piscatorial equivalent of the elephant man.

Then Darren caught one. Then Joe caught another one. Then Darren caught another one. And all the while I'm standing there setting hook after hook on...nothing. By then the humiliation had morphed into humbleness. My pride shattered, I conceded defeat. I had been schooled.

And then, quite by accident, I hooked one. I was reeling in slack, felt a tiny bit of resistance,, thought "aww, what the hell" and set the hook on my first tog. I was as shocked as the fish.

I don't know if it was the relief of finally getting the monkey off my back or if I was developing a feel for how tog take the bait, but I started catching fish. And started having fun.

We ended up staying on that jetty catching tog until all our crabs were gone. And a day that could have been sort of a half-bust turned out to be not only a blast, but a reminder of why I love fishing so much.

I may be pushing 40 but every time I pick up a rod, every time I get on the water regardless of how big or small it may be, I feel like a kid again.

Growing up is, quite frankly, a bitch. The necessary demands of life - even a good, rewarding life - can't help but draw down the reservoir of curiosity, awe and wonder each of us are born with, replacing them with worry, weariness, cynicism and despair.

And as we get older we find there are fewer and fewer ways to replenish that reservoir.
But for me, it was always fishing. A rod and reel was my original interface with the natural world, my first portal into its mysteries, and after all these years fishing is still the purest form of unadulterated joy I've ever known.

I've met guys over the years who seem like they're never having much, I don't know...fun when they're fishing. They've got goals. Expectations. Demands. It may be all about numbers, or size, or the competition. It's like fishing is a game they need to win in order to derive any satisfaction or pleasure from the experience.

Two days after tog fishing I went out and caught a fish that in all probability will be the crowning achievement of my angling career (unless Field & Stream suddenly recognizes my obvious talents and starts throwing assignments my way. Right...).

And it was everything I thought it would be, and more. But I can honestly say that in terms of the reasons I choose to fish; the awe, the sense of wonder, the pleasure, the satisfaction I derive from it, I experienced just as much of by catching those ugly-ass tog as I did that unspeakably beautiful marlin.

Don't get me wrong: I desperately want to travel to many far-off places and catch many large, exotic and spectacular gamefish. Who wouldn't? But that never was the yardstick by which I measure success or happiness and it never will be.

Fishing is fishing. And for me that's all that's ever mattered. And besides, Joe and Darren say I've got an open invite any time I want go togging again...


  1. They tasted damn good too...beauty is only skin deep but deep-fried and delicious is to the bone

  2. Chad,

    What a great post.

    Growing up and growing old(er) isn't all I thought it was cracked up to be. Don't blame you one bit for feeling that way, I do too.

    That's the thing about fishing I love, seems I just don't care about all that other stuff when I start to tie that first uni-knot on the line.

    Best regards,
    Albert A Rasch
    Gutpiles: Every Stomach Tells a Story
    Six Reasons to take a Whitetail Doe

  3. You're the Leonard Cohen of outdoor writing.

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