Have you ever been tautog fishing? Have you eaten fresh-caught tautog?
I love to fish, pretty much all fish and any day of the week, but I had never gone out for tautog, or “tog,” as this cute fish is nicknamed. As a rank beginner, I wanted to go out with a pro and learn from one of the best, so I texted Johnny Hoy and asked if I could tag along the next time he went out. The commercial season for tog is over, but I was hoping Johnny was still fishing. He graciously said yes.
I met him Monday morning in Menemsha. The day was perfect: slightly warm, sunny, and calm. We climbed aboard his boat, and he motored us out to one of his favorite tog spots. (No hints, or photos with hints. I am sworn to secrecy.)
Johnny is famous for singing with his band, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. I’ve seen him many times, at quite a few Island locations. You’ve probably danced the night away, too, listening to Johnny sing. On Monday, I never got around to asking what his favorite song is, but I did ask Johnny a gazillion questions about fishing.
Johnny’s been on-Island for 46 years, and he’s fished every one of those years. He knows the waters as a commercial fisherman and a conservationist. I asked him the patterns and habits of tog in the fall.
“Fish all do something different. This time of year, it helps if you’re going out every day,” said Johnny. He looked out over the water, pensive for a moment, then chuckled. “In the old days, it took a lifetime to figure out where and when to fish. Now with the internet, anyone can look it up.”
When we got to Johnny’s tog spot for our outing, he reached into a bucket of crabs and began “making” our bait — cutting each crab in half, then trimming the legs down. Johnny showed me how to bait the hook, inserting the hook into the crease in the shell above the legs, and then bringing the hook out below the legs. I managed step one on the first try. The big lesson came next.
“Drop the line down to the bottom. Leave your bail open. You have to be ready to feed out the line,” said Johnny as he lowered his crab into the water. “When you get that first hit, feed the bait to the fish. Let him think he’s getting a free lunch.”
I watched intently while Johnny’s line twitched as a fish started nibbling on his bait. Johnny released some line, then fed a little more line, until he gently lifted his rod and set the hook. Bam! Rod bent. Fish on! Such a beautiful thing to watch. Never gets old.
Johnny reeled in a keeper. I couldn’t wait for my turn. He cautioned me, “You have to feed them the line. If you have a tight line, they’ll rip the bait off. And don’t yank the rod to set the hook. Lift.”
I nodded my head, lowered my crab into the water, and let it sink to the bottom. Soon, there was the telltale twitch on the line. My first tog was moments away! Excitement pulsed through me. I flipped the bail, started reeling, and the fish ripped the bait off my hook and swam away. Yup, totally screwed up those instructions I’d heard only five minutes earlier.
Johnny passed me another crab, and patiently repeated his instructions. I nodded affirmatively. My bait hit the bottom, I waited somewhat patiently, felt the nibble, fed the line, fed a little more, lifted gently, set the hook, and watched my rod bend over. Beautiful. I reeled up a keeper, smaller than Johnny’s first two fish, but my first keeper tog. Pure joy!
I found my rhythm, and landed a few more. Then Johnny spoke words that were music to my ears: “You’ve got potential.”
As we headed back to Menemsha, I asked the man who plays more than 250 gigs a year with his band, and fishes commercially nearly every day from May through October, what he likes about fishing and singing. “You never know what you’re going to find. I love the surprise aspect. Every day is different, just like fishing.
“With fishing, every day you have to crack the code. It’s kinda the same with people at a show. What worked last night might not work tonight. You gotta figure it out. I love that,” said Johnny.
As the water lapped the side of the boat and we watched birds working to our right, I knew Johnny had found his sweet spot in life.
I left Menemsha with two togs in my cooler and a happy, full heart.
I filleted my togs in the driveway as soon as I got home, already tasting a delicious fish stew. Tog is a whitefish, and a hearty whitefish at that. You can grill it, use it for fish cakes, or put it in stews, and the fillets (or chunks for your stew) hold together.
If you want to make a hearty and delicious fish stew, there is nothing better than homemade fish stock, but you can easily purchase fish stock, or even substitute vegetable stock with clam juice.
I walked out to my garden and picked some peppers, onions, carrots, parsley, thyme, sage, and rosemary. I chopped them all up, as well as some garlic and celery. In a separate pot from the stock, I added a decent amount of olive oil, set the heat to low, then added all the vegetables. After a few minutes, I added four diced Red Bliss potatoes. I kept the heat low and let the flavors blend while the vegetables browned up a bit.
When the potatoes had a hint of golden color to them, I added my stock, a cup of white wine, a cup or so of my homegrown tomato base (you can substitute a can of diced tomatoes), M.V. Sea Salt, and fresh ground pepper. I let that simmer, cooking my tog fillets in a bit of butter, until the potatoes and carrots were soft, then I added in my cooked chunks of tog.
The first spoonful was a bite of perfection. I’ve invited company to sample my first tog stew on Wednesday.
Johnny also loves to make fish stew, and shared that he likes to add “a couple of anchovies, a shot of vermouth, potatoes, celery, and a quart of my tomato sauce. When the stew is cooked, I turn off the heat, add the fresh fish, and let it cook. Eat that with some garlic bread, and you have a great meal.”
I’m definitely hooked on tog, and will be trying my luck again this weekend.
I hope to see you on the beach, or a jetty, trying to hook a tog. I’ll be the blonde beginner trying not to lose every other fish, but smiling even if I do, because, hey, we’re fishing, and what could be better?!