Quest for the Tasty Tautog
“Don’t tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.” – Mark Twain
Be on guard, for I am about to tell you a fish story. A “fish story” has evolved to mean more than grandpa telling a story to grandson; now it is more often considered “an expression of derision about a boastful person relating an improbable achievement” (Webster’s Dictionary). Think of most anglers we know (except for you and me, of course) describing the size and cunning of their catch, or especially a missed catch, the BIG one that got away.
I start here because this will be, after all, a story about a fish, making it, ipso facto, a fish story. However, keeping Twain’s advice in mind, since I live on Cape Cod and write about the area, some people here know me. What’s more, most people surrounded by the abundant salt and fresh waters of the Cape certainly do know the fish here. Hell, if they don’t they might as well pack up and move to Iowa. Hence, you familiar and knowledgeable neighbors and fellow residents will thereby weigh my character and my “cred” by what I am about to tell you. Therefore, this is to confide in you that I am fully cognizant that Twain’s admonition holds great danger for me as I set about this tale, for few things can be more shameful and embarrassing than being exposed to the public as a fake, as someone who told a “fish story,” especially a BIG one.
So on with it. The tale of the tautog on Cape Cod began for me in September of 2002 when I was rewarding myself for spending the better part of the day shoveling and screening aged manure and compost—and looking it—by sipping a Hot Chocolate Sparrow hazelnut decaf and nosing around the pier at Orleans Yacht Club Town Landing. The sight of a scruffy old man sitting crossed-legged at the end of the wharf with his back to me caught my eye and curiosity. What’s he up to? I wondered. As unobtrusive as a rat on a slice of angel cake, I sidled up to him, causing the wharf to creak and sway and interfere with whatever he was doing. “Wajuptoo?” I blurted out.
When he slowly turned around to see who the jerk was, I was struck by his wild, wizened, salty visage. A hank of twine wrapped around a chicken wing in the water in his left hand, a small net on a pole in his right, his image immediately transported me back to high school English class and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here he was, the old sailor himself, incarnate and right there in front of me, “with his long, grey beard and glittering eye.” What a sight! I almost spit out my coffee.
As he squinted at me and I at him, our faces began to screw up in incredulity.
“Peter?” he croaked. “Peter Budryk?”
“John?” I said. “John Myjak?” Powerful memory muscles strained as we both blurted out,“What the hell are you doing here?”
We hadn’t seen each other in many years, and never here on Cape Cod. Retired from his job as a school teacher in Middletown, Connecticut, he was set free to be neither clean shaven nor a model of sartorial splendor. He now worked part time for the National Seashore and fished his brains out whenever he could. Retired from my faculty post at a university in Middletown, I also shared the new look. I now worked part time for various publications and fished my brains out whenever I could.
I remembered him as one of the most ardent and successful Connecticut fishermen I knew. Quite a bit more ardent and successful than I. (This is not false humility. Remember Twain?) It is said, and I believe but cannot document, that five percent of fishermen catch 90 percent of fish landed. John is a five-percenter; I, a 95-percenter. Sad, but true.
John is not given to being one of those older guys who hang out in small gangs for too long and hogging the seats at breakfast spots and coffee joints, telling…you guessed it, fish stories. These are the ROMEOS, Retired Old Men Eating Out. Very simply, John fishes. John catches. John is not a ROMEO.
When I disturbed him that day he was netting small crabs as bait for tautog fishing and, without a second’s hesitation, invited me to accompany him. “Peter, for whatever reason, they just don’t fish for them around here like we did back in Connecticut. And you and I know what a hell of a great fish they are on a plate and hard fighters, too!”
Only a fool 95-percenter would pass up a chance to fish with a rare and genuine five-percenter. We went tautog fishing in John’s boat. Because it was a John Myjak fishing excursion, and that catching fish is primarily the principle of intersection, we were where the fish were, together with the right equipment and bait. We hooked and fought the fish. We caught many, released many, and kept our limit to filet and freeze for the long winter. It was a grand reunion, which we both revisited each time we partook of another dish of tautog. Over the years I have fished for striped bass, which I never eat, in areas such as Wellfleet during the spring, summer and fall. Often, I have packed a boat rod and some green crabs, fiddler crabs or sand worms to fish the rocks close by buoys on my way back to the ramp, almost always landing a tautog or two, which I do eat, with gusto.
Now fast forward to late 2009 when I landed this writing assignment, too late to get out on the boat and with a deadline too early for spring fishing. Although I have sufficient experience and information to produce a tautog story, plus some pictures John and I had taken to dispel the smell of a “fish story,” I felt that perhaps I lacked tautog photographs appropriate for a food magazine.
Nevertheless, here I was, like a tautog in its favorite habitat— between a rock and a hard place— stuck between the fall and spring seasons.
Now I ask you to believe this, because I have some difficulty believing it myself even as I prepare to relate it to you: I am not a ROMEO and this is not just another fish tale. With digital camera in tow, for two weeks this past November, I drove the Atlantic seaboard from Massachusetts to Virginia in search of a fresh tautog to photograph. (Full disclosure requires I admit the quest was combined with a Thanksgiving trip to visit friends and family in several of those states.)
Bad weather and lazy fishermen conspired to frustrate me. Even a drive to Ocean City with Chris Cupas, my high school senior class president, now a doctor and avid fisherman from Hebron, Maryland, produced nothing, thwarted by a nor’easter. (Together with my wife Elinor, we did have a dozen jumbosized steamed and spiced blue crabs, a pound of spiced shrimp, a basket of dirty fries and a couple of pitchers of Yingling beer for consolation and to put out the fire.)
Driving even further south along yet more seasonally hospitable tautog waters to Virginia Beach, I miraculously came upon—get this—TAUTOG’S RESTAURANT! Bill Gambrel, the owner, gave this place the name of his favorite table fish and has successfully operated it for over fifteen years. Pay dirt!
Given the fish’s propensity to hang out in rough and rocky underwater neighborhoods, Bill is at the mercy of a local spear fisherman to provide him with 10-15 pounds of tautog when he can’t get out and intersect with the fish himself. And yes, I was told, “No tautog today, but we have some fresh rock (a Maryland term for striped bass) on the menu.”
So, back again in the Bay State, I scoured for tautog at local fish markets on the Cape, specialty fish markets in East Cambridge such as Court House Fish Market and New Deal Fish Market, restaurants like Legal Sea Foods, wholesale fish markets in Chatham, New Bedford, Boston and other Massachusetts companies listed in the Yellow Pages. Surprisingly, a number of these purveyors didn’t even know the difference between a tautog and a black sea bass. I was chasing a fish’s tail. A cold November in Massachusetts and quota limits shuts down both the commercial and recreational tautog fishery here, as the fish go into a state of nearly total dormancy for the winter. A Massachusetts Marine Fisheries biologist told me he has scuba dived and studied tautog behavior off our coast and observed them, like underwater statues, not moving off a dime or eating for months at a time, some of them actually listing on their sides—but not dying—there in the depths, easy prey for spear fishermen, if they dare the frigid Atlantic.
Tautog live among wrecks, jetties, piers, rock piles, mussel beds and other underwater structure where they eat their favored barnacles, crabs, juvenile lobsters and mussels. Evolution has provided tautog with thick, rubbery, extendable lips and front teeth like grains of dry rice that are perfect for scraping off barnacles, picking up crabs, prying out lobsters, pulling off mussels and conveying each to the back of the mouth where rigid, rasp like pads on the upper and lower jaw crush the shellfish to render them and their juicy contents more easily digestible.
Save for this photograph, I was close to ending my quest. That is, until Elinor and I made one of our regular visits to Sue and Ernie at their CoCo Head Hair Salon on Knapp Street in Boston’s Chinatown. While Sue was styling Elinor’s hair, I asked her if she knew of any area restaurants that had fish livewells. “Not a restaurant, but how about the market right across the street?” she answered. I dashed over and was immediately immersed in the bustle of focused shoppers and dazzled by the diverse and colorful array of traditional and exotic fruits, vegetables, meats, and almost an entire wall of fish tanks. Eels, tilapia, Dungeness crabs, lobsters, cod, among other fin fish and, in one tank, alone and listing on its side (drum rolls please)—the object of my quest—a tautog!
My Chinese a bit rusty, I could not clearly communicate to the befuddled fish monger my desire to buy the fish alive so I could take it home to be photographed. I dashed back to the salon seeking help. Sue was so excited for me she was ready to abandon Elinor in the chair and run back to the market with me. Instead she ordered her husband Ernie to serve as my interpreter with the fishmonger, a huge guy with a wild head of hair. Suddenly swimming upright and very active, the fish was netted out of the tank and plopped down on the cutting board.
“No!!!” I screamed. Ernie excitedly ran behind the counter, said the right thing, and the large chopping blade was stopped in mid air. The fish monger looked over at me and let out a hearty laugh. Back at the salon, Sue finished Elinor’s hair while everyone in the place broke into giggles whenever the tautog flopped wildly in the bag on the floor. I was happy the fish was so lively, but my happiness was tempered by my guilt and sadness at the suffering of the poor beast—all for a photo shoot.
Over the Longfellow Bridge to our Cambridge condo we drove, the fish in the back seat, thrashing in the bag. I filled one side of the sink with water, placed the fish in and was immediately drenched by its broad tail splashing over me and the floor, Elinor trying mightily to mop us as I grappled with the fish for some photos. I took several of it alive and then killed it quickly to end its suffering. It was four pounds of terrific life force.
In truth, I had some difficulty eating this homely animal for which I felt great compassion, but overcame it to honor its being sacrificed for me and for you, dear reader. A sad ending? Not really. My tautog odyssey taught me much about this fish and enlightened me to even greater respect for all life forms. After all, the Ancient Mariner was able to shed the albatross around his neck only when he acknowledged respect for and the innate beauty of all living things:
“O happy living things! No tongue Their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware.”
WHERE & HOW TO CATCH TAUTOG
• Most abundant on the Cape where rocks, wrecks and especially mussel beds are common, such as Buzzard’s Bay waters, near jetties and piers with many barnacles. Can be caught throughout the Cape where such underwater conditions are available, including from the shoreline, though a boat will increase range, of course.
• In the spring when dandelions appear, usually late April, so will the tautog emerge from their winter stupor.
• In mid-summer tautog spread out to somewhat different areas for spawning. Since they are a recovering fishery, it is best not to pursue them at this time to maximize their spawning.
• As waters cool in September, tautog will actively feed before winter semi-dormancy.
• Because they are strong, muscular fish, tautog fishing will be most successful with a stout boat rod and reel, and 25-40 pound test line in order to wrestle them quickly away from the rocks, which will break lines. Have a large-sized landing net available to net them before they get to the surface where many of them can shake off a hook.
• Visit your local and reliable bait and tackle shop to buy their recommended tautog hooks and weights, which must be fished right at the bottom, with great focus to detect bites. Tautog are closely related to cunners, a smaller fish, but both can be notoriously frustrating bait stealers.
In 2007, Peter Budryk’s second book, The INNERMOST WATERS: Fishing Cape Cod Ponds & Lakes, was judged the #1 Best Book, All Outdoor Categories, New England-Wide, by the New England Outdoor Writers Association (NEOWA). In 2009, NEOWA judged him New England’s top outdoor journalist with seven awards for his magazine articles, newspaper fishing columns in the Cape Codder and photography. Peter and his wife Elinor split the year between their homes in Orleans, where they have lived since 1977, and in the City of Cambridge where they both were born, raised and educated.