Tautog: A fish that’s hard to find, but ‘worth the effort’

Video what does tautog taste like

INDIAN RIVER INLET, Del. — There’s no shortage of seafood restaurants and crab houses near the beach. Whether it’s an informal crab shack or a high-class restaurant with gourmet offerings, they’re practically everywhere. But while plates full of crab cakes, fried shrimp, flounder and salmon are easy to find, there’s also a fish swimming in the same waters you are that the locals swear by as being the very best — if you can find it.

Tautog, simply called “tog” by the watermen there, and also called blackfish in other areas, can be found in the mid-Atlantic waters, but rarely on mid-Atlantic menus. They’re usually at the bottom of the sea, where shipwrecks and reefs sit, making it hard for the sharpest of anglers, and those who charter a boat for a few hours, to snag one.

“They’re hard to catch; they’re seasonal; they like cooler water,” says Burt Adams, a charter boat captain and the owner and operator of Hook ‘Em and Cook ‘Em, at the Indian River Inlet Marina in Delaware.

“When it warms up too much they won’t bite very well; when it gets real cold they won’t bite. They’re tricky to catch because they will come up and just nibble your bait off and leave you bare-hooked,” Adams goes on to explain.

“They stay in the wreck. They’ll stay inside the wreck and just bring their head out far enough to grab a hold of the bait and they don’t really bite hard; they just nibble at the edges,” he said.

But these ugly, ornery fish are well worth the effort.

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“I haven’t had a bad tog yet, no matter how it’s prepared,” Adams said. “They’re kind of a sweeter-tasting meat, but it’s a very mild fish. It’s not a real strong fishy flavor. It’s real white meat and it’s flaky and moist if you don’t overcook it.”

They’re also a seasonal fish in Delaware, though the good news is that the season opened up again this week and runs through the end of August. If you’re fishing off Maryland waters, they’re in season most of the year, though, just as in Delaware, you’re limited in how many you can bring back to shore. You also have to make sure whatever you catch meets the minimum size mandate.

But if chartering a boat and heading a couple miles off shore won’t allow you to keep your appetite, you can try to let someone else do the work for you. You’ll just have to work to find that person.

“Tautog has been one of our favorites, [our] most-popular sellers,” said Scott Kammerer, the president of the SoDel Concept restaurant group. “It almost sells out and people call ahead to get it.

“It’s a delicacy,” Kammerer added. “You talk to chefs and you talk to the guys who catch fish; they like tog.”

It’s just not something you can count on seeing on the menu every day. But if you’re a chef or restaurant owner, having a relationship with the local anglers will go a long way.

“I’ve had guys I’ve been buying seafood from for 25-years,” said Kammerer. “If the fisherman and the purveyors know that they’re going to sell it to you, they’ll call you first. We’ll buy it no matter what.”

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But he admits being part of a group that owns nine restaurants throughout Delaware is an advantage.

“If you’re just a restaurant by yourself and you’re trying to go out and find it and track it down, it’s hard,” said Kammerer. “It takes relationships.”

Adams, who also sells it in season at the Hook ‘Em and Cook ‘Em market at the marina, won’t disagree. “It’s not easy to find,” he said, sounding exactly like the kind of man who has taken countless trips on open waters hoping to catch some, “but very well worth it.”

Check WTOP.com each Thursday morning through Labor Day for a new “Beyond the Bay Bridge” feature, where WTOP will explore the goings-on at all the Delmarva beach towns. From new restaurants, events, to music and more, WTOP will bring you fun tips and information to make your trip to the beach more enjoyable. Be sure to bookmark the Summer Tips and News page as well as the Beach Traffic and Weather page to stay updated throughout the summer.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>