SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — One axiom of saltwater fishing in New England is that tautog, those thick and dark-toned fish of inshore reefs and submerged boulder fields, do not strike jigs. They are too busy, the thinking goes, nosing for the lobsters, crabs, mussels and clams that crowd their jagged habitat to bother with the passing imitation of a fish.
No one told this tautog.
It had just slammed a one-ounce jig moving by on a swift tide. Adding to the surprise, that tide swirled across fine sand, not rocks.
Each spring, after the local ocean temperature climbs toward the mid-50 degree mark, striped bass typically prowl this hard-pulling rip. They draw us to the same bars in the fading light of each Sunday afternoon, after most people have tied off at the docks, leaving the evening’s fish to my crew.
On this afternoon three of my boys stood along the gunwales as the boat rose and fell on the ocean’s swell: Jack, 12, Mick, 10, and Willie, 5. They whooped as we drifted downtide, one rod bent down.
The water temperature was 55 degrees, right where we wanted it. The boys assumed we had hooked another striped bass.
So did I, at first. But something was not quite right. This fish wasn’t beelining down-current like a freshly hooked bass. Nor was it hammering like a bluefish, with distinctive, head-shaking knocks.
It pulled almost vertically down, trying, it seemed, for the bottom. It thumped a few more times and then emerged in a shaft of shimmering light, visible 8 or 10 feet beneath us, a blocky shape, mottled brown, twisting and showing an almost square tail.
“That’s not a striper!” one of them shouted. “Tautog! Get the net!”
Soon the fish was in the mesh on the deck, displaying blunt-bottomed teeth more suited for picking shells then seizing fish.
Tautog are our northern wrasse — large-eyed, thick-skinned, thick-shouldered and, on most days if not this one, almost unerringly hugging the bottom, where with their overbite they eat from the stones. Those who like their fish fine and brightly marked would not choose them from a fishmonger’s display.
That would be a mistake, because tautog flesh is firm, sweet and white, and can be cooked any number of ways, all of them good. This one was a fine specimen, almost 23 inches long, weighing more than seven pounds.
But what was it doing here? Didn’t it know its proper place? Why would it hunt like a bluefish or striped bass, rising from the face of a sandbar to slam the presentation of a sand eel carried past, midway in the water column, in a fast tide?
No one much cared. We learned long back that fishing is full of surprises, which, when they are of the good variety, are of one the water’s joys. Whatever this tautog had been up to, it was bound now for ice. That was enough for the boys.
Jack snapped quick photos as I started the engines and swung the bow around.
We’d repeat this drift, like we always do when the fish are here, gathering meat and memories for children learning to feed their home by an old set of rules.
The wind was light. The tide was moving. The terns were dipping on the surface of the water, excited by small pods of bait. The chill of the previous week had lifted enough that even Willie’s little hands were not seizing up. This was a spring weekend evening, lived like we wait for all winter long.
And now we had a tautog. Willie reminded everyone it was his sister, Elizabeth’s, favorite fish to eat.
Minutes later, the boat was in position once more, engines off. Everyone was silent. We drifted back to the zone. The next casts arced out, lines hissing as they left the spool. The jigs plopped onto the surface while the boat’s hull, gabbed by the tide, edged toward the sandbar.
Mick made a few turns of the reel, then grunted. “I’m on,” he said. He was hard onto a 12-pound bass.
My rod bent with a jolt, too. We had hooked another bass, this one about two pounds smaller than Mick’s.
I handed the rod to Willie to play the fish. Jack readied the net.
Now Willie grunted, too. He was trying to turn a reel almost locked up by a newly arrived bass. The migration was still on, and the fish were showing up, blue-tinted in the clear and cool oceanic water of May.
After the catch from that drift came aboard, we agreed to do one more lap and cut the trip short. We had enough meat for the week. The boys had school in the morning. And we still had a chilly run back to the dock, bounding over darkening swell.
It was almost time to head home, to the planks and the knives, with a tautog that did not behave like a tautog and a few striped bass. We’d be early tonight.
On the next drift, Mick sang out on the second cast. We looked his way. His rod was slumped over in one direction. He was leaning back in the other, putting the brakes to a bigger fish.
Tautog hitting jigs in the sandy rip? Not this time. It was a bass, like it was supposed to be. Order had been restored to the fishing universe, where, spring’s bounty returned, soon we would be eating well.