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Spearfishing for Tautog

Sara Moran

Sara and Dean Moran of Wellfleet are sitting half in Cape Cod Bay, half out, taking a break from fishing on a pile of rocks.

Dean has a fish in his hand. It’s a tautog. Also known as tow-tog or blackfish. It’s a really good eating fish.

Tautog or blackfish are native to the Western Atlantic from Nova Scotia down to South Carolina. They can be tricky to catch with a hook and line, because they like to live in rocky areas or old ship wrecks. So Dean and Sara go fishing for them equipped with wetsuits, flippers, snorkels, and hand weapons.

They have a spear gun and a Hawaiian sling.

“Yeah that’s a rail gun it’s called, it has like a trigger and it shoots the little like what is that like a three foot spear. Where this is just a sling, it’s a little more primitive I guess you could say, simpler,” Dean says.

I ask if they just jab at the fish. Dean starts to explain about a rubber band.

He hooks one end of the rubber band around the end of the spear closest to his body, then wraps the other end around his hand and pulls it midway down the spear toward the point.

“And then once you see a fish you loosen your grip and it shoots, so it gives it like some real force and then it’s got the flapper on the top so you don’t lose the fish.”

Once he spears a fish, Dean hooks it through the eye to a metal loop he wears clipped to his wet suit. This time of year, the daily limit for tautog is three fish — it’s less in June and July and more later on in the fall. Spearfishing is one of the oldest fishing methods in the world, and Dean and Sara say once they dive underwater, it gets intimate.

“ You know with taug you’re shooting everything at pretty close range,” Dean says.

“Sometimes they’re right in front of your face like inches, and they’re weird they’ll see you they take off, then they come back to check you out again which kind of you know then you shoot it so it’s kind of like a little betrayal but you know but its hunting like anything else.”

“And you get in like a zone, you kind of get in a mindset, you know I’ve been playing with that of just like, after a while, you get in like this hunting zone,” Sara says.

Almost all tautog fishermen are recreational—there isn’t much of a commercial fishery, and you’ll rarely see tautog in fish markets. But it’s a white, meaty fish and it’s delicious.

“We cook them whole on the grill sometimes, which is really good. You know we’ve been making some fish cakes,” Dean says.

“Mayo, mustard, we cook the fish whole on the grill then we’ll take all the meat off you know some spices, onions chopped up, mayo, mustard, bread crumbs, yeah just fry em up,” Dean adds.

The fish cakes freeze well, as do tautog fillets, so Dean and Sara are fishing now both for dinner and to put some local fish in their freezer. Late in the fall tautog will migrate offshore, where they spend the winter in deeper waters. Come spring, they’ll be back—and Dean and Sara will be back in the water, ready for another season of spearfishing.

Learn more about spearfishing here.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.