Saltwater fishing in general is not a one-size-fits-all game, and the rigs used for tautog fishing are no exception. I’ve always used multiple rigs for multiple situations, especially when it comes to catching tricky fish like a tog. Some important information to consider when choosing your rig involves knowing your environment, bay verses ocean, bottom type (a wreck verses rocks or the tubes), and the general size of the fish in that area (smaller hooks for smaller fish, and so on). Next, incorporate variables such as wind speed, current, and the depth you’re fishing, and if you’re moving around to multiple locations also making sure you have plenty different sinker sizes to accommodate different depths and currents. Now use that information to make your rig choice for that particular location. Incorporating all of these components and how they affect your rigs and bait presentation does make a big difference, and is sometimes the formula necessary to turn an okay day on the water into a great one.

angler holding up tautog
Kevin Synowiec of Virginia Beach, VA, holding up two nice bay togs he caught last October.

Hooks for Tautog Fishing

Always keep in mind that your hook size will have to accommodate both the size of fish you’re targeting and the bait you’re presenting. Generally, fiddler crabs work great in the Bay but not as well offshore, the match the hatch theory definitely holds its own weight here. When using a fiddler, a 3/0 J-hook works great for medium to large fish. If you start seeing fish in the 22-inch and larger range, up-sizing to 4/0 is a wise decision. If your fiddlers are on the small side then using cut blue crab can work just as well, if not better sometimes, because with a larger bait it’s much easier to hide the hook.

Trebles are also a great addition to your arsenal when using chunks of blue crab and or sloccum (the gooey rubber-ish stuff under the shell of a female blue crab, which tog love eating) . When fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, size four treble hooks work well and then up-size to size two or one for citation-sized fish. I generally do not use treble hooks when using fiddlers, but trebles work especially well when fishing offshore during rougher weather. There are two ways to use them: cut a small section of crab and apply it over each barb, or, you can use the whole crab and sink the treble through the middle of the crab’s under-carriage, with just a small section of hook popping out of the top. When using a whole medium- to large-size blue crab, you’ll need a larger hook such as a 1/0. Generally, the 1/0 is my favorite size offshore fishing with a treble. The only exception to this was an insane trip in 2013, on which we caught a five-person limit and boated 15 citation tautog in a single trip. We ended up having to upgrade to 2/0 treble hooks that day, because majority of the tautog were 15.5-pounds.

Oh, and one more thing: the big tautogs are hook-benders that will put your gear to the test. Get the upper hand on this by using the extra-strong 4x or VMC hooks, so you can box that Bubba tog instead of pining over it.

Rigging Up for Tautog

The Captain Ricks Rig (named after the late Capt. Otis Ricks, who showed me how to make it.)

one rig to tautog
One of the keys to this rigs’ success is the swivel on the leader line with the hook. Not only does it allow you to change out a toothed leader quickly and get back to the fishing, but the nature of this design allows for it to hold up better with less twisting of the rig during rougher weather. 

Capt. Rick used to tell me this rig was designed to be more effective when used with lots of weight, and it continues to remain my favorite rig when the current is ripping. You can also use a treble hook with this rig to help catch more fish during rougher weather.

The Carolina Rig

carolina tog rig
This is my second favorite tautog rig in the Bay. I’m also a sheepshead angler and this is the perfect ticket to catch both. I have noticed in particular with tautog though, this rig can be a game-changer when the standard togs rigs are not producing fish. I believe there are three reasons for this. First, it provides a very natural presentation with fiddler crabs (which is the bait I primarily use with this rig).

Using a Carolina rig, the crab appears to be swimming (or at least floating) in a more natural manner and with no weights dangling underneath it. The second reason it works well is I use fluorocarbon with it. Start with 40-pound test and if the bite is still not happening, reduce it to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader – that usually triggers some type of response. Third, you’ll find that it releases from snags easier and quicker than most other rigs. You fish more, because you’re snagged less. This rig works best when its calmer and not heavy current. Usually a three-ounce sinker will be a good start, and adjust size up or down depending on current. A size 3/0 or 4/0 Owner all-purpose cutting edge hook works great with this rig.

Dropper Loop Rig

dropper loop rig for tautog
The Dropper Loop rig is quick and easy to make on the boat with little preparation or hardware other than hooks and mono, and it can be directly tied to the main line.

For the Bay this rig in a 40-pound mono line is just the ticket. It’s like baby bears’ bed – not too hard and not to soft, but just right. If you’re fishing really rocky areas then increasing to 50-pound test helps, but if the bite is slow adjusting to a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader will sometimes turn it on. The length from the bottom of the weight line to the first leader line is 10 inches. The dropper loop itself is a mere four inches long, and an Owner 3/0 cutting-edge hook on the end (with the hook tip facing the rig) works well. The line length above the hook line can be as short as 12 inches or as long at 16. I like 16 so I can pull the fish directly onto the boat without a net. I use this rig if the current is on the stronger side and I’ve run out of pre made Captain Ricks’ rigs, because I can tie one in less than 40 seconds and get back to fishing. Plus, the short leader loops allow for fewer tangles.

Offshore Big Bubba Tog Rig

another rig for tog fishing
For these rigs, use 60- to 80-pound mono line. Tie a single dropper loop that’s six to six and a half inches long, and put either a 5/0 or 6/0 hook on the end with the hook tip facing the rig. My husband and I have brought in fish over 19-pounds with this rig – it may look simple but to a big tog it can be quite lethal.

Bonus Tips for Tautog Fishing

  • If the crab you’re baiting with is alive, for a more natural presentation use a J-hook inserted slightly off to the side into the bottom mid-section of the crab, with the hook tip coming out towards the top of the crab. This will allow it to swim in a more natural motion and attract fish. 
  • A 5/0 and 6/0 J-hook paired with 60-pound test is usually a good plan for offshore, but when pre-making rigs have a few 6/0 rigs with 80-pound test in case Bubba shows up. Being ready is the key to success. My husband’s 19-pound, eight-ounce tog was caught on an emergency 80-pound Bubba rig that I had pre made and had ready on the boat for just that occasion.
  • Create a feeding frenzy by getting that bait scent in the water. A simple way to do this is by scraping the pilings you may be fishing around in the Bay, or when preparing baits, throw the unwanted scraps over board. I call this “making popcorn,” and the results may surprise you.

-By Beth Synowiec