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The Blackfish

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"When chestnut leaves are as big as thumb nails, Then bite blackfish without fail, But when chestnut leaves are as large as a span, Then catch blackfish if you can ! "

The blackfish, tautog, Tautoga onitis, is rarely referred to as a game fish, yet few members of the finny tribe, at least in New England waters and in Long Island Sound, afford so much pleasure to so many people. The tautog is omnipresent, and the angler catches the smaller members of the tribe whether or no; and when the water is fairly shallow and the fish run large, up to ten and fifteen pounds, the blackfish, if it is approached with light tackle, will surprise the angler. Such a location and such fish I found at Fisher's Island, Long Island Sound, and similar localities are known all alongshore. While the blackfish is in America a very democratic, not to say plebeian, creature, it is of aristocratic lineage. The scarus of Europe is its foreign representative, and the ancient Romans gave it many high-sounding names, one of which was Cerebrum Jovis Supremi. Aristotle claimed that it slept. He wrote:

"Scams alone their folded eyelids close In grateful intervals of soft repose In some sequestered cell, removed from sight They doze away the dangers of the night."

Pliny repeats this interesting statement, adding that it is the chief of all fishes. Ovid and Oppian sang its praises in verse, while Aelian claimed for it a surpassing love for its young. Elipertius expended vast sums in securing the fish for the wealthy epicures of Rome. Martial was so fond of it that he described it in verse, while Xenocrates writes of the viscera of the scarus brought directly from the sea. His favorite dish was the liver, which, with the milt of murries, the brains of peacocks and pheasants, and the tongues of flamingoes, was served under the high-sounding title of " The shield of Minerva," given it by Vitellius, the famous epicure. At a Roman dinner it was the custom to exhibit the living scarus to the guests, that they might be assured that it was fresh and directly from the sea. Today the American scarus, the tautog, is disposed of in a few words it is an excellent "chowder fish."

I have had rare sport with this fish at the Long Island Sound locality referred to. It makes a hard fight, though the greatest difficulty generally was to keep the bait intact until a large fish took it, so insistent were the small fish and their cousins, the " cunners " and "nippers." The tautog is taken at Cape Ann, and alongshore to Chesapeake Bay, where I have seen it at Old Point, and doubtless it ranges farther south, specimens having been carried to Charleston, South Carolina, in the well of a smack; but it is not found in great quantities. Around New-port it spawns as early as April, and from then on until August. I have heard from fishermen of blackfish weighing forty pounds, but a fifteen-pound fish was very rare in my fishing experiences all along the coast. G. Brown Goode gives, as the largest specimen known, a black-fish which weighed twenty-two and a half pounds. This was three feet in length, and is in the collection of the National Museum. I have had fair sport with this fish from the rocks with a rod, off Salem, Massachusetts and all alongshore, wherever rocky bottom and fairly deep water are found, and the conditions and bait are right, this sport may be enjoyed.

While the pollack does not come within the proper scope or range of this volume, and is not a large fish, I found it as gamy as a trout at Ogunquit, Maine. Casting from the rocks, I took them with a green fly, as well as bait ; and several tips of my black bass split bamboo paid the penalty before I gauged the power of this active fish, not as well known or appreciated as it should be.

There is another blackfish, at least so called, in the waters about Martha's Vineyard, the sea-bass, Centropristes striatus, an entirely different fish. It belongs to the family Serranidae, in which is included the splendid striped bass, which attains a weight of one hundred pounds, and affords rare sport off the islands of southern Massachusetts and in various localities, and since its introduction bidding fair to become the famous game fish of the San Francisco region. There are two species of sea-bass, ranging from Cape Ann to Texas, the northern species being found north of the latitude of Hatteras. The southern species is common at Cedar Keys, St. Marks, and other Gulf coast localities, but I never caught it out on the reef. It is a bottom fish, and yet affords many people a vast amount of sport in rod fishing of a peculiar kind well known to New Yorkers. One may read in the local press advertisements of certain steamers which in the summer months go daily to the fishing-banks outside of Sandy Hook. These banks range from the Highlands to Long Branch and beyond, the Cholera Banks being an exceptionally popular ground about twenty miles east of Sandy Hook. Going aboard one of these vessels, the angler finds an array of very short and club like rods with heavy reels, stout lines provided with heavy sinkers, and abundance of clam or fish bait. Once on the ground, the steamer is anchored, rods are taken in hand, and the extraordinary sight witnessed of several hundred men fishing with rod and reel in deep water. The fish bite well, and the sport begins, sea-bass from four to seven pounds often being the largest catch.

There are a number of little-known fishes of the ocean which, if the angler could divest himself of certain prejudices, would be entitled to come under the term " game." Thus in Southern Californian waters the halibut of large size is often taken in shallow water, affording sport of an exciting nature. I have often seen the clumsy fish charging schools of sardines with all the zeal of a bass.

If sharks were to be included among the game fishes, some remarkable tales might be told of experiences between Florida and California ; but probably Mr. Edwin vom Hofe holds the record in this field of sport, having taken a six-hundred pound saw-fish with a tarpon rod and line. Such catches with rods suggest an enumeration of strange creatures hooked while fishing for true game. While fishing for the eastern horse-mackerel off Boon Island, north of the Isles of Shoals, I hooked a sunfish (Mola), but it was accidental. On the Florida reef while trolling for barracuda I once caught a small hawk's-bill turtle. In Avalon Bay I hooked a sea-lion, which took my bait, and I played the large animal for several moments. I thought I could bring it to the boat, but the sea-lion evidently disagreed with me and brought the proceedings to a close by darting among some boats and breaking the line on an anchor rope. Few swimmers even can make head-way against a man with a light rod and line. Other catches in California, which are often made by yellowtail anglers, are gulls and cormorants, and one fisherman distinguished himself by hooking a sea-eagle. Another played a young black-fish, which must have weighed half a ton, a second or two, while another angler's hook when trolling caught in the back of a fifty-foot California gray whale, illustrating the variety that comes into the life of the rod fisherman in many seas.



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