Tautog (Tautoga onitis)

Primarily known as blackfish, the tautog is a member of the Labridae family of wrasses, which includes some 500 species in 57 known genera, and is a popular inshore sportfish.

Other Names

blackfish, tog, Molly George, chub, oysterfish; French: tautogue noir.


Blunt-nosed and thick-lipped, the tautog has a high forehead and a heavy body. It is brownish on the back and the sides and lighter below, and it has blackish mottling over the entire body. The belly and the chin are white or gray, and there may be spots on the chin.

The female develops a white saddle down the middle of each side during spawning. The caudal fin is rounded on the corners and squared across the tip; the soft-rayed dorsal and the anal fins are rounded.

The first dorsal fin has 16 to 17 spines. The short second dorsal fin consists of 10 somewhat longer soft rays. The anal fin has 3 spines and 7 to 8 soft rays. There is a detached area of small scales behind and beneath each eye but none on the opercle.

The lateral line is arched more or less following the contour of the back and has a scale count of 69 to 73. There are 9 gill rakers on the first branchial arch, 3 on the upper limb, and 6 on the lower limb. A number of small teeth are present along the sides of the jaws, and there are 2 to 3 large canine teeth in the tips.


This fish averages 3 pounds or less in weight. Specimens weighing 6 to 10 pounds are caught with some regularity, however, and the all-tackle world record is a New Jersey fish that weighed 25 pounds.

Food and feeding habits

The diet of the tautog is mainly mollusks and crustaceans, with blue mussels being especially favored. It uses the flat, rounded, stout teeth located in the rear of its mouth to crush the shells.


The tautog occurs in the western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, and the greatest abundance is between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Delaware Bay. It overlaps in range with the smaller and more northerly relative the cunner.


Tautog are known to move in and out of bays or inshore and off-shore according to the water temperature, but they do not make extensive migrations up and down the coast. Preferred environs include shallow waters over rocky bottoms, shell beds, inshore wrecks, and the like, which they often inhabit year-round.