Early in January 2015, longtime tog nut Kenneth Westerfeld caught a 28-pound, 13-ounce blackfish, which broke the 18-year-old record that Monica held. “What captured my imagination about tog was basically everything,” says Westerfeld, 50, of College Point, New York, who has fished the salt since he was a boy. “The feel of the bite was different than anything I’d fished for before. Learning when to set the hook is an art form. There are days when the action is blistering fast — no patience required, just instant gratification. Then there are those days when it’s slow and you have to deal with scratchy, almost imperceptible bites and hope to get the timing just right.”
In his pursuit of big tog, Westerfeld eventually heard about the fishing out of Ocean City, Maryland. He started booking charters with a small cadre of sharpies aboard Capt. Monty Hawkins’ Morning Star and Capt. Kane Bounds’ Fish Bound, both out of Ocean City. Westerfeld nailed a 12- and a 14-pounder on one of his early forays, and the trips south quickly became a regular commute.
“I love the fight,” says Westerfeld, who sharpened his skills under the tutelage of Capt. Edward Parker, who fished tog commercially with hook and line and often brought along a few sharpies, including Westerfeld, to help fill orders. “Pound for pound, the bulldogging is just unbeatable. The feeling I get when I hang a big one is indescribable.”
The feeling hit him hard on Jan. 2. Westerfeld was fishing in 140 feet of water on Fish Bound when the 28-plus-pound tog munched his crab and was hauled into the record books.
I first bumped into Stelio Gatanas — “Stelly” to his fellow cult members — in January 2006 aboard the Mary M, an old wooden headboat. I was being dragged into the secret society by friend and fellow tautog aficionado Tim Surgent, owner and humble head tyrant of Stripersonline.com, which includes a bottom-fishing forum that’s used for communication between tribe members. The boat was in Cape May, New Jersey, that winter because the captain loved fishing for big tog; the rest of the year it was berthed in Barnegat Light.
Stelly Gatanas is a big guy with a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow and an intensity at the rail that he rarely interrupts with a smile, even when he nails a big one. “I still use monofilament,” says Gatanas, a foreman with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, “which makes me a Neanderthal to a lot of other guys.”
At day’s end we were pitted against each other for the pool money. I presented what had to be the ugliest female tog ever boated. It had no lips, a misshapen mouth and a massive round body, my biggest to date. He offered up an impressive white-chin male that looked enormous. At the weigh-in he beat my 13.5 by 1 pound; he went home a few hundred dollars richer, and I pocketed a much smaller second-place purse.
Gatanas is from Woodbridge, New Jersey, and he’s the ultimate tog fanatic. “When I was a kid I fished with my uncle aboard Jersey headboats,” he says. “On the Jersey Devil out of Barnegat probably 30 years ago, he caught two 14-pound tog on one drop with a two-hook rig called a snafu. He hooked me that day, too.”
Years later Gatanas bought his own boat and fished out of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, but it was never enough. He started traveling, first to south Jersey, where I met him. With a loose-knit group of similarly afflicted anglers, he started trekking to Delaware, where he caught a tog weighing 19.5 pounds, and farther south to Maryland. He saves his vacation time and uses it from December through February, taking a few days off at a shot so he can make multiday runs to fish with the likes of captains Bounds and Hawkins.
Funny thing: If it weren’t for tog fishing, Gatanas might still be single. “I met my future wife’s father on a tog trip down South and started bumping into him down there a lot,” the angler recalls. “Then I’d make it a point to hook up with him when I was going. After he got to know me, he introduced me to his daughter.”
They started dating, and Gatanas eventually proposed. “When we were setting a date I asked her if she wanted a spring or fall wedding,” he says. “She said fall. I said OK, but I told her there was a hitch. The wedding and honeymoon had to be over by Nov. 16 because that’s when tog season opens in New Jersey. A man has to have priorities, and she totally understood.”
One Big Fish
Among the small group of diehards that Gatanas stays in touch with is 50-year-old Alex Cortizo of Union, New Jersey, a blackfish devotee for more than 30 years. “I’ve been chasing that 20-pound tog for a long time and can see it hanging on the wall in my living room,” he says.
Cortizo has racked up 42 double-digit blackfish over the years, but like most hard-core sinker-bouncers, he is not yet in the 20-pound club. “Tog fishing is my sanctuary, and I get out as much as possible,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of boats that specialize in it, and our clique knows them all. Locally I ride the Fish Monger out of Point Pleasant, but come January I head south, looking for my 20. I would trade all the fish I’ve ever caught for that one.”
Capt. Bounds, the Ocean City, Maryland, skipper, carries a horde of tautog zealots each winter. “There’s this loose-knit group that comes to my boat to fish for them because the area has a reputation for producing really big fish,” says Bounds, who runs Fish Bound, the boat from which Westerfeld took his record fish. “About 50 percent come from New York and New Jersey, 30 percent from Virginia, and the rest from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. They meet on Internet forums or read about our fishing and then meet up on my boat or a few others that specialize.”
Bounds says he only sees the hard-core fishermen on winter tog trips. And as good as the fishing can be, catching really big tog is still hit or miss, he notes. “They don’t all grow that big, and it takes them a long time to get there,” he says. Some anglers will go away disappointed. “But not the really dedicated tog fishermen,” says the veteran captain. “They understand. The regulars are some of the most intense fishermen you’ll ever meet.”
And in case you’re wondering, I’ll be standing along the rail this winter, too.