Tautog are found from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, but most of the commercial production that we see is from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Tautogs are cousins to the Hog Snapper, and join them as founding members of the ugly club, otherwise known as the wrasse family. They tend to have protruding lips that when gaped reveal jagged, overgrown, monstrous teeth, giving the fish a Hitchcock-ian death grin. The skin is black (it is also known commonly as blackfish) and they usually average around 2 to 4 pounds. Though some 20 pounders have been caught, the 'tog' is slow growing, usually maturing around 3 to 4 years with the oldest recorded fish being around 35 years of age. They do not really migrate and usually are found in inter-coastal waters less than 60 feet deep. Tautog usually feed during the daylight hours and take cover at night, usually wedging themselves between rocks where they will lie as quiet as a mummy until morning.
Other names for tautog include blackfish, white chin, and poor man's lobster. This last moniker is given due to the sweet tasting flesh of the fish. Tautogs feed mostly on mussels, it is their food of choice. Really who can blame them, I love the bi-valves for their sweet flavor. It is this distinctive sweet flavor that in turn gives tautog it's great tasting meat. The texture of tautog is firm, dense, and has a great meatiness to it.
Tautog might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you are shopping for dinner, but it should start to enter your weekly rotation of proteins. It is simple to cook, usually pan saute works best, and it is really great in stews and chowders during the cold weather months. Don't be turned off by the gruesome looks, tautog is as tasty as it is ugly. Picking up tautog at the market could be as exciting as picking out your Halloween costume; both look like Wes Craven designs, while one looks great on you, the other looks great on your dinner plate.