Tog and sea bass sampling Part II

January 11, 2019

At 0600 on Jan. 4, I met up with Scott Newlin from the Fish and Wildlife Division of DNREC at the Indian River Marina, where we boarded Wes Townsend’s boat Paca along with Wes’s mate, Rob Neall, and Michael Jordan, who works for DNREC Fish and Wildlife interviewing anglers at the dock as part of the survey used to manage various fish stocks. This trip had been scheduled for a week or more, but the weather did not cooperate until Friday. What else is new?

Wes is a commercial fisherman who sets pots for sea bass, tog and lobster, and is also under contract as part of Scott’s project to sample and tag tog and sea bass. This is a multi-state endeavor funded by a federal grant to gather data that otherwise is not available from trawl surveys that cannot sample the structure where tog and sea bass live.

The Paca cruses at 14 knots, so we arrived at Reef Site 13 or Del-Jersey-Land around 0800. As soon as Wes came alongside the first flag marking a string of pots, Rob and he began a work routine that they have perfected over the years. Wes grabs the line, takes a wrap around the pulley and engages the hydraulic puller.  The first thing up is a square, solid concrete block that is slid down the gunnel to the stern. Next up is the first pot and it contains the biggest eels I have even seen. They are 3 to 5 feet long and as big around as my leg. These are American conger eels, and Wes says they show up when the sea bass leave.

Everything in the pot is emptied into a contraption with rollers separated to allow short sea bass to pass through while keeper-sized fish remain on top. The conger eels, Jonah and rock crabs, lobster, sea bass and tog remain in the box. Well, that is not exactly true. The big eels escape and squirm all over the deck leaving trails of slime wherever they go.

Scott and Rob do most of the emptying of the pots, while Michael tries to corral the eels and get them back overboard. Yours truly remains out of the way in the doorway to the cabin trying to take photos.

Once all the pots in that set are pulled and the various species are placed in different boxes or baskets, Scott and Michael begin measuring and tagging the tog and sea bass. Since I still had plenty of tags left over from this past summer, I was allowed to tag a few fish as well.

There were four or five sets at the Del-Jersey-Land Reef and they all had the same variety of critters. Far more eels, crabs and lobsters than tog or sea bass. Once they were checked, the pots were reset.

We moved to Site 11 and began the same routine. This time we only had one conger eel in all the pots, very few lobsters and only one or two tog. We even had a few pots that came up empty.

After checking and resetting all these pots, we broke out the rods and reels, baited up with Jonah crabs (white leggers) and began fishing for tog. The action was just a bit slow, and while no one caught a keeper, Scott and Rob did manage to pull up a few shorts.

As part of the same study, Scott is trying to find a better way to age tog than using the otolith. It seems the otolith is extremely small in tog and very difficult to read. The first pelvic spine and the operacle in the gill plate also give the age of the fish, and they are larger and much easier to read.

He is sampling 200 tog to see if the first pelvic and the operacle give the same age as the otolith. If so, those two indicators can then be used to age the fish.

Another part of this study is monitoring the water temperature on the bottom. Scott attaches a small gauge that keeps track of the temperature to one of the pots, then downloads the results onto his computer.

I was surprised to see the very sudden drop and rise of the water temperature between Sept. 30 (75 degrees), Oct. 7 (57 degrees) and Oct. 14 (70 degrees). If you had been trying to catch sea bass or flounder at that time, I suspect you would have found them less likely to feed. The last reading on the gauge was from Dec. 30 (47 degrees). The same time period in Delaware Bay saw a gradual drop in temperature, as you would expect with gradually falling air temperatures.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age. Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast. He has been the regional editor for several publications and was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine. Eric is the author of three books: Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits. He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at