Drawing of a tautog.
Drawing of a tautog.
Courtesy: Maine Department of Marine Resources

Tautog (Tautoga onitis)

Alternate common names: Blackfish, Chinner.
Color: Males and older fish are uniformly olive green, dark chocolate, or black in color with irregular mottling along the sides. Females and juveniles are paler in color with large mousy brown and grey mottling on the sides.
Size: Up to 22 inches long.
Habitat: Open water near rocky shores, pier docks, breakwaters, mussel beds; juveniles observed near eelgrass and seaweed beds, rock and cobble bottoms.
Seasonal appearance: All year, most commonly seen from April through November.


Tautogs are heavy, stout fish with broad tails and a high, arched heads. They are the northern relatives of the family of wrasses, common in tropical waters. Tautogs are related to, and often confused with, another species of wrasse known as the cunner. The tautog has a blunt snout with a small mouth, thick lips, and strong conical teeth. They have a scaleless cheek region that is smooth to the touch. Their dorsal fin extends the length of the back and has sharp spines.

Tautog become blacker in color as they grow older, and their coloring also varies depending on the local bottom habitat. The distinguishing feature of the adult male tautog is the large protruding forehead. Mature males are often referred to as "chinners" because of the white patch on the chin.

Life History and Behavior

Tautog feed entirely on invertebrates, including crabs, mussels, mollusks, sand shrimp, amphipods, and worms, using their strong back teeth to crush hard shells. These fish are not active swimmers. When not feeding, they often gather in groups under the safety of a ledge or hole in the rocks, sometimes lying on their sides. Although, tautog are active during the day, they remain close to cover. At night, they are quiet and inactive, hiding from predators. Juvenile tautog stay near the sites where they were hatched, and are frequently found on eelgrass beds where invertebrates are abundant. The adults gather around rocky bottoms, ledges, pilings, and submerged wrecks.

Fishery Note The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission manages the tautog fishery to address the conservation and management needs of coastal populations.

Special Notes

Adapted from The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay, 1998.