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May 07, 2013

South Florida Tilefishing

This emerging fishery in South Florida promises a little adventure and a great dinner.

[Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.]

Deep Rewards: The waters off Miami, Florida, have a vast network of natural and artificial reefs, one of the best in the world. These reefs attract bait and predator species, providing excellent bottomfishing, which attracts pelagics as well. But a little farther offshore lies a fishery that only a select few, knowledgeable captains take advantage of: the tilefish fishery. Tilefish typically make their homes in 600 feet of water or more. This highly productive fishery is just another in a long list of outstanding opportunities found right in the shadow of one of America’s largest urban areas, only minutes from downtown Miami. And of all the skippers who can find them, no one knows Miami bottomfishing better than Capt. Bouncer Smith.

Something ate the finely tailored, 2-by-2-inch chunk of bonito on the soft bottom 690 feet below, pulling Sue Cocking’s rod tip seaward. On Capt. Bouncer Smith’s advice, Cocking left the rod in its gunwale holder, and hand-cranked the line. The rest of us offered encouragement.

In what seemed like an eternity, but was closer to 10 minutes, a beautiful golden tilefish popped to the surface. That fish, added to the one each Carl Grassi, Harry Vernon III and I caught, made our limit. We headed back to Miami Beach Marina, after a trip barely more than two hours long. The South Beach tilefish bite can be that good.

Southern Range

Smith has been perfecting the know-how and tactics to capitalize on yet another species for South Florida ­anglers: golden tilefish. And Smith, naturally, is ­promoting the sporting aspect of it: read “no electric reels!” This is ­down-and-dirty, hand-crank fishing. But, the reward is outstanding table fare, a fish that many believe tastes a hint like lobster.

Catching golden tilefish off South Florida appears to be a year-round deal, but Smith says winter through spring seems best. “Any time we want to catch a tilefish, we do, regardless of the month,” he says.“We’re fairly new to this right now, so we’re still learning as we go, but we’re proving them to be willing strikers of vertical jigs, except when they’re not biting well. When that’s the case, we get them on chunks of bonito and king mackerel, and also ballyhoo plugs and squid, though ballyhoo and squid don’t stay on the hook as well as bonito and kingfish.”

Compared with the monster golden tilefish caught off the mid-Atlantic and Northeast coasts, those off South Florida are small. Down there, they’ll average around 10 pounds, with a few in the mid-teens. Smith’s largest weigh up to 16 pounds. He reasons the fish there are at their southernmost range, and the Continental Shelf is narrow compared with its vastness off the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. In the limited bottom real estate in South Florida, there is less habitat to support large populations and heftier specimens.

Hello Mud

Smith says success is less about specific spots and more about covering the right type of bottom. He looks for soft bottom between 580 and 720 feet of water, and drifts through these zones. He acknowledges that some rather large goldens come off Fort Lauderdale in depths ­approaching 900 feet.

Golden tiles are burrowers, residing in holes in soft bottom with their heads peering out. When food sweeps past their holes, they ambush it. Best conditions include a 2-knot current, which enables baits to soak longer along specific pieces of bottom. And, of course, if you hook up, save those coordinates. Smith plots zones where he has done well on his chart recorder, and often sets up drifts through these areas. “Recently, I caught two big goldens within 100 yards of each other on spots that had produced before,” he says. “But covering ground is a must for locating productive bottom. I’ll start in 650 feet, and if none bite, move to 680 feet, and then keep going a bit deeper, or shallower, until we get bit. Not long ago, we had a good bite in 640 feet of water that lasted nearly a month.”