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September 21, 2007

Going Deep

A few enterprising anglers have found a bottom fishery in the canyons of the Northeast. Are you ready to head offshore in the dead of winter? Are you ready for tilefish?


Golden tilefish have large, toothy mouths, beautiful coloration and rudder-shaped appendages atop their heads.
Photo: Gary Caputi

The baited hooks were on the bottom, 600 feet below the boat, when the rod bounced once, then again. The circle hook did its job with a simple lift of the tip, and then I went to work. Cranking up that much line connected to a wildly bucking tilefish intent on getting back into its hole is akin to pulling a running jackhammer up 50 stories by a thin cord. Lift and crank, lift and crank, lift and crank. The line seems endless until finally, way down there, you catch a glimpse of a bright shape spiraling toward the surface. Reel up a few and you'll understand why most fishermen are soon begging for power tools - and we came equipped with them, too.

Captain Tim Tanghare with a toad golden tilefish.
Photo: Gary Caputi

I got my first taste of deep-drop fishing a few years back while developing a fishing tournament for a resort in the Bahamas. We would leave the dock, initially to do something sporty like troll for marlin or wahoo, but each day ended with us deep-dropping to ridiculous depths with electric reels to bring back some fish for dinner. It appears this practice has migrated north. A few enterprising Mid-Atlantic canyon fishermen are doing the same thing during their tuna trips, but targeting tilefish instead of snapper. It's challenging and enjoyable, and tiles are available year-round, even in the dead of winter, if you have the mettle to go after them.

I can hear some of you saying, "Using an electric reel is not sport fishing." But I think that figuring out these unusual fish, catching them and enjoying the fine eating they provide makes it interesting, fun and rewarding - and that's what it is about.

A Touch for Tiles
Golden tilefish, also called great northern tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps) are beautiful, in a fishy sort of way, with silvery sides flecked with gold spots and white bellies streaked with bright yellow. Their most distinguishing characteristic is an upside-down-rudder-shaped flap of skin just behind the head. They have a large, toothy mouth with serious crushing power, a necessity for subduing the bottom creatures they eat. Young tiles devour critters like brittle stars and crabs called squat lobsters, but move up to eating more fish and adult lobsters as they get bigger.

Power reels are a great option for fishing 400- to 800-foot canyon depths.
Photo: Gary Caputi

Catching tilefish is a game of yards. The key is finding them, and then dropping your baited rigs into the colony, but the technique can vary depending on the area you're fishing. Golden tilefish range from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, but the largest concentrations are found from Georges Bank to the Hudson Canyon. And while scientists aren't exactly sure why, a few surmise that the composition of the sea floor within their preferred temperature and depth ranges has a lot to do with it. Tilefish make burrows, which they carve into flat or sloping areas along the sea floor. It's tough to burrow in rocky bottom because it's too hard, and sand is too unstable. Clay is ideal and there seems to be more expansive areas of it from the Hudson Canyon running east along the shelf. As you range south from the Hudson, clay bottom becomes harder to find. While exploring the areas around the Wilmington and Baltimore Canyons with Captain Tim Tanghare on the Clean Sweep we found some interesting clues. The majority of this area seems to be sand bottom that appeared as a solid, dark-red reading on his colorscope, but we encountered a number of localized areas where slides occurred exposing softer bottom substrates. They appeared as sudden depth changes of 60 feet or more within 100 yards of where the bottom color on the scope changed from dark red to light green indicating softer composition. While you rarely mark tilefish - remember they live in burrows - most of these spots held fish and it wasn't hard to get their attention once we were able to locate them.

Tanghare says tiles are surprisingly temperature sensitive and colonies migrate from shallower to deeper areas. Even though they live at considerable depths ranging from about 400 to 800 feet, tilefish are actually warm-water dependent. There is a band of water that hugs the bottom around the canyons and remains around 50 degrees year-round, even while temperatures above it can be ten to 20 degrees colder. During an early May trip with Tanghare out of Cape May, New Jersey, we both noted how warm the fish felt when brought up from depths up to 550 feet. The surface temperature was only 51 degrees and the tilefish felt at least that warm.

New Jersey Marine Fisheries Chief Bruce Freeman explains that such temperature-caused migrations could very well take place seasonally and from year to year. Freeman took part in research during the 1980s that found the band of warm bottom water tilefish rely on tends to expand and constrict with the seasons. During the winter it contracts to a narrow band of ten miles or less in width while during the summer it widens considerably. This helps explain the movement of these fish.

Deep Dropping

Compare a gray or blueline tile (left) with a golden.
Photo: Gary Caputi

Anglers fishing for tiles obviously use bottom-fishing tackle, either conventional rods and reels or electric reels. I bring along my trusty Kristal 601 Special while Tanghare uses Electra-Mates mounted on Penn 114 Special Senators. There are certainly other choices. If you go conventional, use a large enough reel to make picking up all that line an easier chore. The line of choice is super braid because of its sensitivity. The stretch in monofilament means you can barely feel a fish hit, while braid telegraphs even the subtlest nibble to the rod like a message from Western Union. Use at least 50-pound test on conventional reels and 100 on electrics. Sinkers can vary from 24 ounces to five pounds depending on the depth and drift speed. Fishermen target tiles from a drifting boat, and a person should stay at the helm to bump the boat in and out of gear to keep it over the spot you're fishing as long as possible. The rigs consist of large circle hooks, 8/0 or better, with two to five on a line strung with dropper loops above the sinker. The jury is still out on whether deep-drop lights help or not as we got hits on rigs with and without them.

Trip Planner
CLEAN SWEEP SPORT FISHING
Cape May, New Jersey
(609) 780-2772
www.thebassbarn.com/cleansweep.htm
(Year-round charters up to six people)

JAMAICA
Brielle, New Jersey
(732) 528-5014
www.fishinnj.com
(Winter only, check schedule for dates)

VIKING FLEET
Montauk, New York
(631) 688-5700
www.vikingfleet.com
(June, September and October combination tuna and tilefish trips)

Tilefish have a varied diet so the baits you use should vary, too. We fished a mix of surf clams, mackerel fillets, squid and even chunks of freshly caught bluefish. That's right, we actually caught a bluefish on the bottom in 500 feet of water and when we chunked it up for bait the tilefish hit it. They respond equally well to crabs, herring and other baits. You could even try shrimp and lobster, but not if I'm on board. I'd rather eat it.

When you locate a colony, chances are you will catch the largest fish first since they are the most aggressive. On the 125-foot Jamaica out of Brielle, New Jersey, last January, I caught a dozen tilefish weighing three to 12 pounds with my electric outfit on a stand-up butt and shoulder harness. During the last trip on the Clean Sweep we really started figuring out the right places to fish and five anglers, including Paul Brady, the former world-record holder, caught about 50 tilefish, but not all were goldens. Normally associated with more southerly waters off North Carolina and into the Wilmington-Baltimore Canyon area, gray or blueline tilefish (Caulolatilus microps), comprised half of the fish we caught. Bluelines don't grow as large as goldens, and we caught one that weighed 15 pounds, five ounces. That fish would have broken the current world record of ten pounds, nine ounces if it hadn't hit one of the electric reels. Electric-reel catches do not qualify for IGFA records.

Now here's the really great news about tilefish: They are a culinary delight. Few fish compare with the flavor and lobster-like consistency.

Challenging sport, great fun and fine eating, tiles are a target that has all the ingredients for top-rated fishing on the bottom.

For the Record
SWS Offshore Editor Gary Caputi caught this state-record golden tilefish while doing research for this article. The 55-pounder was caught aboard Bob Ransom's Ugly Mug out of Cape May, New Jersey, in 600 feet of water on a light stand-up outfit. While the fish is the New Jersey record, it stood as a potential world record until angler Mark Kaminski took a 56.5-pounder in Montauk, New York, just one week later.
- The Editors