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Jigging for Golden Tilefish

Golden tilefish are a statewide fishery, and there's much to learn

Jigging for Golden Tilefish

Danny Hoek with a good-size golden tilefish in South Florida, they run larger off Mid Atlantic and New England states.

Back in our May issue we ran a picture of Rick DePaiva holding up a nice golden tilefish, in a story about slowpitch jigging.

DePaiva is a longtime contributor of photos to Florida Sportsman, and soon after that magazine went to press, he offered to follow up with specific tips on jigging for tilefish. He stopped by my office and we talked at great length about this fishery.

It’s a hidden gem, for sure.

golden tilefish tail close up
Golden tilefish on ice, great eating. Bag limit in Atlantic waters is one per person.

For a little background, golden tilefish are unusual fish. They are bottom-feeders in serious ocean depths of 600 to 1,000 feet and deeper. Mainly they’re caught by anglers using electric reels and multihook bottom rigs anchored by five to ten pounds of lead. But as DePaiva has found, it’s also possible to catch them on jigging tackle. Not just possible, but in fact productive and enjoyable.

In appearance, golden tilefish are somewhat eel-like. They live in burrows which they dig into the mud. Golden tiles aren’t related to much else in Florida waters—except other kinds of tilefish, such as the blueline. There are few others in the family, most of them quite small.

Goldens can reach weights upwards of 60 pounds. They grow slowly and live a long time, potentially 40 years or more. Such can spell trouble for some deepwater fishes gifted with delicious white fillets, but fortunately tilefish spawn early and often. Some of Florida’s other hundred-fathom favorites, warsaw grouper and speckled hind, for instance, are in trouble due to overfishing.

double golden tilefish
DePaiva holds up a pal’s catch, with his own.

DePaiva primarily fishes out of St. Lucie Inlet, on Florida’s southeast coast. That’s a good place for a small-boat owner to fish for tiles, as appropriate depths are within 15 miles of shore. But tilefish may be caught out of any port along the Florida coasts, both Gulf and Atlantic.

I’ve known DePaiva for many years, back when he lived in Fort Myers and was a fly fishing guide (he’s also a corporate pilot). Moving to the east coast, he rigged up a single-engine 227 Dusky and started dialing in the local fisheries. Golden tilefish quickly became a favorite. “I did my homework, and I began fishing basically every day I wasn’t flying,” he said. “I love this fishery!”

glow in the dark tilefish jigs
Glow-in-the-dark finish on the jig (this one with twin sets of assist hooks) is essential, says DePaiva.

JW: So, tell me what you’re looking for out there. This isn’t like snapper and grouper fishing on the wrecks.

RD: It’s all about studying bathymetric charts and software on your GPS chartplotter. What you’re looking for, basically, starts in 700 feet. You are looking for mud—and there are a few ways to find it. One, notice where the contour lines are farther apart—the farther they are, generally the softer the bottom. Also, some cartographic sources will have the letter “M” for mud or “SH,” for shale, or “S” for Sand. You’re looking for M or S. On some third-party software, such as C-Mor, you may actually see divots in the seafloor—almost like a moonscape, or pimples you might see on someone’s face. That’s where the fish hide. Another tip: When you’re out there, rig up a 5-pound weight, with no hooks or possibly at the end of a fishing rig, and drop it to the bottom. Lock up the reel and let the boat drift… if the weight seems to stick, stick, stick—the rod bending over, then straightening, then bending, bending, straightening… that’s mud. That’s what I’d call the Mark Twain way!

Notice the contour lines. The farther apart they are, generally the softer the bottom. You are looking for mud or sand.

JW: Tell me about your sonar. What’s your setup?

RD: I have a Simrad NSS Evo3S, and for tilefishing I’m using a 1 kW medium CHIRP transducer, which reads fish to about 1,500 feet of water. My transducer is mounted thru-hull. I also have a high CHIRP transducer, which is good for pelagic species. My Simrad lets me choose different color palettes: I’ll choose yellow-red-blue for bottom colors, where yellow indicates the hardest bottom, red fifty-fifty, and blue the soft bottom. In golden tilefish areas, my sonar will then show primarily reds and blues, very little yellow. On hard bottom, corals, for example—I’ll see a solid thick yellow. Also, I’ll zoom in 6 to 8 times to get an exploded view of the bottom. I have a 12-inch screen, but a 16-inch would be even better.

tilefish sonar
Craters visible in sonar overlay of chart (left panel) are likely holding tilefish.

JW: What are the ideal conditions out there?

RD: Along Southeast Florida, 10 to 15 knots of north winds, with clear skies. The sunlight helps charge up the UV jigs; the north wind helps slow the drift from south to north. One of the most important things to do is to determine your drift, and it will likely be different with a sea anchor versus without. A general rule of thumb, out beyond  700 feet, if the drift is beyond about 2.5 knots, it’s a no-go for me. Too much current. I’ll go in shallower for other species.

JW: Tell me about the tackle you’re using.

fast sink tilefish jigs
Getting at those deep fish requires fast-sinking jigs of 500 to 600 grams —yep, that’s over a pound.

RD: The jigs are minimum of 500 grams. Five hundred to 600, and the more glow the better. No light, no bite, I’ve found. The style you want is the torpedo or knifeshaped jig, one that cuts through the water and sinks fast. The line I use, a happy medium if you will, is 15-pound-test braid. And from what I’ve found testing on the water and on a machine, Berkley Invisibraid Ultracast X8 is the strongest and thinnest braid I’ve found. With the strong Gulf Stream current, you need thin line. Over on the Gulf Coast, you can go to 30-pound. The reel I like is a Shimano Ocean Jigger 4000, and it comes in two flavors—a high speed and a low speed/torque model. I like the low gear model for deepwater stuff— when you’re bringing up these big jigs to drop, or bringing in a big fish, the low speed will have you sweating less. For rods, I use the Tokayo Hearty Rise rod in Power 2 and Power 3 sizes. You can buy them from Ocean Devil or Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply, and they’re labeled for lure weights in grams, not ounces. The key is a rod with excellent recoil—a rod that springs and lets the jig flutter down and do its magic.

deep water glow jigs
The more glow, the better.

JW: How about your connections?

RD: Make sure you use a quality ball-bearing swivel. There are several reasons. One, line twist can become a problem. Two, the swivel provides a little better action to the jig. Also—and although this is minimal—the swivel gives a little bit of insurance between the leader and jig. Another little thing is that swivel adds a little sound. The line is tied to the swivel, and the hooks are fitted to the split ring. I use the Tsunami 132- and 88-pound test swivels. For split rings, I use the Spro size 5 90-pound and size 6 150-pound models.

JW: So you’ve found good-looking bottom, you’re rigged up. What’s the approach?

RD: The goal is to get the jig down ASAP. You’re going to have a certain window on the drift, and after a time, scope becomes an issue, and you’ll have to bring up and re-drop. You want to be able to move the jig properly—if your line scopes up toward the bow or transom, after about the 45- or 50-degree mark you’re only moving the slack in the line, not the jig. A good analogy is think of a puppeteer: Standing right over the puppet, he can move it properly, but if he’s off to the side, no. So knowing that, I think you need a sea anchor for this fishing, to slow your drift. I use a 12-foot Para-Tech, made in Colorado. It acts like a parachute, and slows the boat so you get more vertical time. The attachment point will depend on how many anglers are fishing. On my boat, with the sea anchor attached at the bow, we can fish two anglers. Any more, I deploy it from a midship cleat, so we drift beam-to, so lines don’t tangle. For fishing purposes you don’t need more than 50 feet of rode, the attachment line, but in emergencies—which is where sea anchors were developed—the rode should be much longer. On my Simrad I’ll change the orientation heading so that it’s north up, on the chart. What I like to do is get ahead of the spot and stop, then watch the chart—it will  tell me if I gave a north, south or east drift. Let’s say we have a northwest drift, with winds from the southeast—which is pretty common in southeast Florida. I’ll set up the boat so that it drifts from the southeast part of the bottom I plan to fish.

JW: Tell me how you work the jig.

sea anchor drift
Sea anchor helps slow the drift and orient the vessel for optimal deployment of jigs (may depend on how many anglers are fishing).

RD: Once the sea anchor is deployed, and it’s grabbed, only then should you drop the jig. Make a gentle cast toward the direction you’re drifting, to give the jig a head start on going down, and feather the spool so it doesn’t backlash. Once you hit bottom, engage the reel, then point the rodtip down and then up to the sky, letting the recoil in the rod lift the jig, then follow down with the rodtip and make a quarter- to halfturn with the reel, rodtip to the water, then a brisk but methodical lift, or pitch. Repeat till you’re 5 or 10 feet off the bottom, then drop back again. I suspect the golden tilefish doesn’t like to move far—normally I don’t work the jig much more than 10 feet off the bottom; better is like within the first 5 feet. And you want it to move slow, squid-like.

JW: What about the bite, and the fight?

RD: When the fish bites, you’ll know it, even in 700 feet of water. The key is to reel down fast and set the hook, to minimize slack. And they’ll fight you the whole way up. In a “non shark area,” steady and slow wins the fight. In sharky areas, you have to ask yourselves—what do you want to do? Gamble or gamble?

The reason for the multiple hooks is not to catch more than one fish at a time, but rather, the hope is the secondary hook sinks into the fish during the fight, reducing the pressure on the first point of hookup. Most slow-pitch jigs come with two hooks, one at top, one at bottom. Gamakatsu has a single hook now they recommend for these jigs, which is nice because there’s less drag going down.

JW: What’s your take on table quality?

RD: Grilled or cooked on a skillet, if you were blindfolded you’d have a hard time telling if it might not be lobster or grouper. By the way, after dinner, I’ll spend at least 45 minutes poring over my charts—I have software from C-Map, C-Mor and Navionics, all three—looking for new areas. Another tip: Once you hook a fish, be sure to mark the spot with the GPS, and real importantly, after you’ve dealt with the fish, remember to return to the spot and label what was there—so you don’t end up with a bunch of random numbers. These are drifts of one to three miles I’m making out there, and once you find the right topography, you want to return.

big golden tilefish
Atlantic golden tilefish of any size can be kept but blueline tilefish are closed until May 1, so make sure you know how to identify your tiles.


No minimum size


State and federal waters: Bag 1 per person, counts toward the 3-fish grouper/ tilefish aggregate*


State: 100 lbs. or 2 per person, whichever is greater. Counts toward 20 reef fish aggregate in federal waters. Descending devices mandatoryin Atlantic reef fisheries such as tilefish (and soon to be so, Gulfside). They come in many forms; DePaiva has used the Seaqualizer—he favors the simple model which consists of a weighted pin (about 3 pounds for 10 pounds of fish, recommended). Another Seaqualizer operates like a-gripper, grasping the jaw of a catch you plan to release; the device automatically releases the jaws at a pre-set depth. *Blueline tilefish, related, counts in same aggregate. FS

Florida Sportsman Magazine August/September 2021


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