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Targeting Golden Tilefish

Unusual critters, these golden tilefish. But prized nonetheless.

Author holds up a tilefish caught off St. Lucie Inlet.

The fish was gone. What was left was more than a football field's length of slack line. Captain Jay Cohen called down from the bridge, “We're not near any structure; you shouldn't have been cut off.” Well, what started as a nice tip dance on the stout boat rod, was now a fishless rod, with limp line—or was it?

Just when I started to feel some resistance again, not the heavy feel of lifting a golden tilefish from 300 feet down, I saw a massive fish clear the surface 100 feet behind the boat. I wish I could say I instantly put all of the pieces together, but by the time the fish jumped the second time my brain was working: Swordfish, and I'm attached to it.

By the third jump everyone on board was high-fiving and doing the “I can't believe it's a swordfish” dance. As line peeled off the reel, reality began to sink in, and it wasn't pretty. We weren't rigged to catch this fish. We had 20-pound braid, a 4/0 Penn Elec-Tra-Mate reel and were fishing with a chicken rig. A chicken rig! Four hooks held together by three feet of 80-pound monofilament leader.

This had to be my ultimate incidental catch of all time, hoping for a 10-pound fish and hooking into a billfish ten times that size.

No joke: 100-pound swordfish hooked on 4/0 Penn Elec-Tra-Mate and 20-pound braid.

But, when you're fishing on the edge of the Gulf Stream, in 400 to 600 feet of water, the unexpected turns into the expected. From dolphin to mako sharks, from swords to blue marlin: Expect it.

Jay Cohen runs the Spellbound out of Haulover Marina, in North Miami. He is one of the relative few charter captains who target golden tilefish. “I love fishing for them,” he said. “They're less than four miles from the inlet, they're dependable, people enjoy catching them and they taste great. What's not to love?”

Golden tilefish have been a very popular species in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states for years, but due to the distance to the fishing grounds, in most cases over 90 miles, they've been primarily a commercial or overnight partyboat fishery. But in South Florida you can reach the ideal depth, 500 to 600 feet, and needed conditions, soft-sediment mud bottom, less than five miles from shore.

So why aren't more people in Florida targeting golden tilefish? The answer, I'm finding out, is they are, but the guys that are, aren't talking much.

“It used to be you had to use heavy commercial-type electric gear to catch fish in 600 feet of water,” said Cohen. “Not many people had the gear, or thought it too unsporting to do so. But, now with the thin-diameter braid, you can use light, handheld tackle, with some people using hand-crank reels. The lightweight electric reel with braided line is to the golden tile fishery as the 20-pound spinning reel was to sailfishing 30 years ago.”


Jay says off Miami there's about a half-mile wide section of bottom where he catches golden tiles. “This is pretty much the only area you're going to find them off our coast, because you need soft bottom,” he explained. Golden tilefish live in colonies of burrows, holes they dig themselves, to provide protection from swordfish and other predators. They'll even try to make it back to their burrow if you're not ready to reel on the strike. With the smaller fish, you might be tempted to wait a second or two after the first strike, hoping for a second fish, but with a big strike you'll want to reel right away.

It appears that the same zone Jay's fishing off Miami, Mark Sodderholm, who led me to my first tile off Stuart, is fishing east of Jupiter. There's a narrow area of soft-mud bottom, right before the continental shelf drops off, which tilefish burrow in. Off Miami it's four miles from the coast; off of Fort Pierce its 15, but it's essentially the same stretch of bottom.

The key is finding the zone. In order to do this you need to be able to see the difference in the bottom density. On your depth finder, the soft mud bottom shows as a thin bottom line where the harder denser bottom shows as a thicker bottom line and/or tails below the bottom line. Sodderholm mentioned that if you can find a bathometric chart and locate an area in 500 to 700 feet where the contour lines are far apart, indicating a flat area, that's a good place to start looking.

Once you start fishing, even in 600 feet, if you're in the zone, and the current isn't too strong, you should be able to feel your weight—the round downrigger ball-type weights works best—get stuck in the mud. I was skeptical of this until I was doing it. You really can feel the weight release from the suction of the mud. When you feel this, you know you're in the zone.

While fishing with Jay, he showed us another fish we could target in that depth range, the black barrel rosefish. It doesn't get anywhere near as large as the golden tile but they seem to be everywhere. Jay said, “You can catch these pretty much wherever you're catching dolphin; just drop a squid-tipped chicken rig down. The interesting thing here is, these fish will be on hard bottom; if you're catching rosefish you won't be catching golden tiles.” That's another good way of locating the golden tile zone.

With more and more reports of golden tile catches in recent years, it's clear that the evolving deep-drop fishery has opened the door to recreational anglers' enjoyment of this great resource. I contacted one of our Florida Sportsman Forum reporters, Nick Yahn of the Stuart area, and asked him about one of his catches.

“I've been doing this for more than 10 years,” he said. “My day doesn't start out as a tile trip exactly, but an offshore trip. The areas I'm tilefishing are the same areas I target dolphin, tuna and wahoo. I'll start by going to Push Button Hill and drop the south edge; there I'll catch snowy grouper, beeliners and speckled hind. At the same time I'm usually chumming for surface activity. My next stop is southeast in about 700 feet of water; there I'm targeting tilefish, but on my last trip out there I had a 20-pound dolphin swim right up to the boat and the time before that we caught over 20 blackfin tuna—while we were catching tiles.”

Nick fishes two rods, Daiwa's Dendoh Tanacom Bull electric reel, with 120-pound braid. Since he also fishes for snapper and grouper (which may soon be closed, see sidebar) he upgraded from 80-pound braid to 120 to lessen the likelihood of a cutoff. For rigging Nick likes to buy pre-rigged tackle versus rigging his own, stating that buying ready-made rigs from companies like Jonah Tackle are cheaper than doing it yourself.

Pre-rigged terminal setups catch tilefish, too.

Captain Cohen, who'll make trips strictly targeting tilefish, uses a 4/0 Penn Elec-Tra-Mate reel spooled with 20-pound braid, and makes his own rigs which consist of a tandem dropper loop rig made from 80-pound-test mono leader. Each dropper carries a glow bead, followed by a 180-pound barrel swivel connected to a 9/0 3407 Mustad J-hook, which is connected to a second J-hook via a second barrel swivel. Jay opens up the eye of each hook to attach the swivels. For bait Jay likes to use squid, but also says fresh 6- to 8-inch strips of barracuda work great.

The day I fished with Jay we experimented with various line strengths and diameters, using a Penn GT320 line counter reel, to see if using lines of smaller diameter made a difference. The 20-pound Diamond Braid line, with the diameter of 4-pound mono, got down with less weight, and faster, than the 80-pound braid with heavier weight.

Since this trip, Jay's gone exclusively to fishing 20-pound braid, and says it's opened up a whole new fishery for him.

“Before when I fished for tiles we pretty much fished the electrics in a rod holder, but with the lighter line and lighter weights now I have my angler hand holding the electric reel like they're grouper fishing. They pump the rod, just like conventional bottom fishing, but instead of winding they're hitting a button. It's been fantastic.”

With Jay we had very little current, less than two knots, so we were able to stay right on the bottom with two pounds of weight. On a trip off of Stuart, I had eight pounds of weight and couldn't reach the bottom due to the 5 knots of current. I added seven more pounds, for a total of 15, and with the boat in full reverse I still couldn't get my speed over ground to less than 1.5 knots. I was slow trolling for tiles with my boat in full reverse.

We still caught a tile on the three drifts we made. When Jay told me about how aggressively they feed, it made sense. If you get a bait down there, you're most likely going to catch one, he said, adding that, “in the low light, scent and sound make a difference. I like to use fresh bait, and to attract them I bounce my weight on the bottom of the mud.”

Giant golden tilefish, 49.15 pounds, from 1,150 feet off Long Key. Miami anglers Anthony Alfonso (holding fish) and Salvador Ruiz winched up the catch while fishing for swordfish with 120-pound braid and electric reel.

Dave Arbeitman, owner of the Reel Seat in Brielle, New Jersey, recently weighed in a 63.8-pound all-tackle world record tile. The International Game Fish Association certified the catch, as it was landed on manual-crank tackle, using a rig that conforms to IGFA tackle restrictions. He likes to add a little light to his rig, using a small Esca light with his tandem squid rig along with a strip of bluefish, skipjack or a piece of squid. Golden tilefish have been a longtime favorite of offshore partyboat anglers in the Northeast. Today Dave says at least 30 percent of his offshore customers are targeting golden tiles.

After seeing Miamian Anthony Alfonso's catch of a 50-pounder, in 1,150 feet off Long Key this summer, I think more and more of Florida's offshore anglers will be dropping down for golden tilefish as well.

Oh, and about that swordfish…

Life History and Habitat

What kind of self-respecting fish lives half of its life with its head, and body, hid away in mud? The golden tilefish, thank you. Not much is known about the golden tilefish due to its digs, or burrows, being in 500 feet of water or deeper. One thing that is known: They taste great.

The golden tilefish became a commercially targeted species in the Northeast during the decline of codfish stocks in the early 1980s. And as happens with a switch in targeted commercial fisheries, it didn't take long to see a similar decrease in golden tiles going from 3,200 metric tons in 1987 to 450 metric tons in 1989. The relatively slow growing, and long-lived fish, with a maximum age and length for females of 46 years and 43 inches seems very susceptible to overfishing by longlines.

Marcel Rechert, a National Marine Fisheries Services lead biologist on golden tilefish, said a stock assessment is due in 2011. Among documented behavior, golden tiles feed only during the daylight hours, and most heavily between 10 a.m and 3 p.m. and within 10 feet of the bottom. The main food items are crabs and lobster-like crustations. And large tilefish eat more finfish and will even eat small tilefish given the chance. Their burrows are conical and seem to range in depth from three feet to seven feet deep. Top diameter ranges from just large enough for entry by one fish, to three to ten feet in diameter. The fish seem strongly attached to their burrows.

Five other smaller species of tilefish occur in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

It seems that wherever you have the right conditions, from Texas to the Florida Keys and north to New York, if you find soft mud bottom, in 500 to 1,200 feet, you're going to find golden tilefish.

First Published Florida Sportsman December 2010

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