How to Catch Tilefish Tips

News & Tips: How to Catch Tilefish Tips
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A Texas state record, at 29 pounds, caught off Port O'Connor. Photo by Kevin Davis

After standing for more than 15 years, my golden tilefish Texas state record was beaten recently for the second time. More anglers are sampling the extreme depths where these tasty fish lurk, and advances in fishing tackle technology have certainly helped this trend. Why? Few anglers care to manually crank up a fish from 1,000 feet down, and better electric reels and deepwater lights means that almost anyone can catch something tasty down there, without wearing themselves out.  

Tilefish (both golden and blueline) are scattered in about 1,000 feet of water, just beyond the watery realm of grouper, and they stretch from Texas, around Florida and up to New Jersey and beyond. They live in big "rabbit burrows" on a sloping bottom in canyon country, where they sit in their holes and wait for something tasty to pass by. One may assume it's quite dark down there, except perhaps a dim twilight during high noon on a cloudless, calm day. That's why tilefish have such big eyes. They also prefer a narrow range of stable water temperatures within the 50-degree range.

On the day I caught the state record, we simply stopped way offshore in cobalt blue water, where the paper chart indicated the bottom contours of 100- and 200-fathoms came very close together. That meant a 600-foot slope in only a quarter or half mile. So I pitched five circle hooks overboard, weighted with an iron sash weight of about eight pounds. Down it plunged about 1/5 of a mile.

And there we sat, drifting slowly. With heavy mono line, I couldn't detect a nibble, since that line will stretch a long ways over such a distance. With old-fashioned Dacron line or the newer braid line, my rod tip that day (actually a leaf spring on a bicycle rig) would have jiggled when a fish bit. I kept letting out more line as we drifted, making sure the weight kept reaching bottom. Then it was time to reel for a while, sip something cold (Pearl pop with foam on top), then reel some more. Then the rod tip jiggled, ever so slightly. Then the rod took a small bend; something was hooked up. Far below, silvery fish twinkled. As they drew near, we could see it was a string of four tilefish, three of them four pounds each and the last one bigger. It weighed 21 pounds, and was certified as the Texas state record.

At the time, we never saw another boat out there. Few if any boat crews in the Gulf were fishing deep. Later in the 1990s we fished while tied up to the deeper fixed oil rigs where grouper dwell in 600 to 900 feet, with success, but never saw another tilefish. That's likely because tiles prefer sloping bottom, while oil and gas platforms probably need a flat spot for better stability. 

Kevin Davis in Texas reports that one of his crew was recently awarded the new state record tilefish, at 29 pounds. They were sent a certificate for their fish, and also a new "water body" record, which may mean it's the biggest tilefish formally weighed in and certified for the Gulf of Mexico. That's the theory, anyway.

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A fine 20-pound blueline tilefish caught aboard a northeast charter boat, possibly fishing Hudson Canyon. Photo by Ken Neill

"We fish different humps out there in 800 to 1,200 feet of water, beyond the East Breaks out of Port O'Connor," Davis says. "We troll for billfish all day during two-day overnighter trips, on a 29-foot Strike owned by Jon Bradford. We generally stop for lunch and drop baits deep for tilefish for maybe an hour. It's our favorite fish to eat, and sometimes we cook them on a barbecue pit on the boat. Or we take some fish home for the wives."  

"On this trip we went out to the Diana Spar platform to billfish and to catch some yellowfin tuna at night," says Davis. "On the ride back we stopped at a spot in about 1,000 feet of water. We then pulled out our electric reel and baited with a four-hook setup with cut bait and also squid, and dropped the bait down with a five-pound weight. Sometimes we catch four or five fish real quick and other times, none at all. We also catch barrelfish, bearded brutulla and yellowedge grouper. The state record tilefish was the only deepwater fish we caught on May 31 while making four separate drops."  

Most anglers will agree: if you're going to catch just one fish, it might as well be a state record.

Another deep-dropping boat crew member out of Austin says they've caught golden tilefish as shallow as 750 feet, and as deep as 1,200. The shallower range is obviously easier to fish. They prefer a four-hook bottom rig with the bigger weight at bottom, and a smaller weight just above the leader. That way, all hooks are on bottom. Tilefish are cave-dwelling bottom-huggers, and you want those baits where they can be found. 

This crew prefers squid, crabs, herring and strips of bonito or barracuda. (Tilefish certainly love squid, but I prefer fresh cut bait because I know it'll stay on the hooks after plunging deep). They also consider a drop light at the top of the leader very important. Obviously, the enormous water pressure will crush a Cyalume light stick, so you have to go with a well-built plexiglas light that clips to the leader. Deepwater fishing specialists like make these lights in a variety of colors. Just don't forget a pair of AA batteries when heading offshore. The commercial deep-droppers have a saying: No light, no bite.

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First state record tilefish in Texas caught with a bicycle or bandit rig, prior to more modern electric reels now popular with recreational anglers.

Those new to the deep-dropping game have sometimes questioned whether to anchor in these extreme depths. After all, it's bottom fishing, right? But this is strictly drift-fishing, or using the boat's engine to roughly hold the boat over a likely spot. Since a current is often running, it's best to establish which direction it's going, and drop your baits a nice 300 feet up-current of the honeyhole. But also remember that tilefish scatter out along the slopes; they're not clustered around some small hard structure like grouper and snapper. Modern bottom machines will zoom in on bottom features, making it easier to determine where and when to drop baits.

Another tip: With braid line or old-fashioned Dacron, you can feel most fish nibble. With monofilament on the reel, you won't. With mono, not even a five-fish hookup will translate into a bite from that far away. You can still catch big ones on mono, however, if no other tackle is available -- say after trolling for billfish. (In such a case, keep that bottom hook and leader rig with its heavy weight in a bucket where it won't roll around in choppy seas, and just clip it to a billfish rod when ready to use).

If you're really targeting tilefish, use an electric reel with100-pound braid line. The mono leader on bottom can be 300-pound test, and should have an 80-pound mono branch crimped to each sharp circle hook. Tilefish don't have teeth, so there's no worry there. If a shark arrives for a snack, at worse he might clip off a hook and leave with his prize.

Tilefish don't bloat up as much as a grouper, which makes pulling them to the surface a little tougher. However, one or two tiles of a decent size should neutralize a five-pound weight, during the last several hundred feet of ascent. (Keep in mind that gas doubles in size for every 33 feet it rises to the surface. A sizeable grouper from 900 feet will shoot to the surface like a buoy, compared to tilefish).

Cranking up fishless hooks is the worst part of this sport, since a heavy weight remains just that without a fish attached. For that reason, pick your spot carefully, use durable bait, braid line that telegraphs a good bite, big, sharp, circle hooks with the points exposed, and give those baits 10 or even 20 minutes of soak time, dragging along the bottom, before retrieving.

You'll likely crank up one of the finest-eating fish that swims, with lumpy white meat that tastes like lobster.

Joe Richard manages the photo web site, a collection of 3,500 images of mostly saltwater fish species and fishing.