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August 16, 2010

Dig Deep for Big Tilefish

Stow the electrics and try hands-on cranking for some down-and-dirty sport

Imagine yourself on the observation deck of the Empire State Building overlooking New York City. On a clear day, you can see more than 80 miles, while the cars and taxis below appear no larger than small insects.

Now imagine yourself holding a rod and reel, dropping a rig into that traffic stream water-bugging its way across Manhattan. That's essentially what tilefish anglers do in the Hudson Canyon, southeast of New York City - almost within sight on a clear day. But out there, the "observation deck" floats as your rig drags along a soft clay bottom about a thousand feet below. Sound interesting? Just ask the handful of intrepid anglers who venture into the northern Atlantic to target tilefish in the depths.

Tile What?
Biologists didn't even know that tilefish existed until 1879 when a cod boat pulled up a northern tile from 900 feet of water near the Nantucket Shoals Lightship off Massachusetts. A two-year study by the United States Fish Commission following the capture determined that tilefish were abundant enough to support a new fishery.

Just as quickly, that northern tilefish population nearly disappeared when an estimated 1.5 billion dead tiles floated to the surface north of Delaware Bay in 1882, according to an 1898 fish commission bulletin. Scientists soon learned that tilefish exist within a very specific habitat, thriving along the upper part of the continental slope and on the outer edge of the shelf in depths between 400 and 1,200 feet and temperatures from the mid-40s to the mid-50s. Some scientists believe that their habitat was flooded with colder water in 1882, resulting in their near extermination. No one caught a tilefish again until 1892.

Finding the Tiles
Great northern tilefish (also known as golden tilefish) most commonly range from the Middle Atlantic Bight, which encompasses waters from Georges Bank to just south of the Hudson Canyon, as well as in parts of the Wilmington and Baltimore canyons. Farther south, anglers may also encounter them in addition to smaller blueline and blackline tiles. Rolling plumes of warm water from the Gulf Stream maintain a consistent temperature for tilefish, and deep-dropping for them has bailed out many unsuccessful tuna and swordfish trips.

Tiles live mainly in burrows they construct in the silty clay surface of the continental slope. The pitch of the slope here is very gradual, rarely exceeding a 5-degree grade. In these areas, tilefish make networks of burrows and generally stay close to or within these "pueblo" complexes. Many people believe that tilefish colonies sculpted the hummocky ridges along the sides of the Hudson Canyon over many generations.

Tilefish differ from other structure-seeking fish such as blackfish in that they enter their narrow burrows headfirst and are only able to exit tail first. Since tilefish can't feed from cover and do forage for food outside their burrows, you don't need to anchor.

 Map courtesy Nautical Solutions.

 Place  Latitude  Longitude  Depth
 Bacardi  39º52'520"  72º38'700"  180'
 Carolina  38º56'740"  73º05'420"  250'
 Northern Pacific  38º38'344"  74º23'891"  145'
 Texas Tower #4  39º47'809"  72º40'240"  185'

On some fish finders, a clay bottom shows up as a different color at certain settings. At the very least, look for lumps and irregularities along the continental slope. A quality fish finder in super-zoom mode would work great for pinpointing these indigenous tilefish areas, but working the bathymetric bands right above the edge even without sophisticated sonar can be very productive as well. Stay in 400 to 600 feet of water as a good starting point. When the sinker finally hits soft bottom, you're in tilefish country! Fish on days with minimal wind and current, and avoid new- or full-moon phases.

Capt. Jeff Gutman runs his 85-foot Gulf Craft Voyager out of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, and consistently puts his clients into big tiles. He considers drift speed the most important element in this fishery, postponing his trips when the forecast calls for winds exceeding 20 knots.

"Drift speed is important for two reasons," Gutman says. "First of all, you want to be drifting at a speed that allows the fish to catch up to the bait as opposed to having your bait fly past them before they can home in on it. Secondly, drifting too fast requires a lot of lead to stay on the bottom, as well as a great deal of scope in the line. Both of these factors make feeling the bites more difficult, and if nothing else, make fishing less enjoyable."

When Gutman is in an area with tight concentrations of tiles, he likes a drift speed of half a mile per hour or less. When fishing an area where tiles seem to be more scattered, the captain prefers to drift slightly faster. He notes, "When we drift at less than half a mile per hour, we don't cover enough ground to get to the next fish. On the other hand, when we drift at 1 mph or faster, we need a lot of weight and get fewer bites."

Getting the Lead Out
In deep water, tilefishing with conventional equipment is not for the faint of heart, as both angler and gear need to be up to this fishing's rigorous demands. Commercial fishermen have reported catching tiles in the 80-pound class, but tilefish generally run about 5 to 25 pounds. (Dennis Muhlenforth of Hockessin, Delaware, caught a 63-pound, 8-ounce behemoth golden tile on conventional rod and reel last August, posting the new IGFA all-tackle world record.)

Just reeling up your rig for a bait check or to position for a new drift can get the heart pumping, let alone hooking into a huge fish, so it's important to have proper equipment. Use a reel with a high retrieve ratio, a large spool or both to gain more line with each crank. Shimano Torsa and Tiagra reels do an excellent job of this. For the angler on a budget, the Newell S454-5, Okuma Titus T-20 and Penn 320 GTi are all very capable reels when spooled with preferred line - braid in the 65-pound-test range. To optimize performance, spool up slightly beyond normal capacity. A reel filled to the max will retrieve the most line per turn.

Many line choices work well for tilefishing - as long as they're braid! While the debate over monofilament and braided line will continue for many other fishing applications, braid for tiles is essential. Even in depths of more than 1,000 feet, braided line has the sensitivity to detect bites.

Of equal importance is the narrow diameter of braided line. The wider monofilament line offers more surface area to the current. The deeper you drop, the more the currents affect the line, creating more slack and reducing your ability to feel a fish. Ultimately, with mono you need more weight to hold bottom and more line to get it there. Braided line keeps line scope to a minimum and allows you to fish with less weight - both virtues when it comes to tilefishing.

As for rod choice, a typical cod stick with a lot of backbone does the trick. You want a 6- to 7½-foot rod rated for 50-pound-test. Most importantly, your equipment should be comfortable: You might have six to 10 hookups over the course of the day. That means you'd be pulling on fish for more than a mile. The handgrips both above and below your reel should be to your liking, and if you use a gimbal belt, fish with a rod made for that.