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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

tilefish rigIt is worth noting that responsible anglers keep conservation in mind while tilefishing. Presently, mid-Atlantic anglers may keep eight tilefish per person per day. In the Southeast - from North Carolina through eastern Florida - anglers may take only one golden tile per day, three tilefish total within the grouper aggregate bag limit. (Fishing for blueline and golden tiles is prohibited within eight deepwater marine-protected areas along the Southeast coast.) Fisheries managers haven't set a minimum size; such a limit would be folly since tiles can't survive a return to their deep haunts once they've been reeled to the surface.

Let common sense prevail. If you get into a mad-dog bite, don't catch every tile in the area. Catch a few, and then switch to hunting other species. Some offshore options in tile country include targeting the tuna migration, if you time it right, or hitting one of the countless wrecks that hold jumbo sea bass, cod, pollock and wreckfish.

The rigging options are countless, but the process is a simple one. As with other types of bottomfishing, you can run the gamut as to how much you want to accessorize your rigs. A high-low type of rig gives you peace of mind in knowing that a second bait waits for a bite if you miss the first one. Anything more than a two-hook system is likely to court disaster because your rig can become entangled either with itself or someone else's during its long passes through the water column.

Capt. Fred Gamboa runs his Andreas' Toy, a 31-foot Contender, out of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, to the edge for jumbo tilefish whenever weather permits. He likes to keep his rigs fairly simple. "I tie double-hook rigs with 5/0 circle hooks topped with B-2 squid glow bodies. And I always use three-way swivels over dropper loops because you greatly reduce the chance of getting spun into a mess," he says. "We've been working several areas that hold huge tilefish, and you can't use anything more than a two-hook rig if you want [a trophy catch] to be considered for an IGFA record."

A crimper comes in handy when making your own rigs because you want to use at least 50-pound mono. Since you won't be releasing fish, you can use either circle or J hooks, ranging in size from 4/0 to 10/0. Add beads, spinners or teasers to your liking, although the naked rig seems to produce well on its own. Whole squid sets the standard for bait. For extra enticement, tip the hook with strips of tuna belly, bluefish or mackerel.

The best-case scenario for weight is when 20 ounces will hold bottom, but be prepared to drop as much as 80 if conditions dictate. Homemade sinkers are a common sight on tile trips, along with window-sash weights, downrigger balls and multiple bank sinkers.

Tile Tactics
If you want to cook, you've got to be in the kitchen! Simply put, you have to make sure that your rig stays on the bottom if you want to catch tilefish. The gradual depth changes along the continental slope, plus the possibility of large networks of tilefish burrows, constantly affect bottom contours in good fishing waters. Keep in touch with the ocean floor by bouncing your weight along the bottom, and make adjustments to the amount of line you're paying out. Gamboa notes, "In the depths that tilefish are found, they rely more on motion than sight when feeding. Bouncing your sinker around their burrows creates vibrations that make them investigate what's going on."

Tilefish attack a bait like many other bottomfish in that they may hit it a few times before grabbing in earnest. Once you feel a couple of raps, point your rod down while keeping the slack out of your line. Then lift your rod tip up to set the hook. If you miss the initial hit, don't worry. Gutman advises, "Tilefish will come back after they miss a bait. Don't reel up 10 or 20 feet to make sure that the fish is not on; just let it back a few feet, and as long as you still have bait, you'll probably get another bite."

There is nothing subtle about a tilefish once you hook into one. They thrash around, and larger fish can take line after your hook-set in an effort to retreat back into their burrows, which is something you definitely want to prevent. For this reason, set the drag tight so that you can horse them out of reach from their digs. The ensuing fight can range from feeling like dead-weight retrieval to tug of war with a Rottweiler. Either way, you're going to have your work cut out for you - it's just a matter of how ragged you'll be at the end of the battle.

Deep Thoughts
When you finally get your tile near the surface, your struggle is almost over. Since tilefish habitat is one of extreme pressure - a staggering 460 pounds per square inch at 1,000 feet - these fish are ill equipped for less depth. The great pressure change they experience on their way up causes gases in their swim bladder to expand. Often, they're upside down when you first spot them.

And what a sight it is when you see a tilefish for the first time! It's hard to envision such a brilliantly colored fish existing in a near-lightless environment. Their ivory-white undersides give way to the luminescent blues, greens and yellows that flank their sides. Tilefish taste great; their white fillets cook in thick flakes and taste mildly sweet, not unlike lobster meat - a great reward after a long trip offshore.

Since so few boats target tilefish, those that do venture into the Atlantic should find excellent action. If you make the commitment to go get them, you should also make the commitment not to overfish them. Tilefish are yet to be a heavily regulated species in the mid-Atlantic, so the onus falls on fishermen to show due diligence.

That's not to say that you won't encounter a big fish. Forty- to 50-pound tiles are not uncommon. So get out there on your observation deck, high above the ocean floor, and see if you can tempt King Kong of the deep up and over the rails.

About the Author: Jim Mulvey lives in Gillette, New Jersey, and has written for a number of fishing and outdoor magazines. He can usually be found driving around in the world's largest tackle box or somewhere east of the Atlantic shoreline.

Tilefish Charters

Capt. Fred Gamboa
Andreas' Toy Charters
Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey

Capt. Jeff Gutman
Voyager Sport Fishing
Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey

Viking Fleet
Montauk, New York