Secret Weapons of the Deep Drop
Pictured: With their blue eyes, gold-flecked scales, and fleshy adipose crest, golden tilefish are one of the most exotic-looking species in the Northeast.
Half the fun of sending a baited rig 500 feet to the bottom is never knowing what’s going to find it. Off the continental shelf of the Northeast, more than a dozen species might take that bait, with most being delicious, some being large, and all being beautiful and bizarre. They are wildly different from the species encountered in the shallow water closer to shore.
Most anglers head out on “deep-drop trips” with sights set on the golden tilefish. Once called the “great northern tilefish” (before being subject to the same type of seafood-rebranding campaign responsible for renaming goosefish as monkfish), golden tiles live in deep waters of the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. They can grow to 50-plus pounds and have a delicate, sweet meat reminiscent of crab in both taste and texture. They live in depths from 400 to 1,200 feet over a variety of bottom structures from rocks and boulders to soft bottoms, where they create burrows as their homes. With food relatively scarce at those depths, tilefish eat whatever they come across, including urchins, starfish, shrimp, squid, crabs, and the occasional fish.
Golden tilefish look exotic. Their scales reflect a mix of snow white, pale blue, and yellow gold, and their large eyes have a robin’s-egg blue tint. Fleshy crests sprout atop their blocky heads, not unlike the adipose fin of a trout. They are, in my opinion, one of the most striking fish you can catch in the Northeast.
As I stood in line, waiting to hear my name for the 11 p.m. boarding call on the Voyager party boat this past April, I realized it had been four years since I’d been tilefishing. A few things had forced the suspension of the once-annual deep-drop trip with my good friend Jerry Sullivan, including the birth of my son, a global pandemic, and a road trip to Key West for some Floridian deep-dropping. In those four years, the Northeast fishing community had lost two of its most influential deep-drop fishermen: the Voyager’s former captain, Jeff Gutman, and founder of the Reel Seat tackle shop, David Arbeitman.
Together, Jeff and David helped foster a love of tilefishing in the New Jersey and greater Northeast fishing communities, Jeff by dedicating a substantial portion of his season to tilefish trips, and Dave by educating anglers on the tackle, rigs, and techniques required to successfully catch the Northeast’s deep-water species.
This trip marked the first tilefish trip of the year for the Voyager, and my first trip with Captain Denis Katliarov, Jeff Gutman’s successor. Recent reports from other headboats had mentioned fair tilefishing, with bluefin tuna making a nuisance of themselves by attacking the tilefish rigs on the way to the bottom.
A midnight departure allowed for a full night’s sleep before reaching the fishing grounds, so after some rigging and catching up with Jerry, I retired to my below-decks bunk and drifted off to the lullaby of the rumbling diesels.
Six hours later, the sound of those diesels breaking their rhythm and slowing to a halt woke me up. Jerry was already up, pulling on his bibs. We were at the rail a few minutes later, preparing for the first drop of the trip. As Jerry baited his rig with squid, I retreated to the stern where, buried at the bottom of my cooler, rested what I thought might be a secret weapon for tempting a big tilefish.
In general, deep-water fish like tilefish aren’t picky eaters. Food can be scarce in the depths, so any oily morsel is likely to get noticed. Fishermen are wise to select a bait that will stay on the hook through repeated short hits to avoid the drudgery of reeling up a baitless rig from 800 feet. The boat provided squid, cut into chunks, and the fishermen had a mix of whatever fresh fish they could acquire before the trip. In years past, when strong runs of bluefish preceded my tilefish trips, we stepped onboard with fresh bluefish strips. In their absence, many fishermen had salmon bellies, a less desirable cut of salmon available at supermarkets or fishmongers. Undesirable species that came up from the depths were also fair game, including eels and dogfish. Some fishermen even sacrificed their first blueline tilefish for the fresh strips it provided. However, I was convinced that the baitfish I’d brought would be the best of all. At the back of the Voyager, I lifted the lid of my cooler, dug through the ice, and unearthed a fresh American shad.
What a strange journey this particular shad had taken. Twenty-four hours earlier, I’d netted the big roe for Joe Cermele near Trenton on the Delaware River. The fish had entered the river sometime in late February or March after spending the last three or four years of its life filter-feeding over the Atlantic’s continental shelf. Now, on April 30, it was back on the ocean, ready to drop once more to the depths. First, however, I needed to turn this bony bar of silver into enticing strip baits that would flutter as the Voyager drifted.
In addition to being bony, shad also have large scales that easily slough off, and as I hacked away at the fish, those scales plastered themselves to my bibs, boots, rods, the rail, and the other anglers. While I did my best to spray away the scales with the Voyager’s raw-water hose, I made a note to remember the mess when it came time to tip the mates.
Tilefish anglers have the same proclivities for brightly colored, highly adorned rigs as fluke fishermen. Pinks, greens, and glow-in-the-darks prevail in high-low rigs fitted with soft-plastic squids, silicone skirts, beads, spin ‘n glos, and other flashy accoutrements. Fishermen look for any edge they can use to get their rig noticed in the almost totally dark depths where tilefish live.
Jerry began the trip with a beefed-up version of the popular “popcorn rig” used for fluke at Nantucket Shoals, a rig that had tempted a 43-pound golden on a previous trip. (A replica of it presides over the living room couch in his Mystic Island shore house.) I’d tied a high-low rig that used three-way swivels instead of dropper loops for the hook attachment points. Onto the hook leaders, I added glow-in-the-dark spreaders, intended to keep the line from tangling on the way down, and a large glow-in-the-dark bead ahead of my 8/0 BKK Hybrid circles.
On tilefish trips, lead measured in pounds, not ounces, is needed to get the rig to the bottom, and keep it there. Over the loudspeaker, Captain Denis suggested starting with 2 pounds, and bumping up to 3 if the drift picked up.
Almost immediately after rigs began hitting bottom, following a minutes-long descent, fishermen began swinging at fish attacking their rigs. Small blueline tilefish were the first fish to occupy coolers in the early minutes of the Voyager’s first 2022 tilefish trip.
Bluelines, named for their cyan eyeliner, do not grow as large as goldens, maxing out around 20 pounds, with any specimen over 10 pounds earning oohs and aahs from the other anglers at the rail. They also lack the adipose crest, but they are equally delicious.
Jerry and I went fishless over the first few drifts, and I began to worry about the vacancy in my cooler—and the vacancy in my chest freezer back home.
Tilefish trips are cooler-filling missions, with anglers set on returning home with some of the tastiest fillets in the Northeast. Successful catch and release is a near impossibility when fishing the depths encountered on a typical tilefish trip. The change in pressure between the bottom and the surface results in a severe case of the bends, so distended stomachs and bulging eyes indicate that for most species, the trip to the surface is one way—with one notable exception.
During the second drift, several bluefish attacked tilefish rigs 500 feet down, and all of them came up fighting, seemingly immune to barotrauma and ready to remove the finger of any fisherman careless enough to leave it within biting range. Even after three decades of catching them, the bluefish continues to amaze me.
On the fourth drift, I finally boxed a blueline tile, but Jerry had yet to break the ice. Doubt began creeping in about the effectiveness of my shad secret weapon, and as I freshened up my bait with a long, silver strip cut from the shad’s belly, I decided to make one final drift with it before switching to squid.
It’s impossible to know if it was the shad that attracted the fish on the following drift, but I’d like to think it did. I had a solid thump, which telegraphed violently to my rod tip, even through 500-plus feet of braided line. I let the rod load, then reeled quickly while lifting the rod to punch the barb of the circle hook through the fish’s jaw. This fish held fast to the bottom, shaking its head and barely giving me any line back. Before I could alert Jerry that I’d hooked a good one, I watched him set up on a big fish of his own. While mine hunkered down, Jerry’s tore line off the reel and dragged him down the rail toward the stern.
As my fish began to tire, I began cranking steadily to gain line. A good manual deep-drop reel should split the difference between high speed and low gear. Cranking power is of the utmost importance since a steady, even pressure on the fish—with no pumping of the rod—is the best way to get a fish to the boat quickly without wearing yourself out. My favorite tilefish reel is a Maxel Ocean Max 10, which I’d bought on the recommendation of David Arbeitman after my first, somewhat frustrating tilefish trip.
On that first trip, I had a high-speed reel, a 6.1:1 gear ratio, thinking that more line picked up per turn meant faster trips to the surface. While sound in theory, this failed to account for the 2 pounds of lead that the reel couldn’t lift on a straight crank, which forced me to pump and drop the rod to gain line … even when I didn’t have a fish on. Paired with an 8-foot custom tilefish rod from the Reel Seat, the OceanMax 10 has been my go-to rig on every trip since.
After several minutes of hard cranking, I saw a greyish-brown color that I initially mistook for a massive blueline tile. The fish circled briefly under the boat, and when it emerged, I could clearly make out iridescent white spots and the massive gaping maw of a snowy grouper.
Snowy grouper are common from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico but are rare on tilefish trips that leave from Northeast ports. The catch was rare enough that Captain Denis told me I’d probably never catch another. While I reveled in my catch, shouts from the stern reminded me that Jerry hadn’t yet landed his fish. Its deep color revealed a glint of gold, and the final few cranks confirmed its identity as a large golden tile, one that later weighed in at 40 pounds even.
It was an epic double-header, one that made us the favorites for taking home the pool money in both the tilefish and “edible” fish categories at the end of the trip.
The wind dropped out a few drifts later, which inspired Captain Denis to head for deeper water of 900 feet, where blackbelly rosefish and white hake joined the list of possible catches. White hake are deep-water members of the cod family and can reach weights of 40-plus pounds, but fish that size tend to be found further north in the Gulf of Maine. Most of the hake taken on tilefish trips range from 3 to 10 pounds.
Blackbelly rosefish, named for the color of the inside of their bellies, are small but tasty. They belong to the scorpionfish family, and though they put up little fight, most fishermen don’t complain about adding a brace of them to the cooler. Still, I was intrigued to see an angler especially excited about catching a very small rosefish. After briefly conspiring with the mate, he handed the fish off and began changing his rig. A few minutes later, he was dropping a “butterflied” rosefish to the bottom on a single-hook rig.
By that time, my cooler was much fuller. In addition to the snowy grouper, I had several tilefish of each variety and a growing number of rosefish. The good fishing had come in spurts, but the lack of drift brought on by the unusually calm winds had made it difficult to cover water.
It didn’t take long for the angler with the rosefish to hook up. When he did, the bend in the rod was deep enough to put beads of perspiration on Jerry’s brow as he worried his pool winnings were in jeopardy.
I’d later learn that using rosefish as bait can be the ticket to culling out a large tilefish from a group of smaller ones. Rosefish are a favorite food of super-sized golden tilefish, and butterflying one, a process that removes the backbone and tail, creates a seductive “match-the-hatch” presentation that resists spinning (and therefore tangling) while drifting. It requires an iron will on the angler’s part because fishermen all around will often be hooking up while the rosefish goes unbothered by the smaller tiles. When the payoff does come, as it did for this fisherman, it’s well worth skipping the smaller bites.
The fish weighed in the mid-30s, enough to give Jerry a good scare but not knock him out of the money. He breathed an audible sigh of relief until he saw me rummaging through my cooler and casting aside the shad for my smallest rosefish, my new secret weapon.
Butterflying is simple—it’s almost like filleting a fish in reverse. I took the knife, started at the tail, and removed the meat from the backbone on each side, being sure to leave the fillets attached to the head. I then twisted off the backbone section at the base of the skull, leaving me with a rosefish head attached to two boneless flaps.
I hooked the fish through the lips on my high-low and sent it to the bottom. It took some time to get the bite, but it did eventually come. While it was clearly my largest tilefish of the day, at about 15 pounds, it posed no threat to Jerry’s pool winnings, which was okay. By the end of the trip, my snowy grouper remained uncontested for the “edible” pool, and we both left the boat with enough money to put a deposit on next year’s tilefish trip, resuming our annual tradition and put our “secret weapons” to use once more.