In Florida and The Bahamas, widespread anglers are fortunate to have a massive variety of offshore game fish roaming the region’s diverse deep-water venues. From the very surface where pelagic predators feed with fervor to the dark depths where demersal species reign supreme, there’s no telling what any given blue water adventure might produce. Although it’s just one of many potential approaches in your collective arsenal, deep dropping is certainly a skill to understand and implement regularly. However, specific tactics should vary depending on target species and venue, among other factors. Within the diverse collection of deep drop targets patrolling the seafloor, the golden tilefsh is somewhat of an anomaly with regard to the techniques required to be successful. However, the quest for gold is often as rewarding as it is challenging.
Beloved by almost all who taste their extraordinary fillets, golden tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps), also known as great northern tilefish, are some of the most peculiar and intriguing demersal predators of the deep. These fish are present in offshore waters along the entire Atlantic coast of the state as well as in the Gulf of Mexico, with a presence further north along the rest of the Eastern Seaboard as well. While their range is certainly expansive and anglers throughout the state have access to trophy goldens from almost every port of call, reaching these fish is not always easy to do. Unlike the various deep-water snapper and grouper species that occupy areas of rocky, irregular bottom with rapid and significant changes in contour, golden tilefish associate with entirely different terrain. Rather than staging amid structure where most demersal predators wait for ideal opportunities to consume unsuspecting prey, golden tiles prefer large stretches of flat, muddy bottom where they remain for the entirety of their lives. Golden tiles create burrows in the silt-clay substrate comprising the seafloor in many areas, where they spend the vast majority of their lives, leaving largely only to feed and spawn.
It’s certainly not impossible for these fish to coexist with other demersal predators where the different forms of habitat meet, but a golden tilefish by-catch is unlikely when targeting grouper and snapper. Since they don’t undergo any sort of migrations, goldens are realistic year-round targets for anglers, but annual closed seasons are in place and it’s best to avoid targeting these fish when harvest is prohibited. Because these fish live in such deep water, they won’t survive a release due to the extensive barotrauma they experience when brought to the surface. When the season is open, these delicacies yield the best results when thrown into an icy brine immediately upon capture.
Winning tactics can vary from one region to the next and finding the right depth range can be tricky. These fish can tolerate a wide range of depths from roughly 250 to 1,500 feet of water. Therefore, it can be difficult to pinpoint a hot bite in a particular region. For example, in southeast Florida, most golden tilefish catches occur in 500 to 800 feet, but in the far reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, anglers are often forced to fish deeper water, over 1,000 feet in many cases, to find success.
Regardless of where you decide to target these fish, it’s vital that you keep your baits within very close proximity of the bottom. Unlike certain snapper and grouper species willing to venture higher up in the water column to chase down an easy meal, golden tilefish will quickly dart out of their burrows only a short distance to feed. Anglers fishing traditional multi-hook deep drop rigs are better off allowing their offerings to lay flat on the bottom rather than keeping a vertical presentation.
Proper rigging in this pursuit is absolutely vital, and there are a few different methods anglers trust to achieve consistent success. Keep in mind that while many of the tilefish harvested in Florida fall into the 25- to 30-inch range, these fish possess an impressive growth potential and can reach well over 40 inches in length, exceeding the 50-pound mark. Therefore, this is by no means a light tackle fishery and many anglers opt for electric deep drop outfits due to the need for heavy weights, deep water and swift currents. Our preferred set-up consists of Daiwa’s (daiwa.com) Seaborg 750 mounted to a 6’6” Florida Sport Fishing Technique Specifi c Snapper/ Tilefi sh 30-60 lb. deep drop rod (fsfgear. com). We like to load our reels with 40 lb. Diamond Braid (diamondfishing.com), while our rigs consist of 150 lb. Momoi Hi-Catch Xtra-Hard monofilament leader and VMC (rapala.com/vmc) 9/0 #7385 hooks. However, there are certainly more budget-friendly electric reel options available, and you might have your own preferences regarding hook size and leader material. To refine your approach, nothing beats experience on the water.
“You can certainly purchase pre-made rigs and they’ll catch fish, but many tackle manufacturers add bulky hardware and unnecessary glow beads to these presentations that could ultimately hinder their effectiveness,” Captain Mike Genoun says. “I find better results making my own rigs consisting of just two or three hooks, slim swivel sleeves to attach branch lines and small crimps for secure connections to the main line and weight.” This type of minimalist rig is not only stealthier, therefore producing more bites, but also creates less drag when ascending and descending throughout the water column.
Almost as important as your tackle and rigging is bait. Golden tilefish are opportunistic feeders that won’t hesitate to inhale a variety of small finfish, crustaceans, mollusks and more. Whole squid is likely the most universal deep drop bait, considering its effectiveness across a wide variety of venues and species as well as its availability at most bait and tackle shops, but it’s not always the most productive offering. Again, different anglers have different preferences, and this definitely pertains to bait selection as well. Some swear by fresh-cut false albacore, while others have success with small butterflied baitfish.
“Here in our region, specifically out of our home port of Hillsboro Inlet, we take a different approach to targeting golden tilefish with regard to bait. Due to the abundance of blackbelly rosefish in nearby venues, we start by catching a few, keeping the larger ones to eat and filleting the smaller ones for bait,” Captain Mike explains. “Rosies certainly possess excellent table fare of their own, but, when you’re fishing for goldens, they are far more valuable on your hook than in your fishbox.”
Anglers fishing the Sunshine State’s southeast region are fortunate in that they have deep water just a few miles offshore where they can fish for tilefish from smaller, single-outboard center consoles with relative ease, but Floridians elsewhere aren’t so lucky. In the Gulf of Mexico, accessing deep water requires long runs offshore, therefore requiring vessels with longer range than the typical open-fisherman so common throughout statewide coastal communities. From any Gulf Coast port of call, reaching productive golden tilefish grounds is a significant undertaking, but one that is worthwhile. These fish inhabit areas in 500 feet of water or even shallower, but many elite Blackbelly rosefish are great eating, but it pays to sacrifice a few fillets for golden tilefish bait. captains and crews focus their efforts on deeper water in the 900- to 1,200- foot range. While anglers fishing from Florida’s Atlantic coast must deal with the swift Gulf Stream current, those plying Gulf of Mexico waters experience much more manageable currents, allowing them to deep drop effectively at such depths.
Further south in the Florida Keys, deep dropping is also a popular pursuit, thanks to the acres of productive bottom situated near the historic island chain. However, snowy grouper, queen snapper and barrelfish are the top targets occupying the unique seafloor within the region. Anglers can also encounter consistent golden tilefish action in the Keys, particularly near Marathon and the Middle Keys. However, like anywhere else you choose to target these fish, it’s important to stay away from the jagged bottom that attracts most of the other popular deep-water targets in the area and focus on the soft terrain that tilefish associate with. Here, anglers can encounter a steady tilefish bite in as little as 400 to 500 feet, though it’s in your best interest to explore a range of depths out to over 1,000 feet, understanding that the fl at contour and muddy bottom are the most important factors.
Regardless of region, proper preparation entails a diligent review of charts and maps detailing the bottom contour of the area you intend on fishing. “When I’m targeting golden tilefish, I look at the contour lines on the chart and I want to end up in an area where the contour lines on the chart are spread wide apart,” Captain Mike says. “Contour lines that are close to each other indicate a steep slope of the seafloor, whereas contour lines that are spread apart indicate fl at bott om below that is often ideal for golden tiles.” While many modern manufacturers of marine electronics provide reliable sonars and charts, we rely on Furuno NavNet TZtouch2 displays (furunousa.com) to find productive areas.
Unique in their appearance, behavior and table fare, golden tilefish are targets that might seem outside the realm of possibility for many Sunshine State anglers. However, the reality is that with the right tackle and preparation, seasoned pros and weekend warriors alike can find these incredible deep-water predators if they’re willing to put the work in. It may not be easy, but once you put a few trophy golden tilefish on ice and enjoy their delicious lobster-like fillets, you’ll be hooked.