With shallow-water grouper harvest season closed until May 1, South Florida anglers have been venturing out to the deep blue this winter seeking alternative dinner options — golden and blueline tilefish.
Both are found in waters as deep as 700 feet, but bluelines — also called grays — favor rocky bottom and artificial reefs while goldens — considered tastier — are creatures of the mud.
Captain Bouncer Smith, who runs the light-tackle charterboat Bouncer’s Dusky 33 out of Miami Beach Marina, has been fishing for tilefish and other denizens of the deep for decades. He jokes that years of abusing crew members and customers have taught him where to locate tiles.
“They are all along the Continental Shelf, from Florida all the way up to New York from 580 — the shallowest — to 720,” Smith said. “If you drop to 900, all you catch are black-bellied rosefish.”
He said tilefish can be caught in southeast Florida’s offshore waters year-round, but he believes winter is most productive. It also coincides with the South Atlantic shallow-water grouper closure, which runs from Jan. 1 through April 30. The only drawback to winter deep-dropping is the typically rougher sea conditions.
On a recent blustery weekday morning with 15-knot northerly winds and 4-to-6-foot seas, Smith and mate Abie Raymond guided TV fishing show host George Poveromo, captain Harry Vernon of Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply, Carl Grassi and me to catch our limit of four golden tiles up to about 15 pounds, plus one good-sized black-belly. By law, there is no minimum size for tilefish, and captains and crews of charterboats do not count in the bag limit.
Bouncer’s Dusky easily rode the chop southeast of Government Cut to a depth of about 660 feet to begin the first drift over a mud bottom targeting goldens. While Raymond baited heavy conventional outfits with cut squares of bonito and kingfish, Smith bumped the boat in and out of gear to compensate for wind and current.
Someone asked Smith how to decide where to stop.
“There’s nothing to look for,” Smith replied. “You try 650; if you don’t get a bite, try 680 and if you don’t get a bite, try 700, and if you don’t get a bite, go back to 650.”
Two Penn International reels were loaded with 80-pound braid connected to a 5/0 three-way swivel. Tied to the swivel were a 2-pound weight and a 10-foot section of 60-pound monofilament leader. One outfit had three glow beads above the hook; the other had a small light. Hooks were 9/0 VMC circle hooks.
Smith said he prefers braided line because monofilament stretches, requiring a lot more lead to get to the bottom. Many anglers say it’s easier to feel a strike using the non-stretch line.
The four of us anglers took turns at the two rods, lowering our baits to the bottom and keeping alert for an out-of-cadence bounce of the rod tip or the feel of a tug telegraphed up hundreds of feet of braid.
Vernon felt his fish — “thump, thump, thump, like you were pinfishing,” he said — and began to crank the reel. It took several minutes for the glint of a golden tile to become visible beneath the surface, and Raymond gaffed it — about an 8-pounder.
Bouncer’s Dusky continued its southerly drift for a little while longer with no more strikes, so the captain motored back north, redeploying the two lines slightly deeper in about 680 feet of water.
This time, Grassi’s was the lucky rod with a golden of around 15 pounds. I caught a nice-sized black-bellied rosefish.
On the next two drifts, Poveromo and I each caught a golden about the same hefty size as Grassi’s. The bites were evenly divided between the rigs with lights and those with glow beads. The tilefish favored the bonito chunks while the rosefish ate a piece of mackerel.
Smith said he has never caught tiles while deep-jigging, but has heard of some anglers being successful by bumping a heavy vertical jig along the bottom.
Whew. Talk about new frontiers in aerobic exercise. Conventional hand-cranking is laborious enough, but the culinary rewards definitely make it worthwhile.
To book a deep-dropping trip on Bouncer’s Dusky 33, visit www.captbouncer.com or call 305-439-2475.