The heavy sash weight finally hit bottom after what seemed like an eternity of anticipation. Within 30 seconds we had a solid tap and soon the heavy-duty bent-butt was doubled over under the pressure of a dramatic deep dweller. The unknown adversary made a strong initial run, ripping off drag from the featherweight Daiwa TB-1000 with little hesitation. The run suddenly ended and even with two football fields of braid between the rod tip and our fish, we knew the powerful predator made its way back to its rocky lair. We quickly headed up-current and managed to work the determined fish out of its jagged home. After a few minutes of retrieval we saw color materialize from the cobalt depths.
There’s something special about the deep, dark depths of the sloping continental shelf that keep wide-eyed anglers coming back for more. Maybe it’s the fantastic edibility of exotic coldwater dwellers, or the fact that every drop you make you never know for sure what’s going to tug on the end of your line. It could be a trophy golden tilefish, or an odd creature that you have no idea how to describe, better yet identify. Another intriguing aspect of plying the ultra-deep submerged trenches, valleys and canyons off the coast of Florida is that these venues are open year-round. When you find your typical endeavors just aren’t producing, head offshore and try your luck in the benthic zone where only the strong survive. It’s a fish eat fish world out there, and this fish is hungry!
Often referred to as rosies or scorpion grouper, blackbelly rosefish are tasty, structure oriented demersals that have a perch-like appearance with pale red/orange markings and noticeable dark attributes along their lateral line. Blackbelly rosefish are specialized hunters that thrive in the deepest and darkest depths of the aphotic zone. They get their name from the jet-black stomach lining which helps to conceal their most recently devoured prey, so they, too, don’t become an easy meal. In certain areas off the coast of Florida, rosies are rather plentiful and once you find one, you’ve found the motherload! Start your search near canyons, trenches, and other bathymetric features that direct current and forage in the direction of hungry rosies. While rosefish are generally encountered in the one to two-pound class, they offer excellent table fare with extremely tender and flaky white meat. Be extra cautious when handling rosies, as they have needle sharp spines lining their gill plates and dorsal/ventral fins.
Golden tilefish are arguably Florida’s most highly-prized deep dweller. Residing in self-made mud borrows and rocky caves at the base of deepwater reefs and rockpiles, golden tilefish are aggressive hunters that are equipped with large eyes and beak-like teeth. In the barren stretches of the seafloor, most hunters will pounce on any opportunity to feed and as a result, golden tilefish have a varied diet and regularly dine on squid, shrimp, sea anemones and mollusks. While cleaning large individuals anglers have found spiny dogfish, eels and even juvenile golden tiles in their bellies. When targeting golden tilefish north current is important, but anything over 2-knots will make for challenging conditions. In the deep dark depths scent is essential to your success, and big baits often entice the largest fish.
Often referred to as gray tilefish, blueline tilefish are the smaller siblings of golden tilefish and can be found in large numbers around the entire coast, but as with all deep-drop success you must be in the right spot at the right time to reap the rewards. Like most other deep dwellers blueline tilefish are opportunistic feeders and closely relate to the various crabs, shrimp and finfish that reside in and around the seafloor’s substrate. Both blueline and golden tilefish are long-lived, slow growing demersals that relate to rough habitat with steep slopes of clay, mud and sand. Due to the limited habitat of tilefish, and their unique burrowing activities, both golden and blueline are susceptible to overfishing from commercial interests.
If you’re unfamiliar with longnose lancetfish, join the club. These large prehistoric predators are from the genus Alepisaurus, which roughly translates to scalesss lizard. These vicious looking predators are truly modern dinosaurs, as they are the only living genus in the family Alepisauridae. Lancetfish spend most of their time in the deeper depths of the water column and their large mouths equipped with extremely sharp fangs indicate their aggressive nature. Easily distinguished by their unique look, lancetfish have an iridescent green and bronze hue with a slight silver tone. Known to be opportunistic ambush predators, much of their diet consists of crustaceans, cephalopods and small baitfish. One unique feature of the lancetfish is the absence of a swim bladder. Good luck spotting this toothy predator on your depth finder! Little is known about these frightening deep dwellers other than the fact that they resemble the mutated offspring of a houndfish and malnourished spindlebeak. These predators are indeed rare and while you may never get the opportunity to see one in person, if you put in your dues you never know what you may drag to the surface.
Over the past few years, southern hake have been encountered with greater frequency along the east coast of Florida. These game fish are known to move up the water column to feed at night, while primarily residing along the bottom during daylight hours. Hake prefer sandy and muddy substrate similar to tilefish and are often encountered in the same general areas. Some attribute the introduction of this species to coldwater upwellings, while others claim their recently increased frequency is due to seasonal changes in water temperature. Whatever the case, avid deep-droppers can’t seem to get enough.
You’ve probably heard anglers talk about barrelfish, but little is known about these unique game fish other than the fact that they’re often encountered by angler’s daytiming for broadbill swordfish. According to anglers’ catch data, barrelfish live off the bottom of the seafloor, and juveniles can be found near the surface around floating debris such as weedlines, wood pallets and, of course, barrels, hence the name. A member of the butterfish family, barrelfish are found around the entire coast of Florida and make for excellent table fare.
If you think deep-dropping with technologically advanced electric reels is no more than recreational commercial fishing, you are completely mistaken. While it may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, there’s actually a lot of skill involved in procuring a solid catch. The only job your electric outfit will perform is winding. You must decide where to drop, when to drop, and if that subtle nibble is worth brining up your rig. It takes a sensitive touch and acquired feel to understand what’s going on 1,000 or more feet below.
When scouting the depths for tasty table fare many anglers routinely employ commercial-grade electric outfits. Lindgren-Pitman’s LPS-1200, Daiwa’s MP-3000 and Kristal Fishing’s 651 are the most commonly used setups when plying the ultra deep depths, but don’t discount manufacturers such as Dolphin Electreel, Fish-NG, Technotren or Elec-Tra-Mate for performance and reliability. Despite these powerful workhorses, many anglers choose to manually drop from depths up to 700-feet. This task is certainly doable, however, if you think you can manually drop the entire day without superhuman strength or stamina, you’re not going to fool anyone. Daiwa’s Tanacom Bull is the reigning lightweight champ with an appetite for heavyweight aggressors. Equipped with a power-assist level wind feature, you can check your baits with ease and if you so choose, manually crank when you hook up.
A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
For the most part, the ocean floor is a desolate stretch of barren life. In order to be successful in this endeavor you must find an oceanic oasis. Start your search by studying a nautical chart and locating depths with radical variations in bottom contour. A quality nautical chart will list the locations of major wrecks and sunken obstructions, but it’s important to understand that charts don’t show each and every bottom feature. You’ll need to scout out spots with your sounder to mark fish and learn the ledges and drop-offs. When trolling offshore keep a keen eye on your sounder and make a mental note of distinct bottom features. When you find an area with potential, mark the GPS coordinates for further exploration. Now you can setup a drift to see how the wind and tide will affect your movement. Proven numbers are highly guarded secrets, and you probably have a better chance of sleeping with your neighbor’s wife then getting access to his black book of proven deep-drop numbers.