Of the deep-water species in the snapper/grouper complex, golden tilefish are by far the most prized and perhaps the most glamorous of all. They don’t fight the hardest and they certainly aren’t the most abundant, but they are extremely challenging to catch and provide incredible table fare with firm white flesh rivaling cold water lobster.
Making a strong comeback after decades of commercial exploitation, these colorful deep-water predators thrive along the upper continental slope paralleling the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast, so they are readily available for anglers around the entire state of Florida. Just know you’ll have to be willing to burn substantial fuel and put in the time to learn the ways of these prestigious game fish.
…golden tilefish feed primarily during daylight hours, with 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the most likely time to entice these denizens of the deep.
Golden tilefish are solitary predators inhabiting extreme bottom depths ranging from 700 feet to well over 1,000 feet where they reside in conical shaped burrows along soft, muddy terrains. However, they concentrate in small groups along prime stretches of bottom, so where you find one there will likely be more. To narrow down the search for likely stretches of water where golden tilefish reside, study local nautical and fishing charts and look for flat plateaus adjacent to the sloping continental shelf. These mucky stretches of bottom terrain may be less than 10 miles off the beach for those calling Miami home, or more than 100 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, you can beg local charter boat captains and fellow fishermen for their proven GPS coordinates, but productive golden tilefish numbers are usually highly guarded secrets that are rarely revealed.
In any case, stay away from sharp bottom contours associated with exposed structure, like deep-water rocks, reefs, sharp ledges, wrecks and towering pinnacles. These areas of prolific structure are typically loaded with an abundance of aggressive blackbelly rosefish, which make tempting golden tilefish nearly impossible.
Unlike prized billfish, male golden tilefish are generally larger than females and can tip the scales to 50 pounds or more, with average fish around 20 pounds. Slow growing predators, golden tilefish feed primarily during daylight hours, with 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the most likely time to entice these denizens of the deep. Even though only a minimal amount of light penetrates so far below, clear skies will also stack the odds in your favor. While golden tilefish are opportunistic feeders that rarely pass up an easy meal, they primarily feed on crabs, squid, shrimp, clams, snails, octopus, worms and even sea cucumbers. With that being said, they will attack finfish and even juvenile tilefish given the chance.
Modern tilefishing has changed dramatically from years past when heavy-duty electric outfits and 10- to 15-lb. sash weights were the tools of the trade, much like today’s daytime swordfishery. More recently though, ultra thin braided fishing lines and lightweight power-assist reels like the Daiwa Tanacom or Seaborg series are providing deep-water anglers with powerful handheld tools in their quest for highly prized deep dwelling species. Of course, manual gear is also a viable option. A stout, 8 foot boat rod coupled with a high capacity conventional reel loaded with 50 lb. braid is an ideal weapon when digging for gold.
Because you are fishing such extreme depths, drifting is obviously the only option and enables anglers to cover plenty of ground in their search for productive tilefish territory. Goldens are not migratory predators and do not venture too far from the security of their lairs. It is believed they are actually quite attached to their burrows and may reside in the same general vicinity for extended periods of time, so be sure to record GPS coordinates for every strike. Bait of choice for tempting these bigheaded sea creatures is whole squid, with clams and meaty strip baits coming in at a close second.
The idea is to drag your rig across the bottom while constantly staying in touch with the seafloor. Thanks to braided fishing line’s ultra sensitive characteristics, aggressive strikes from hungry goldens are easy to detect—even at extreme depths. Once you feel that distinct knock, drop back for a few moments to allow the fish ample time to fully consume the bait. At this point, all you have to do is lock up and slowly reel tight. If lady luck is on your side, the circle-hook will have done its job and successfully impaled the fish in the corner of the mouth. It is now time to slowly coerce the yellow dotted villain off the bottom and up through hundreds of feet of seawater. This, too, is finesse fishing and even though these fish have tough rubbery lips and rarely come unglued, success comes to anglers who know exactly when to give and when to take.
Fishing for golden tilefish is not a release fishery, since this deep-water resident will inflate from the pressure change and break the surface dead or nearly close to it. According to current FWC rules and regulations, anglers are only permitted to harvest a single golden tilefish per day, so after you boat a trophy allow your fellow anglers a chance to capture their prize as well. Tight lines!