By Capt. Brett Holden
Deep dropping for tilefish and grouper is becoming more and more popular by the day here in the Gulf of Mexico. I began fishing for these deep-water critters in the mid-1980s, and the sport has grown into a daily routine for many Gulf anglers.
Faster boats with longer range have now made fish like warsaw grouper, snowy grouper, yellowedge grouper, longtail sea bass, barrelfish, tilefish and others easier targets for many Texas sport fishing vessels. These deep drop techniques will help you find these fish in 400–1,300 feet of water.
Species of the Deep
Warsaw, yellowedge and longtail sea bass are commonly found around mountain tops, hard spots and deep water oil rigs in the 400–900 foot range. Warsaw grouper, on average, run anywhere from 40–100 pounds. But over the years I’ve seen several fish up to 250 pounds and a couple in the 300-pound range. Regulations have changed and now only one warsaw per-vessel is allowed.
Yellowedge grouper are delicious and average 8–18 pounds, with a few 20–30 pounders still caught fairly regularly. The largest one we ever caught was around 50 pounds.
Longtail sea bass are another fish that seem to inhabit the same area. They are good eating but hold a little stronger taste than the deep-water grouper. Once again, these fish are mostly found in the 400–900 foot range.
Barrelfish and tilefish run a little deeper on average. For big barrelfish, you want to fish down current from the edges and walls of deep water mountain tops. The edges will have well-defined drops and barrelfish can stack up very thick at the top and bottom of this structure. They’re usually found a bit higher off the sea floor and mark well on a good bottom machine. These fish are most often found between depths of 850–1,200 feet.
Many times the deeper you drop for barrels, the bigger the fish tend to be. Last year we found a pile of barrels at 900 feet that ran 3–8 pounds. We moved off that ridge and found another school in 1,170-to-1,225 feet of water. All of the barrels off that ridge were running 12–18 pounds on average. These fish are a blast; they fight all the way to the surface, unlike many deep water species that tend to “blow up” as they near the surface. The barrels fight hard and really put a bend in the rod.
Tilefishing is a fast growing sport and produces exceptional table fare. Not long ago, tilefish were pretty much unheard of as a rod and reel fish. I caught my first one in the mid-1980s and have been targeting them every since. This fishery was kept very quiet for a long time and was a pretty big secret. Back in the 1990s, there were no limits on tiles, and that is what we filled our freezers with. But still to this day, they are a fish you can actually go target and pick up a few meals.
We have bigger tilefish here in the Gulf than most people would think. Just a few years ago, the record tilefish was only around four pounds. But I have caught uncountable tilefish running 25–35 pounds
and several that have been 35–45 pounds, including a couple near 50 pounds. Now that eyes are opening to the new daytime swordfishing industry here on the Texas coast, more and more tilefish are being boated.
Tilefish are probably the easiest of all the deep water fish you can target. The golden tilefish is most commonly found in the 900–1,250 foot range. Smaller tiles, averaging 2–10 pounds, can be targeted on the continental shelf wall without any special areas or specific “numbers.” Muddy areas anywhere from 900–1,000 feet of open water will hold tilefish.
Finding better average sized fish will take a little more work. Tilefish will typically get bigger off the shelf, or in valleys against the shelf. Drop on the down current side of small dips and slopes in 1,000–1,250 feet of water. Tilefish tend to feed right on the bottom, so try to stop your bait and hold the boat on an area as tight as possible.
However, slow drifting will also produce tilefish and is great for covering ground. Drag the bait against the bottom, stopping often, and then continuing the drift to explore new areas.
Finding bigger tilefish is another story altogether. I have learned a lot over the past few years about these large fish. The biggest ones will hold against ridges at 1,200 feet and are bold enough to follow baits headed for deep water. Drop your bait near the edge of a ridge that looks over 1,500–1,600 feet of water and be ready. The biggest tiles, those from 35–50 pounds, seem to live alone. I have caught most of these big fish away from the schools and many times, several feet off the bottom feeding in schools of squid or dragonfish. The big tilefish really don’t seem to like a lot of leader in their face. Single rigs with the weight above the bait seem to work best. A whole squid, about 14-inches-long, works very well. Use a large hook and bait to avoid the smaller fish when targeting big tiles.
I seem to catch lots of big tiles early in the year, April through May, and sometimes in as shallow as 850–1,000 feet. I’m not sure if it was due to spawning or what, but I’ve caught several in the 30–45 pound class during these months.
Beware of spiny, toothy and venomous critters that you might pull up from the deep. Spiny dogfish are small, deep water sharks that have spikes near the dorsal fins that can cause a painful sting. The spines on scorpionfish can also sting if you’re not careful. But these bright orange fish are pretty good to eat.
Once the sun goes down the tilefish stop biting and the eels take over in force. Conger eels have nice white meat but lots of bones. Banded shrimp eels and moray eels have mouths full of big teeth so watch out.
Hake, a small brown fish averaging 1–3 pounds, also bite at night and can be a nuisance. They will eat pretty much anything. Their meat is good and tasty but very soft. I use hake filets to replace crab meat in gumbo.
The tilefish don’t bite at night but grouper will if you’re in an area free of eels. Snowy and yellowedge grouper will take baits and warsaw will feed as high as 400 feet off the bottom in 900 feet of water.
For years I never used any kind of light or strobe to catch tilefish and did okay. But over the past 10 years or so, I’ve started rigging them up and I think it does work better. I also found that rigging the light further from the bait will produce bigger fish. If we are targeting BIG tiles I will rig the weight and light 15 to 20 feet above the bait. Big tilefish will eat regular double and triple bait rigs, but once again, you’ll do better on a clean single rig. The standard double and triple bait drops work well for yellowedge grouper and smaller tilefish.
Your size of leader and weight will all depend on how much current you are fighting. The bite and fishing will be best when using less weight and smaller line. Thinner line means less bow in the line and that makes it easier to see bites. On the Booby Trap, we use Diamond braid made by Diamond Products. I like the orange 80 pound braid because it is easy to see.
With a light current and this braid, 3 pounds is a good weight to start with on your standard double bait leaders. I use cannon ball style weights because they don’t get hung up as easy on rough, rocky bottoms. If the current is strong then move up in weight size to 4 to 5 pounds. If it really cranking move up to 7 pound window weights or lead stick weights.
Some of these deep water fish have sharp teeth, so heavy mono leaders are a necessity. Yellowedge, longtail sea bass and other smaller grouper are not so bad but tilefish, eels and small sharks have sharp teeth. The grouper will wear through light leaders eventually and the tiles will bite clean through them. I use 300 pound LP or Momoi mono leader for our deep drops.
Use caribbean swivels to help keep the twist out of the leader and line. Most bottom fish will go into a spin on the way up.
Heavy duty circle hooks, from 8/0 to 16/0, work best for deep dropping. Tilefish and grouper have no problem snagging themselves on a circle hook and I would say it definitely helps keep the fish on when cranking them up from the deep. A sharp hook is also important. It’s a long way up and down, so a needle sharp edge is very important.
Be sure to take plenty of extra tackle when deep dropping. It is a long ride to the deep water fishing grounds and you might lose tackle to rocks and snags. Also, carry an extra spool or two of braided line. One break off at 1,000 feet can end the day if you are without replacement line.
When it comes to reels, the Lindgren Pitman S-1200 electric reel is the reel of choice on the Booby Trap. The LP is a deep dropping fishing machine that also has the strength and drag system to handle big warsaw grouper and swordfish. You can also hand crank tilefish and grouper on conventional tackle but it is a long way up and down.
The Reel Crankie is a must have, great product that can assist in getting your rig up from the bottom fast. It’s not made for fighting fish but for retrieving your heavy weight and empty hooks when you don’t catch a fish. It does a great job of winding up all the line, instead of you wearing out your arm on empty hooks. The Reel Crankie fits on a cordless drill and clamps onto several different makes of conventional reel.
You can also deep drop with two lines but it can be tricky fishing and requires some boat handling. The more bow in the lines you have, the more likely you are to tangle your expensive gear.
Over stuffing your hook with bait can result in fewer hookups. It is more important to get less bait nicely hooked rather than too much bait, which will result in missed fish. Avoid hard, bony, bulky baits that can push a fish off the hook. Softer baits like fish fillets and squid will result in better hook ups. Larger squid are usually tougher and stay on the hook better than the small ones. I like to take a 12–16 inch squid and cut chunks for tilefish. Squid wings work well too but not as a whole squid or chunks.
Preparing Your Catch
Gut your grouper and tilefish ASAP for better table fare. These fish eat lots of shellfish, which can result in some nasty strong tastes in the meat if not taken care of properly.
Wash down your fish after gutting them and keep on ice. Try and keep cooler drained at all times so the fish don’t soak in water.
Go Get Them
Now you’re ready to go out and find your own tilefish and grouper. The entire continental shelf from Texas to Louisiana holds great bottom structure, supporting tons of deep water species.
Some fish stay directly on top of structure, some live on the walls, slopes and drop offs and some species are found on flat bottoms. Don’t forget to mark your hook ups on your GPS and keep a track record of your best catches. This is the best way to build and notice patterns on the different fish.
It is a fun way to spend the day with miles and miles of perfect habitat for multiple types of great eating fish. You never know what you will come up with and that alone makes deep dropping fun in itself.
Brett Holden is the captain of the Booby Trap, which holds the record for largest swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico. Holden is a pioneer in daytime swordfishing along the Texas coast; he holds numerous billfishing records and shares his deep drop techniques every year at the Texas Swordfish Seminar.