by Ric Burnley
Originally published is Salt Water Sportsman magazine
59, 1 minute: I watched the seconds tick off my watch as line rolled off my reel and my bait descended to the ocean floor. “How long does it take for 24 ounces of lead and a two hook grouper rig to reach the bottom in 600 feet of water?” I wondered.
I was fishing with a boat load of my buddies somewhere on the north side of the Norfolk Canyon, fifty miles off Virginia Beach. One hundred fathoms below us lay a field of rubble on the edge of the Continental Shelf. Behind me, Ken Neill worked the throttles of his 31 foot Albemarle, Healthy Grin, so that our baits could make the descent without getting tangled. Neill had discovered this spot on a previous excursion to the deep when he quickly doubled every rod with wreckfish – an ugly cousin of the grouper. He was hoping to start this deep drop trip where he had left off on his last visit.
The seconds continued to pass, 1 minute 43, 44, 45, and line continued to disappear off my reel. My rig traveled for almost 2 minutes before finally reaching the bottom. Luckily, it didn’t take that long to get a bite. Across 200 yards of 65 pound test braided line I felt the unmistakable tug of a big fish. Too lazy to reel up just one, I waited until I felt another solid tug before lifting the rod tip and beginning the long crank it would take to bring my prize to the surface. As I cranked and cranked, I joked and carried on with my buddies – each of whom was working on his own brace of fish – our rods bobbing and jerking as these tenacious bottom dwellers fought all the way to the boat. One of my buddies, Jeff Dail, was having considerable trouble with his catch.
Dail held tight to his rod and fought hard to regain his line until the fish surfaced like Moby Dick 20 yards off the back of the boat. “That’s a huge golden tile,” Neill announced from the helm. Someone scrambled to get the net and land the giant gold and blue speckled fish – which would go on to set the first Virginia State Record for that species. On the next dozen drifts, we would go on to break the World Record for blackbellied rosefish – a bright red panfish with an ink-stained mouth – and snowy grouper. In fact, my brother, Roger, and I would break the snowy World Record three times. Roger would end the day in the lead – with a 49 pound grouper and the Record.
Ken Neill had found the honey hole – an untapped landslide on the north wall of the Norfolk Canyon where golden tilefish, snowy grouper, wreckfish, and blueline tilefish had been able to grow for a generation without ever seeing a hook. But he didn’t just stumble upon this deepwater Shangri-La by accident – this trip was the culmination of a year of careful exploration and hard fishing.
Call it beginner’s luck, but Ken Neill’s crew broke the IGFA World Record for blueline tilefish on their first attempt at deep-dropping. “We were having a tough day of sea bassing and I said, ‘Let’s go try something different,'” Neill recalls. He ran less than a mile, found a small hump on the bottom, marked some fish, made a drop, and started catching bluelines two-at-a-time. “We were wearing them out,” he says. Before the day was over, Todd Warren would wear out a 15 pound 11 ounce blueline and set a new IGFA World Record.
That record didn’t last long. A month later, Rodney King broke Warren’s record by four ounces while fishing with Captain Jim Brincefield. Brincefield was also new to the fishery, having experimented with blueline tiles after anglers on his 42 foot deadrise, Jil Carrie, would fill their sea bass limit. “I’d turn to the guys and say, ‘you want to be guinea pigs?” Brincefield remembers, “everyone looked at me like I was crazy – except for the old timers.” Commercial fishermen and local charter captains had known for years that there were blueline tilefish off Virginia. But, it wasn’t until 2005, when a slow tuna season forced the offshore charter fleet to target tilefish, that the recreational fishing community got wind of the bonanza.
As Brincefield and Neill swapped the blueline World Record, the saga played out on internet message boards and soon boatloads of weekend warriors were running offshore to get in on the boon.
Field of Tiles
It didn’t take long for Neill and Brincefield to find their first tilefish. According to Brincefield, “Tilefish are all over the place out there.” He compares them to croaker -bottom dwellers that are easy to find and easy to catch. Neither skipper has noticed a pattern to the fish’s location, though. “Numbers are no good,” Brincefield says, explaining that GPS or Loran coordinates will not point to tilefish. Instead, he runs a search pattern to locate schools of tilefish on the bottom. “I zig zag north to south along a depth contour until I mark fish on my machine,” he explains, “then I make a drop”
Neill adds that he’s caught blueline tiles as shallow as 40 fathoms and as deep as 100 fathoms, but 50 fathoms seems to be the magic number. Both skippers agree that hard bottom seems to be a common integer in the blueline equation. “If I see hard bottom on my machine,” Brincefield says, “I’ll mark it on the GPS and come back later even if I don’t mark fish.” Neill has found that any change in depth will host tiles. “Even a one fathom hump will hold them,” he says. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the fish’s distribution either, sometimes the tiles are congregated in once location and other times they’re spread out for acres. “I’ve had to hold the boat on one spot all day and other times I’ve drifted for miles,” Brincefield says.
Not only are the fish hanging all along the 50 fathom curve, but they are there all year. Neill admits that his experience is limited, “We’ve only been fishing for them for a little while,” he says, “but we’ve caught them year round.” He has noticed that the biggest tilefish are usually taken in the spring. The chronology of World Records supports this theory with most of the record breakers caught in March and April. Snowy grouper, golden tiles, and wreckfish also seem to be permanent residents of the deepwater wrecks, drops, and rock fields off Virginia. These fish don’t seem to be spread out like the blueline tiles; instead, they prefer rocky bottom and sharp depth drops. Before finding his honey hole, Neill’s crew broke the snowy grouper World Record twice in one day while fishing on the edge of a five fathom hump. “There’s something about these areas that holds the grouper and goldens,” he said, “once you find the right conditions, you can catch fish there again and again.”
Since deep drop fishing is relatively new to Virginia waters, most anglers aren’t using specialized equipment like electric reels and heavy rods. Instead, these guys are grabbing any rod that will hold enough 65 pound braid to reach the bottom in 100 fathoms of water.
My brother pulled his 49-pound grouper up with a Penn 320 GTI and a Penn Powerstick while other guys on the boat were using similar combos. However, anglers looking to target bottomfish on the edge of the Continental Shelf should choose a reel that is light and fast and a rod that is strong and sensitive. Reels that have a retrieve ratio of 6-to-1 or better are popular among deep drop anglers as are medium heavy composite rods that combine the sensitivity of graphite with the toughness of fiberglass. I fish with a Shimano Torium 16 and a medium-heavy Tallus rod. Not only does this combo have a fast retrieve but its rubber reel handle, extended foregrip, and feather weight make it comfortable to use. Cranking up fish from 300 feet of water all day long can seem a lot like work – light weight rods and high speed reels make the job easier.
Terminal tackle is equally simple. For blueline tiles, the guys use a simple two-hook bottom rig tied in 80 pound mono. For grouper and golden tiles, they employ beefier rigs with a single 9/0 hook on 150 pound mono. “We’ve definitely noticed that glow-in-the-dark stuff works,” Neill says. His crew has gotten crazy with their deep drop rigs, using glow beads, rubber skirts, painted sinkers, and chaff-wrapped crimps, until their bottomrigs looks like they were lifted off someone’s Christmas tree.
Neill has also noticed that all of his world record blueline tiles have fallen for cut fish – not squid. The tiles seem to favor chunks of Boston mackerel, albacore, bunker, or cigar minnow. Neill’s best buddy, Bob Manus has even experimented with using 2-inch square cubes of kitchen sponge that he soaks in menhaden oil for a few seconds. Neill has also noted that the World Record grouper were each caught on a variety of whole baits. Whether it’s a whole spot, pinfish, cigar minnow, or Boston mackerel, the big snowys are looking for a big meal. “Bob Manus’ World Record grouper came on a live croaker,” Neill adds, adding that a croaker can, in fact, survive the descent and resurfacing at 600 feet.
Deep drop fishing for grouper and tilefish is still fresh for Virginia anglers, and half the fun is experimenting with new baits, locations, and techniques – even though everywhere deep droppers go and everything they do seems to catch fish.
IGFA Dos and Don’ts
Want a chance at breaking an IGFA World Record? Follow these rules:
-No electric reels.
-The fish must be hooked and fought by the angler.
-The angler’s line cannot become entangled in another angler’s line.
-No one is allowed to touch the angler’s line.
-No wire line
-Hooks in live bait can not be more than 18-inches apart.
-Hooks in lures can not be more than 12 inches apart
-Hooks must be imbedded in or attached to the bait, not hanging freely.
The World Record Trail
Since Troy Warren broke the World Record for blueline tilefish on Ken Neill’s first attempt at deepdropping, the mark has been reset a half dozen times. First by Rodney King, fishing with Captain Jim Brincefield. Then Darren Foster set the record with a 17 pound 5 ounce blueline. Neill kept the record in the family when his best friend’s wife, Jenny Manus caught a tile that was two ounces heavier than Foster’s. Brincefield took the record away again when Doug Deese broke the 18 pound mark. Deese’s record stood less than a month before Rick Wineman – a member of Neill’s fishing club – caught the current world record – a 19 pound 14 ounce blueline tile. Ken Neill’s crew has also broken the record for snowy grouper four times. First, Jeff Dail caught a 36 pound 5 ounce snowy. On the same trip, a few hours later, Jason Ferguson landed a fish that was just over a pound heavier. Then, on Neill’s first trip to his honey hole, Roger Burnley ended the day with the record 49 pound 9 ounce grouper. On the same day, Bob Manus broke the record for blackbellied rosefish (3 pounds 11 ounces) and Jeff Dail set the inaugural Virginia State Record for golden tilefish with a 45 pounder. Burnley’s mark stood for less than two months when Ken returned to the honey hole and Bob Manus put up a 65 and a half pound grouper to set the current world record. That’s eleven World Records and one State record in a little over a year…and there are still bigger fish yet to be caught.