This past week we made our first real run out to fish “The Canyons” as we sailed from Lewes, Delaware out to Baltimore Canyon. I’ll bet people who live in Baltimore are more surprised than most to hear that Baltimore actually has a canyon.
As a young fisherman growing up on the mid-Atlantic coast “The Canyons” were a mystical place. They are many miles offshore and we never had a boat that could go that far, so reading about them and hearing stories was all I could do. When you actually got out to this magical place apparently fish practically jumped in the boat. Big fish. All the time. Well, reality is a bit different, but not much.
On the northeast coast of North America the ocean bottom slopes slowly and gradually from the beach out 50 to 100 miles to the edge of the continental shelf where it’s about 300 feet deep. Here things change quickly, dropping to 6000 feet very quickly. If the water was removed, it would be quite a dramatic sight. A cliff, a mile high, stretching for thousands of miles, broken only by “The Canyons.”
The Canyons are deep notches carved in the cliff face that is the edge of continental shelf. Some seem to be associated with modern day rivers, others are not. Each of them is a dramatic geological feature. These huge underwater structures have dramatic effects on currents and nutrient flows. Like any kind of underwater structure they attract life on a huge scale.
We took a photo of our sonar screen after we crossed the upper end of the Baltimore Canyon:
The depth drops from 350 feet to more than 1000 feet and back up again in less than a mile.
Every weekend a fleet of large “sportfish” boats head out to troll these oases of life for the glamorous sport fish: Yellowfin Tuna, Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Dolphinfish. Huge engines, and thousands of dollars of fuel get them out and back in a few hours. We sailed out the 75 miles in about 14 hours. We had perfect timing, we were able to sail out, and then the wind died as we arrived, perfect for the kind of fishing we wanted to do.
We trolled for a bit as we moved around, picking up a single mahi-mahi, but we were here on a different search. Not for the glamorous, but for the gourmet. We were out here to hunt for the Golden Tilefish. This was a fish I have never hunted for before. Catching one was one of this year’s fishing goals.
If you have never tasted tilefish, all I can say is, “I am sorry!” Sometime very shortly after her first bite, Karen decided that this was her favorite fish EVER, and they deserved whatever room in the freezer they needed. Imagine the taste of the best lobster you ever had, but with a lighter more delicate texture and you will have it about right.
They are also a great environmental success story. The fishery was “discovered” in the 1980s, and quickly expanded to catching 9 million pounds a year. This was a very slow growing species, and that catch rate just wasn’t sustainable. Currently, the catch rate is running about 1.5 million pounds a year, and it is on everybody’s list as a long term sustainable fishery.
Our research, and prep work paid off. We pulled our first Golden Tilefish up from 500 feet down within a few hours of starting.
Since these guys live in large groups in burrows in the bottom mud, once you find one, you mark the spot, and you keep coming back. We added 3 more in short order.
We also caught a couple Blue Line Tilefish, a smaller but closely related species, and to our taste just as good eating.
If you are interested in the details of how we found and caught these fish, I’ll be making a detailed post on our fishing blog within the next few days, and will link to it here.