Dilly’s Fish Co. is SWFL Chefs’ Go-To Resource for Fresh Gulf Fish

For Tim "Dilly" Dillingham, fishing trips are personal homecomings, resplendent with the ocean's bounty.

BY June 1, 2023
A fish boat in the distance
(Getty Image)

The way a fisher catches a fish can illuminate their life. Spearfishing, for instance, is often dubbed artisanal—even archaic—and holds an innate sense of poetry. Whether freediving or in full scuba gear, the fisher moves weightlessly through bands of sunlight and shadow. Their body speaks another language, each gesture filled with music, until the fish is found and the steel flies. A sudden crescendo, then silence.

“The most beautiful things on planet Earth are found underwater,” Tim “Dilly” Dillingham says. The owner of Naples-based Dilly’s Fish Co. experiences these swells and troughs weekly as he leads a commercial boat operation, comprising five vessels that go out on 30-to-40-hour overnight shifts. This ensures the fish are caught and delivered within 24 hours at the height of freshness. But this is not the industry standard. The dangers and difficulties inherent to an overnight company like Dilly’s Fish Co. (quota, time constraints and ever-present dive risks) force similar companies to fold. The ubiquity of imports contributes, too. Most available seafood is considered ‘refresh’—frozen when caught, then thawed for sale. The grouper and snapper we associate with Florida are often sourced from Mexico. “I just want to do the right thing,” Dilly says. “I want to bring Florida seafood back to Florida.”

Dilly’s venture dates back to 2008, after the mortgage collapse. As a credit services representative for a large bank, he managed accounts throughout the Florida Keys, where he started spearfishing for lobster recreationally. Dilly was hooked and quickly transitioned away from cubicle life. “My 12-year-old self was calling me back to the woods and the water,” he says.

As a child in Michigan, Dilly fished for salmon from the Great Lakes with his dad (“Jurassic Dilly”) and his older brother (“Big Dilly”). He found another respite in Florida, where his grandparents owned a seasonal home. Here, 6-year-old Dilly first tasted saltwater fishing as he caught and filleted mangrove snapper, Spanish mackerel and black drum beneath the bridges of Clearwater Beach, basking in the variety. “I’ve been an outdoorsman since I could walk. And before that, I was probably crawling in the mud,” he says.

Dilly eventually settled in Naples, where he cultivated close ties with area chefs that shared his passion for fresh, local seafood. Most of the fish chef Richard Brumm serves at Bonita Bay Club, in Bonita Springs, is pulled directly from one of Dilly’s coolers. Josh Zeman, of Sea Salt in Naples, calls on Dilly regularly for Gulf red snapper, which he likes for its sweet, nutty, almost lobster-like flavor that’s unique among snapper varieties. Sails Restaurant, Steamers of Naples and Quail West Golf & Country Club are also Dilly’s Fish Co. loyalists. Recently, Dilly hired a chef and began eyeing an expansion into catering, but fishing and supplying fresh, whole fish, holds first place in his heart.

Dilly’s trips usually begin at Naples’ oldest restaurant, Kelly’s Fish House, where the team stops to ice down the boat, filling every hatch, before navigating 5 miles offshore to pull pinfish traps for bait. Another 80 miles offshore, they hit their first fishing spot, where they rod and reel or spearfish, depending on how the fish are biting. “When the fish won’t bite the hook, we know they’ll bite the steel,” Dilly says.

Though spearing requires refined skill and the dangers are inherent, it allows Dilly and his team to remain selective and sustainable, targeting specific species and avoiding bycatch—undersized or wrong fish caught unintentionally. To be an effective blue water hunter, the diver must make all equipment work seamlessly, from the wetsuit to the oxygen tank to the gun: 90 cm of carbon stainless steel with a powerful recoil. Everyone on Dilly’s crew can spear. They take turns diving up to 200 feet in search of scamp, red and yellowedge grouper, red snapper, and triggerfish that get larger with depth. Spearfishermen dream of these giants—200-pound grouper running the length of man—swimming beside them, carrying them toward the sun. Dilly’s team often encounters rare species at larger depths, as well. They catch Kitty Mitchell grouper, known commonly as strawberry grouper for its speckled red hues, and porgy, a grunt-like fish with the meat and flavor of a snapper, decidedly sweet. Each diver strives to spear what they can before their 8 minutes of bottom time are up. Stay under any longer and they risk nitrogen poisoning.

"Dilly" of Dilly's Fish Co.
Dilly personally delivers his catch to each chef. The fish remain whole, buried in ice. Chefs can pull their stock directly from the cooler, free to examine clear, plump eyes and bright red gills for freshness. (Photo by Dan Cutrona)

After fishing all day and into the night, the team falls into makeshift beds across the deck of the 27-foot Onslow Bay. They sleep for a few hours, then turn the boat in one wide swath, a large circle spun around the sun as they fish their way back, glints of gold and fire bouncing from one side of the boat to the other. Two days spent stacking the boat with nearly 1,500 pounds of fish. Two days spent watching the sun melt then rise, bearing witness to the Gulf of Mexico’s bounty, each fisherman a part of it, in awe of it.

The next morning, Dilly personally delivers to each chef. The fish remain whole, buried in ice, so each chef can pull their stock from the cooler, free to examine the fish’s clear, plump eyes and bright red gills for freshness. He sells what’s left on Fridays at Naples’ favorite Mike’s Bait House. The market opens at noon, though the line forms at 9:30 a.m. Customers raise their filets in the air—each filleted and packed on the spot—in celebration. There is a sense of privilege: a community nourished by fishermen, as it was all those years ago, with fisher folk taking only what was needed to feed their families, triumphant and grateful. 

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