Sporty reef fish offers tasty alternative.

The gray triggerfish looks better and better as snapper and grouper seasons grow shorter and shorter by the year. But even this once-overlooked culinary treat is now tightly managed.

Fish are not toys, but occasionally you catch one with clear entertainment value. Take, for example the triggerfish–a species with nearly as much user control as the classic G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.

On a calm summer reef trip, Capt. Sam Maisano reeled up a chunky trigger, held the fish upright and showed me the small spine at the base of the primary dorsal fin. Depressing this “trigger” spine automatically lowered the main sail, hence the fish’s name.

For the uninformed, the trigger trick is always a hit, but once or twice, maybe a third time for laughs, is plenty. Overdoing it is like telling the same dumb joke you told on the last trip. Those fake grins and awkward silence mean it’s time to stop playing with the fish and return to catching them.

In fairness, Maisano and his crew were more focused on the latter and they put several keeper triggers on ice. Back at the dock, these reef residents certainly stand out from the snapper and grouper headed for the cleaning table, but at dinner time, the trigger’s firm, white fillets actually outshine those of even their tasty gag and mangrove neighbors. Some believe the trigger’s preference for sand dollars and sea urchins may contribute to its uniquely delicious flavor, but more on that later.

Where to Look

For a dependable triggerfish bite, look for lively bottom structure such as ledges, limestone outcroppings and artificial reefs.

In aquariums, the common gray triggerfish (Balistes capriscus) is easy to spot–he’s the one with the compressed, oval body covered in thick, diamond-shaped scales, broad secondary dorsal and anal fins and narrow tips extending from the tail. His colorful cousin the queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula) roams waters much deeper than the 50- to 80-foot range than the gray trigger commonly inhabits, so the duller variety is what most Florida anglers encounter.

Occasionally, some of those gray encounters occur in surprisingly shallow water. Capt. Dave Zalewski of the Madeira Beach-based Lucky Too II says he’s seen them while diving on the Pinellas County mitigation reefs about 100 yards from tourists strolling the sands between Clearwater Pass and Johns Pass. Captain Brent Gaskill runs out of south St. Petersburg and commonly finds triggers as shallow as 20 feet–although he’s seen them in some pretty unbelievable places.

“I have caught a few inside Tampa Bay, but the shallowest I’ve ever caught a trigger was under a residential dock in about six feet of water,” he said. “The fish ate a live shrimp and weighed five pounds.”

For a dependable triggerfish bite, look for lively bottom structure such as ledges, limestone outcroppings and artificial reefs. Gaskill said diving his sites has revealed that this species tends to be pretty picky. Nevertheless, their presence indicates a good neighborhood.

“They seem to require a healthy bottom habitat and will orient themselves to the highest relief on the structure,” Gaskill said. “If you catch a good size triggerfish, there is a good chance that keeper gag grouper are also in the area.”

In truth, that’s probably an inverse perspective, as triggers are generally considered a bycatch bonus of grouper and snapper pursuits. That said, tighter regulations on Gulf of Mexico grouper have made anglers appreciative of a sporty species with frying pan appeal.

Gaskill has learned to locate triggerfish by complementing a good bottom machine with eyeball observation from recent dives. “Physically going down and observing the bottom structure and seeing how different species relate to that structure gives clues as to what you are seeing on the bottom machine as you pass over the spot.

“Boat position is critical and proper anchoring is the key. If you’re off the spot by 20 feet you may not catch triggerfish, even though they’re present.”

Best Baits

A tiny strip of squid is a good bait for this wary reef fish.

A study by Auburn University’s Marine Extension and Research Center documented interesting triggerfish feeding that demonstrates the species’ craftiness. Divers observed triggers moving away from their reef habitat, inverting themselves to face the sandy bottom and blowing jets of water to locate sand dollars. Once a triggerfish uncovered a sand dollar, the cunning predator would grab it by the edge, rise a couple of yards and drop the sand dollar in an attempt to flip it onto its back.

Industrious triggers repeated the action until the sand dollar landed in the right position. With the softer underside of its prey exposed, the triggerfish would resume the vertical position and thrust its closed jaws into the sand dollar’s center to crack the shell and access the soft, edible insides. (Triggers use the same flipping technique for sea urchins.)

Elsewhere, triggerfish feed on benthic invertebrates such as mollusks and crustaceans. Knowing this, sheepshead anglers may fare well by carrying a bucket of oysters, shucking them on-site and dropping the fresh meat to a trigger spot. The same should hold true for the invasive Asian green mussels that litter Tampa Bay area bridge and pier pilings.

Gaskill adds barnacles and fiddler crabs to the list of likely triggerfish baits and Zalewski throws in chunks of grunt or pigfish. Both captains give squid top billing because it’s easy to handle and its toughness keeps it on a hook longer than other bait.

A Trigger Happy Fish

Cutting squid into strips rather than chunks creates a smaller target, thereby facilitating hooksets. Dave Zalewski describes the triggerfish as a bold species. “They are extremely aggressive and will often beat other fish to the bait as it is descending into the water column,” he said. “I have observed through underwater cameras triggerfish driving grouper from a bait by nipping at their fins.”

Tactics and Tackle

Surprisingly tough fighters, triggerfish will put a bend in a snapper rod.

Similar to sheepshead, triggerfish have relatively small mouths with stout teeth designed for nibbling. Partyboats and private vessels working the Florida Middle Grounds ice a few triggers, but the mostly heavy tackle used for targeting big snapper and monster grouper excludes species with smaller mouths.

Downsizing the standard slip sinker, or in-line sinker rigs to 20-pound main line with 1 to 2 ounces of lead and a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader is one option. A more effective rig, particularly for quick jawed nibblers, is the knocker. A popular grouper/snapper setup, this rig puts a slip sinker on the leader so it slides down and “knocks” against the hook for a streamlined presentation. When a trigger takes the bait, the leader slips back through the weight without spooking the fish with immediate resistance.

Depending on depth and local fish size, knockers with ½- to 2-ounce weights over 1/0 or 2/0 circle hooks will do the job. A Gulf requirement for anglers targeting reef fish species since June 2008, circle hooks provide secure connections without the homerun hooksets that folks thought they needed with J hooks. When a triggerfish gets a solid grip on your bait, just let the fish pull your rodtip down and continue the pressure with steady reeling. Don’t jerk–just respond.

“Their mouths are small and they can be great bait stealers,” Gaskill warned. “You’ll feel a peck-peck-peck on the end of your line, but be patient. When you feel the resistance from the fish’s weight on your line, just begin cranking in a rapid motion.”

Maisano has a nifty way of bagging triggers – the “chicken rig.” Essentially a pair of hooks on dropper loops with a weight below, this setup keeps a pair of baits standing about a foot or so off the bottom. Make your own or modify a heavy sabiki rig by cutting off all by the top two hooks and leave about 18 inches of leader for a 2- to 4-ounce weight. (Premade rigs are available through companies such as Boone and Tsunami.)

Bait the hooks with squid strips and jiggle the chicken rig like you would a full sabiki rig for baitfish duties. This rig leverages reef competition, so when you feel a hookup, leave it in place for a few moments and you’ll usually get that second bite.

Like most coastal/offshore skippers, Gaskill knows the wisdom of diversity. That’s why you’ll rarely see a solid line of 4/0s and broomsticks on his boat.

“One technique I use while grouper fishing is to always have someone onboard – especially a kid – fishing with a lighter outfit with squid,” he said. “This keeps the action going and causes a feeding frenzy with the fish under the boat drawing in the interest of other larger fish nearby.”

Maisano adds: “The chicken rig rallies the (bottom spot) because you get multiple fish biting at once. You don’t catch the grouper and bigger snapper on this rig, but they see all the action and then they start biting bigger baits. They see the smaller fish biting and they don’t want to be outdone.
“A lot of times the bottom machine is loaded with fish, but they’re not biting. You can sometimes drop that chicken rig down and get the action going.”

Triggerfish moxie goes a long way in species propagation. Building nests in sandy bottom, similar to a largemouth bass, triggerfish fiercely guard eggs–often to the point of fending off larger fish or anyone else who gets too close. Researchers report fearless behavior among triggerfish that have been observed sneaking up behind divers and nipping at their ear lobes.

Triggerfish hatchlings make a beeline from the nest to the surface where they hide under sargassum or any flotsam they can find. Those that survive pelagic predation move to bottom habitat when they reach 5 to 7 inches.

Although triggers can reach 20 inches, the 14 inch Gulf and 12 inch Atlantic minimum size limits make it tougher to find a lot of legal fish–especially over nearshore structures that are more likely to hold juveniles. The upside is that triggerfish baits and rigs will also net plenty of white grunts, porgies, vermilion snapper and the occasional black seabass. Atlantic coast size limit is 12 inches fork length.

Each of these lesser reef species offers respectable table fare, but served side-by-side, you shouldn’t have any trouble picking out the tasty trigger. Gaskill said the same is true when the line comes tight with this hard-charging fish. “After catching grunt after grunt, you definitely know you have something different on the line when a trigger hits.”

Trimming a Trigger

Triggerfish belong to the Balistadae family, a group known as leatherjackets for their extremely tough skin.

Triggerfish belong to the Balistadae family, a group also including filefish and black durgon, collectively known as leatherjackets for their extremely tough skin. Without a distinct plan, accessing the prized meat can seem like trying to crack a locked safe.

Success begins with a high quality fillet knife sharpened to perfection. Puncture the fish’s skin in the soft area just behind the gills, cut upward to the dorsal fin and then start working the blade down the backbone and around the rib cage on either side. (Cutting upward from flesh to skin is much easier than vice versa.)

Trying to find an entry point on the back, or trying to cut from the tail forward offers a lesson in futility. The good part about the trigger’s tough skin is that removing the meat is like scraping the cream off a Double Stuff Oreo.

Veteran trigger trimmer Capt. Dave Zalewski of Madeira Beach offers this alternative to filleting: Cut from the anal vent forward and remove all the plumbing, along with the eyes and gills. Stuff the cleaned-out gastric cavity with shrimp/scallop dressing or pieces of your favorite citrus. Score the flanks and drench with melted butter and citrus juice. Place the fish in a greased dish and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine September 2009

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