Learn to spot, and hook, delicious tripletail.
The tripletail is an odd-looking fish that to unsuspecting anglers might resemble a piece of floating debris. They are certainly among the widest ranging of Florida sportfish, found in coastal waters, bays and lagoons, and far offshore in the Gulf Stream. And among the best-eating.
Pretty good chance you’ve seen one, though likely you didn’t recognize it, let alone catch and cook it. Let’s change that. There are a few good secrets to finding and catching tripletail on a regular basis.
In addition to its shaggy, leaf-like profile, the tripletail has the ability to change colors, from dark brown to almost silver. Presumably it developed this skill both to elude predators as well as to better ambush food. At sea, tripletail are often found hiding beneath a piece of flotsam or large mat of sargassum. In coastal waters, tripletail may free float with the tide or current, or station themselves behind the floats marking crab traps or lobster traps. Pilings, downed trees and stakes are also places where tripletail wait for food to swim right to their mouths.
They range from specimens of less than 15 inches (the minimum keeper size) to slabs exceeding 40 pounds. Florida anglers are allowed to retain two tripletail per person.
Tripletail are opportunistic feeders, willing to strike at most anything that fits into their mouths, including shrimp, small crabs and small baitfish. Accordingly, artificial lures and flies may earn strikes. On the other hand, they are hardly pushovers. Larger tripletail can be difficult to fool with hook and line. They’re also powerful fighters, capable of jumping, and quick to run your line over whatever structure is handy.
Like many anglers in South Florida, I find that I catch most of my tripletail in the area of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico west and north of Sandy Key. I’ve caught them in my home waters of Biscayne Bay and in the ocean, but these fish are less predictable. Likely there’s a pattern in your region, as well. Pay attention to local fishing reports, as well as the monthly field reports in the Action Spotter section of this magazine (I happen to be a little biased toward this latter source, given that I write the South Region reports).
At any rate, while on the water, especially when running from one spot to another, I’m always looking from side to side and in front of the boat for a silver flash or dark floating blob of debris that might be a tripletail. Normally we aren’t pursuing tripletail per se, but nevertheless we’re always ready. I’ve found that if I discover one tripletail in an area, then there is a great chance that I will see others nearby. If you think you saw something, stop the boat and circle the area for a minute. There’s a chance the fish will resurface and give you a shot at catching it.
From October 15 to May 15, stone crab fishermen will put out tens of thousands of traps and each trap may have a floating buoy to mark the trap. Run a line of traps and there is a great chance you will spot one or more tripletail holding in the current behind the float.
For coastal and inshore tripletail fishing, my favorite rig consists of a pink or orange rattling float to which I attach 30 inches of 30-pound-test monofilament leader material. I add a 1/0 circle or J hook to that, and then hook a small- to medium-size shrimp through the front of the carapace so that the bait swims in a straight line. If I’m using a small baitfish like a pilchard or pinfish, I hook the bait through the nose, again so that bait can swim in a straight line.
Once I spot a tripletail, I make a long cast beyond the fish and then retrieve the float past its nose. At this time, assuming the fish hasn’t been spooked by the boat (or someone else’s boat), the tripletail should spot the colorful float and begin to follow. Within a few seconds, I expect the fish to see the bait, and make a subtle strike. The float may start to move, indicating the fish has the bait, or you might see the float shake for a second, indicating the strike. The fish is in no hurry to flee, so it just takes the bait and then waits for something else to come in range to eat. In most cases, once you get the strike and set the hook, the fight is on.
And one last thing: Hard as they are to see, those tripletail are often completely out of view, lurking near the base of a navigational marker or dock piling. If reports indicate the fish have been around, but you’re not finding any at the surface, it can pay to pitch a shrimp on a ¼-ounce jighead to select pilings. There may seen to be little rhyme or reason to why one piling or other structure is favored over another, but it’s clear that some produce season after season. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman October 2011