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Destination: Prime Time in the Canaveral Bight

Winter is prime time for tripletail along this wind-protected coastline.

Destination: Prime Time in the Canaveral Bight

On a breezy day, anglers fish for tripletail at one of the buoys marking the entrance to Port Canaveral, including Kent Hughes (inset).

It was blowing 20 mph out of the north, and cold. Not too unusual for late January, but it still stunk considering my friend Kent Hughes had booked a trip for the two of us to fish for tripletail out of Port Canaveral.

Since we were planning on driving up from Stuart, about a two-hour drive, the morning of the trip it wasn’t going to be that big of a deal to reschedule. Except, Captain Travis Tanner made it clear to Kent, upon calling to get a status report, that we were good to go for the next morning.

It was definitely still blowing 20, and it was still cold, as we climbed aboard Travis’ skiff. But, as we quickly learned, as long as there’s a little west in the north wind, fishing in the lee of Canaveral Bight is a different story.

map
Taking some Bight out of the wind: Northwest and north winds following winter cold fronts produce rough conditions on most of Florida’s east coast. Cape Canaveral forms a notable lee.

Canaveral Bight is essentially a giant natural harbor. Captain Alex Gorichky, who, like Travis, fishes extensively out of Canaveral, describes it this way: “You not only get protection from the 4 1⁄2-mile strip of land jutting out into the ocean, you’ve got the Canaveral shoals knocking down the swell from the east.”

From late fall through winter, this short stretch of protected coastline becomes a haven for the likes of snook, redfish, jack crevalle, Spanish mackerel, tarpon, bluefish, sometimes cobia, and as the season progresses, pompano and whiting.

“But the winter focus for us is the tripletail bite,” Alex said. “I expect the tripletail are here because of the prevalence of our local white shrimp fishery that time of year.”

Captain Scott Lum, whom we spoke to on the water that day, confirmed this and reminded me to pay attention for shrimpboats in the Bight. He said that if you see the shrimpboats, shrimp are probably in the Bight, and the tripletail will be happy.

“Prime time for tripletail is December through February, when water temps are 68 to 70 degrees,” Travis said as we idled away from the Freddie Patrick Park boat ramp, just minutes from the ocean. “But, you can catch them all summer.”

As we got on plane, it was as Travis said it would be: calm, but cold. There was a slight swell, but nothing like the white frothy ocean we left in Stuart, where no one was fishing the beaches, I promise you.




As we approached the first set of buoys, Travis headed towards the red. I could see a boat on the horizon just leaving the green buoy. Instead of making long exploratory casts, Travis chose to make a slow circle around the buoy, using his side-scan sonar to mark fish. Travis said he likes to make at least two trips around the buoy before moving to the next.

After no luck on the first buoy, we were on the second trip around the green buoy when Travis said, “There’s a fish.” He immediately deployed the trolling motor and hit Spot-Lock.

We didn’t catch a tripletail on our first two buoys, but we got a good introduction to what to expect. I learned pretty quickly that it’s not exactly as easy as just pulling up to a buoy and reeling in a fish. To catch tripletail consistently there are clearly some do’s and don’ts you’ll want to pay attention to.

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“I like to cast the shrimp right up to the can, and as soon as it drops below the lip, I give it a couple of taps. A lot of time the tripletail is sitting just below the lip of the can, not far from the surface,” Travis said.

Kent asked about the guy who recently left the green buoy, and Travis said, “Just because someone just left a buoy doesn’t mean you can’t catch a fish there. I’ve caught plenty of nice tripletails right from a marker a guy just left.”

The captain continued with the instruction as we honed in our casts with the lightly weighted shrimp.

“When reeling it in, don’t bring it back too quickly, I want the shrimp to swim past the fish, making a natural drift in the zone. The tripletail will follow your retrieve,” he continued. “Reel about three feet and pause, giving it a couple of taps. Do this all the way to the boat. One of the keys to success is making sure your bait isn’t spinning. Nine out of 10 bites will come on the fall of the retrieve.”

“The buoy line is generally about 30 feet deep, but most of your hits will come within 6 to 12 feet. I’ve caught them on every tide. If you get one bite, you usually get more,” said Travis.

fs-capecanaveral-shrimprigs
Rigging methods for live shrimp: Left allows the shrimp to be retrieved without spinning. Below right is best for casting near buoy. Above right, good when longer casts are needed.

As if on cue, Kent’s newfound expertise paid off. On our fourth buoy of the day, Kent came tight with a tripletail. It wasn’t a daymaker, to say the least, but it was the right kind. “If you catch a small one, that doesn’t mean you won’t catch a 20-pounder on the next cast,” Travis said.

We fished for about 30 more minutes, something the captain said he typically does following catching a small fish or losing a larger fish.

“It’s not always just the buoys that hold fish. The buoy chains will often hold fish too,” Travis said.

“My ideal day is when I can sight fish the tripletail. Just like offshore for dolphin, you hunt for them in the patches of sargassum weed. I do a lot of run-and-gun fishing searching for them on weedlines when the conditions are right.”

Captain Scott Lum came by as we were fishing our sixth and final buoy of the day. We had only caught one small one; Scott hadn’t caught any. Travis mentioned that we were about to wrap it up and try something different. Scott said that he was going to run the beach and that he’d call if he found positive conditions.

We headed for an inshore weather buoy north of the Canaveral channel buoy line, about three miles off the beach. On the first pass with the side-scanner, Travis immediately threw the boat into neutral and jumped up on the bow to deploy the trolling motor. We quietly circled the hazard buoy floats. As we were about to make it to the spot where the captain had initially seen the fish, he hit Spot-Lock on his trolling motor and said, “They’re here.”

Kent jumped up on the bow, wasting no time making a cast to where Travis was pointing, upcurrent of the smaller float. Almost instantly Kent was hooked up, rod doubled over. Instruction time was over, it was game on.

And almost just as quickly, Travis was up on the platform too, instructing Kent to reel, as he pointed the trolling motor away from the buoy and submerged line.

The fish were holding on the submerged line that connected an orange float ball to another marker buoy. It was obvious you were just a few feet away from losing your fish if you couldn’t turn him from making a run.

Kent held his rod high above his head and reeled, heeding Travis’ instructions to reel. In what seemed like long minutes but was probably seconds, Kent had the fish on the surface heading toward Travis and his waiting landing net.

During the day with Travis and subsequent calls with captains Lum and Gorichky, I learned a few more tips about fishing the sometimes crowded Cape Canaveral Bight for tripletail.

fishing for tripletail
A tripletail is scooped up with a landing net after putting up a tough fight for angler Kent Hughes.

They all agreed that there’s room for everyone, but as Alex Gorichky said, two’s company and three’s a crowd. “If you already have two boats on a buoy move on. If you decide to fish one with someone already there give way and keep on the opposite side. Be nice and it can work.”

“Have some etiquette,” Lum said. “Go in slow, and if someone else is already on the buoy, my first choice is to go to the next buoy. But, if there’s someone on most of the buoys, if you go in slow, and ask the boat if you can fish the other side, generally they’re okay with it. Good karma goes a long way.”

As for rigging up for buoy fishing with live shrimp, Travis said he likes using a light 2500 to 4000 size spinning outfit spooled with 30-pound braid, 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and finally rigged with an 1⁄8-ounce jighead.

Travis said that depending on the conditions, he’ll hook the shrimp one of three ways. Most often he said he’ll hook the shrimp dead center of the head, from the bottom up with the hook coming up between the horns. He said this is the best way to retrieve the shrimp without it spinning.

However, if he wants to make a long cast, Travis said hooking the shrimp in the tail, from side-to-side, about a 1⁄4-inch up from the bottom of the tail, gives you better holding power and allows you to really whip the cast.

But, for around the buoy, Travis said that’s where he’ll often hook the shrimp in the tail section from the bottom of the tail up through the top.

And speaking of shrimp, Lum said that he waits until just seconds before casting to hook his shrimp. “You want them snapping when they hit the water.”

Travis also mentioned that he typically fishes a shrimp on one rod and strip of jack fillet on the other, saying he likes to mix it up.

“I like to work all sides of the buoy,” Travis said. “If I have two anglers I’ll have the first angler cast upcurrent of the buoy, and while their bait is drifting past the chain, I’ll have the second angler cast a few seconds later. The proper spacing creates a routine we’ll use all day while fishing the buoys.”

Scott made a point of saying, “The first couple of casts are your best chance of catching a tripletail.” Also, he said to stay as far away as you can with your first cast, where you should get at least two good casts from a distance before moving up to the buoy.

As for fishing the weedlines, Travis said, “I like to use a 1⁄16-ounce jig with a popping cork. Just get far enough away to get a cast right up to the weedline, using the float to keep the bait on the surface.”

And, finally one more source of structure likely holding tripletail are the multitudes of buoys, pipes and structures associated with the nearly year-round dredging efforts to keep the main channel dredged, explained Lum.

So, this winter, when you know it’s going to blow, and you have the weekend off and don’t want to cancel your plans, hit the bait shop for a handful of select shrimp and head for the Canaveral Bight and possibly a “trip” of a lifetime.

Launch Closures

During rocket launch days from Cape Canaveral, the Bight, north of the channel buoys, is closed to boats. The U.S. Coast Guard typically has a boat anchored just outside of the inlet, in addition to making announcements on the VHF radio, to make sure boaters don’t stray into restricted areas. Captain Scott Lum, a local fishing guide, said that it’s typically about a 2-hour window where you can’t have your boat in the Bight, north of the buoy line.


  • This article was featured in the December/January issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.

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