Take on the Tricky Tripletail

The Sea's Gypsies offer challenging sport for those who spot them

Article by David A. Brown

Photo of a tripletail fish floating next to a buoy
In their hide and wait strategy, tripletail float about and are often mistaken for a piece of trash.

Take that clichéd, yet undeniably insightful saying that "one man's trash is another man's treasure," add fins, douse it with a little sea water and voila – you have the essence of tripletail fishing. For certain, that's no implication of value for Lobotes surinamensis. No, this crafty creature's feeding strategy hinges largely on mimicking flotsam – sea trash.

Truth be told, a lot of anglers have probably spotted tripletail in various scenarios, only to incorrectly dismiss the figure they saw as, you guessed it – trash. Maybe that was a plastic grocery bag, or one of those cardboard boxes for frozen baits. (The most common description for mistaken tripletail identity is a paper plate.) Whatever the illusion, it pleases the tripletail because if you mistake him for a harmless piece of drifting something, a shrimp or baitfish will likely do the same.

Masters of the hang-and-wait strategy, these crafty fish will hover near whatever object they encounter and turn themselves at the most unusual of angles to simulate a piece of flotsam drifting in the current. When unsuspecting baitfish drop their guard and ease into reach, the tripletail strikes with amazing swiftness.

"When they want to eat something, they don't have any problem running out and getting it," said Capt. Mac Gregorgy, who hunts along Florida's Tampa Bay region.

One of the sea's most distinctive fish, the tripletail gets its name from a dorsal and anal fin proximity that gives the appearance of three rudders. Coloration ranges from a chocolate brown to a pale white with dark splotches. Typically, a tripletail spots an uneven tone that aids in the camouflage strategy.

With few exceptions, most anglers refer to tripletail as wanderers, gypsies, a frustrating lot not known for predictable patterns like those of snook, redfish, trout and other inshore favorites. The common view is one of hit-or-miss, here today-gone tomorrow. That may be true for angling generalists content to take what the sea offers, but those who've paid attention to the ways of the tricky tripletail know that patterns exist.

Find The Fish

Photo of a fisherman looking for tripletail

Channel markers, bridges, even piers are likely tripletail haunts. In Bradenton, Fla., Capt. Mac Gregory looks forward to the mid-October arrival of stone crab traps in coastal waters, as the forest of floating marker buoys offers abundant structure for tripletail – as well as a new set of position indicators for the fishermen who seek them. (Florida stone crab season runs through mid-May, while blue crabbing has only short regional closures alternating between east and west coasts every other year. Details at MyFWC.com) 

Older trap lines accumulate algae and sea growth from the float down to the trap. These "sea beards" form mini ecosystems, which find a bouquet of tiny forage. The daily need to feed means that anywhere a baitfish holds something farther up the food chain will eventually come snooping. Whenever you find a predator patrolling crab trap buoys; that's a catchable fish.

Offshore weed lines, like those forming outside Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta, offer a bounty of sport-fishing opportunity and tripletail are often a prominent, if not well-hidden, part of the mix. When dense rafts of Sargasso, flotsam and any debris the river sends to the gulf gather along tide lines, the result is something of a floating reef system bursting with a baitfish and crustacean bounty. All a savvy tripletail has to do is stake out a little point or dip in the contour, do the old "I'm not alive" drifting routine and wait for something edible to cruise past.

Trips are also commonly found around the legs of the offshore drilling platforms, generally known as "rigs." Here especially, tripletail often go unnoticed, as most rig fishermen are seeking the snapper, amberjack, cobia, kingfish and tuna that patrol the structures. These pursuits are usually done from a distance, as a rig's angled legs extend well beyond the perimeter of its visible structure. Bottom line – ease in close to a rig and you may be pleasantly surprised at who's lurking in the shadows.

Photo of a man on a boat spotting for tripletail

Of course, it doesn't take a mammoth steel tower to attract tripletail. Consider the desert oasis image, or maybe the stump-in-the-pond notion. At times, an isolated object adrift in the ocean will attract a host of hitchhikers – among them, tripletail – that will stick with this shaded ambush spot for days.

On a particularly memorable offshore trip, my host captain spotted something glistening in the distance and when we approached, we found it was an abandoned fighting chair. Underneath, amid the crowd of filefish and blue runners was a half dozen fat tripletail, each holding to a point on the chair's upended frame and each doing so with that sideways posture intended to fool any minnow or crab that got too close.

Baits And Tactics

The best advice for tripletail hunters is twofold: Keep your eyes open and keep your distance. It's a bit of a balancing act, and Gregory suggests searching likely tripletail areas by idling at least a long cast away from where a fish may be positioned. On Florida's open beaches, lines of crab trap buoys may stretch for a couple of football fields, so he'll run about half speed along the line with the sun at his back (whenever possible) and note the frequency of fish. When he finds fish on several consecutive traps – or a particularly large tripletail – he'll spin about and idle into casting position.

Given the daily wave action – natural and boat-made – that tripletail endure, they're remarkably tolerant of a vessel passing at a reasonable distance and jostling their hidey spot. Obviously, you don't want to run right over any fish you hope to catch, but easing away from the line and then approaching the active area with stealth generally affords ample opportunity to present a bait.

Photo of lures to use for tripletail

Gregory likes medium spinning tackle with a live shrimp rigged under a popping cork with a No. 2 bait hook set through the tail and a split shot right above the hook. This setup allows him to make the necessary long cast past the buoy and then work the bait into the strike zone. Patience, he said, is essential to this game.

"You have to put the bait right in front of his face," Gregory said. "When he bites, you have to let him pull (the bait) down. Don't jerk too soon or you'll pull it away from him."

Capt. Billy Miller recalls spotting a big tripletail hanging near a crab trap buoy off the St. Petersburg Beach area and stopped to make a cast. After a day of inshore fishing, he had a spinning outfit with DOA Deadly Combo (artificial shrimp under a clacking cork) handy so he tossed the rig toward the fish. The trip responded aggressively, but quickly showed its observant nature.

"As soon as (the rig) hit the water, that fish ran over and smacked the cork!" Miller recalled. "He moved back, turned to look at the rig and then swam away. I figured he might come back, so I pulled away from the buoy, made a big circle and came in upcurrent so I could ease up to it.

"This time, I cast that Deadly Combo a long way past the buoy and brought it back slowly. When I got it near the buoy, I twitched it and the tripletail came up to look at it. I could see him – he'd look at the shrimp and then look at the cork. He didn't like what he saw, so he went down and stayed down."

Photo of Jonny Keyes catching a tripletail

No doubt, trips can be mighty spooky but you may also encounter those so fired up for feeding that they appear to be tethered with rubber bands. I saw this once with Gregory. He and fishing pal Jonny Keyes located a productive string of crab traps on the Cortez Beach area and found a fish under nearly every buoy. One in particular seemed bent on holding its ground, even after a close call with a sharp hook.

As Gregory idled forward, Keyes made a good cast past the buoy and pulled his cork-rigged shrimp into the trip's wheelhouse. Clear, calm conditions enabled us to clearly observe the fish's response and it was nothing short of ravenous. Instant strike, but Keyes was a little quick on the response and the fish spit the loosely stuck hook after a couple of surface flops. Energized by fright, the fish took his newfound freedom and bolted about 10 feet down the trap line – but then he turned and raced – not sauntered, not crept – "raced" back to his feeding position next to the buoy. The next presentation pulled this one aboard for a few photos followed by a live release.

Keep It Stealthy

Photo of Capt. Rick Grassett with a tripletail
Capt. Rick Grassett of Sarasota, Fl., uses his own Grassett Flats Minnow fly and advises that weed guards are important.

When tripletail seem to spook away from a cork, you may need to take your chances by easing in closer and free-lining a shrimp or small baitfish like a pilchard or threadfin herring near the fish's holding spot. Light jigs occasionally work, as do crustacean imitators like the DOA or Berkley Gulp! shrimp. One of the best ways to approach wary tripletail is with a fly rod.

"I like a bulky, lightly weighted fly that won't sink too fast, but has a jigging type action when stripped," Sarasota's Capt. Rick Grassett said. "I have done very well on tripletail with my Grassett Flats Minnow fly. I have also caught them with Clousers and Enrico Puglisi baitfish and shrimp fly patterns. I think weed guards are important, which may prevent snagging the crab trap line and blowing the opportunity."

Photo of a tripletail fish in a net

Grassett stresses that the main thing is to avoid is "lining" the fish – allowing the thick fly line to land overhead. Tripletail, he said, are one of the few species that will eat a fly that moves toward them. If you must cast beyond a fish, keep it to a short distance and make sure that only the leader and fly touch down beyond the fish – never the fly line.

"I usually try them from different angles, starting with presentations in front of the fish or the fly moving across their nose," Grassett said. "I've cast to them repeatedly and eventually gotten them to bite. I like to approach them using my trolling motor into the wind or current so that I maintain control of my boat. If a fish follows a fly back toward the boat but doesn't eat, take it away from them before they see the boat and they'll usually go back over to the float."

Gregory notes that live well pumps can scare the fish, so shut them off while making close presentations. Offshore breezes will smooth out the beach water and allow for optimal visibility close to shore. Anywhere you find tripletail, assume that this sneaky predator is watching you as closely as you're watching the fish. Minimize noise and keep your motion minimal – these guys can be tough to find, so don't blow your opportunities.  



Beach Bash

One of the most prominent aggregations of tripletail occurs spring on the tranquil north end beaches of Georgia's Jekyll Island, the southernmost of the Golden Isles group. Capt. Greg Hildreth, who has fished the area for two decades, said the tripletail beach scene starts in March, with May through mid-June marking the peak action.

Spud Woodward, Director of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Division, said the tripletail aggregations are probably spawning rituals, but abundant food sources help keep the fish close. Juvenile menhaden and a new crop of brown shrimp falling out of the spartina marshes bring a buffet of forage to the beach and keep the visiting trips well-fed.

The fish will position as far as a couple miles out, based on the stage of Georgia's large tidal range, but the clean, gradually sloping bottom in the 6- to 15-foot range sees most of the action.

Without much in the way of structure to target, anglers search for Jekyll's tripletail by idling along the beach and scanning for anything that looks different than its surroundings. Sunny skies and calm seas facilitate sight-fishing, and Hildreth points out that the fish will look like a silver pie pan if they're lying belly up, or a black trash bag if you see them from the back down.

Hildreth arms his tripletail anglers with 7-foot medium-action spinning outfits loaded with 12- to 20-pound braided line and 20-pound fluorocarbon leader – just the right outfit for presenting live shrimp on No. 2 khale hooks suspended under small cigar floats. (Local tip: color the float with a black permanent marker, as tripletail often ignore baits and chase brightly colored objects.)

“Boat positioning is an important part of this,” Hildreth said. “I try to set up with the fish coming at me and the wind at my back. If your bait is five feet away, he’s not going to get it. If it’s two feet away, he’s not going to get it. You’ve got to just about drag a bait right across his nose."

Keep watch for any log, cabbage palm frond or clump of marsh grass that floats out of the marsh. With nothing but water along the Jekyll beaches, any structure that enters the scene is like a tripletail magnet.