It’s about that time of year when you might hear those “Hey, let’s go catch a tripletail!” You don’t hear that very often most of the year, but with the stone crab traps out for a few weeks and a couple cold fronts behind us, this is when folks get excited to go get one or two.
Tripletail are not like redfish or trout. You won’t just pull up to a flat anywhere in the Harbor and expect to find them. Instead, it’s a bit more like targeting reef fish. Tripletail love structure, so a day of tripletail fishing consists of running from one specific spot to another and another. Specifically, you want to look at channel markers, power line cables and crab trap buoys.
You can also find them around bridge and trestle pilings, though for some reason they seem less common at these areas. It’s also a good plan to check out anything floating in the water (a weedline, a coconut, a dead bird, whatever).
There are also tripletail that you’ll find by sheer luck. When tripletail aren’t hanging tight to a marker or trap float, they’re often drifting and searching for one. They do this by allowing the tide to carry them, so it’s not at all unheard of to be out in the middle of the Harbor and have a big ol’ tripletail just come floating past, an inch or so below the surface.
When they’re drifting like this, they rarely are willing to take a bait, but it’s always worth a shot. You might be tempted to try to gaff or net the fish. That would probably work pretty well, but you should be aware that it’s also 100 percent illegal. Tripletail are kind of dumb, so only hook and line is allowed. And no snagging!
You should not expect to find tripletail at every place you stop to look. To determine whether there’s anybody home, you have three options: Do a drive-by, sneak up on them, or cast and hope.
The drive-by is my favorite: Go past the structure and look for a fish. Keep the sun at your back, slow down to just barely on plane, and stay at least 30 feet from where the fish would be. If you spot one, make a big loop back around and present a bait. You might spook the fish when you go past, but almost always it will just sink to the bottom rather than actually vacate the premises.
In a sneak attack, you idle up and look for a fish. The advantage here is that hopefully the fish won’t get scared before you can cast to it. Or you can drive upwind and make a very long cast, and maybe there will be a tripletail there to eat your bait. You don’t have to worry about startling the fish, but he might not be there at all.
When you’re trying to spot a tripletail, it’s helpful to know what you’re looking for. Sometimes a tripletail looks like a fish, but sometimes it looks like a rag or a big leaf or a clump of seaweed. Tripletail have an odd habit of lying on their sides, which can throw your brain off if you’re scanning the water for a fishy shape. They’ll almost always be right up against the structure, no more than 2 or 3 feet away.
That habit of staying so close to home means you have to react quickly when you hook one. If you don’t do something to stop him, a tripletail will almost always take a few quick laps of the trap float or piling, and that will make quick work of your line.
Again, there are different methods that can be used. If you’re using fairly heavy tackle or the fish isn’t too large, you can just muscle the fish out, a bit like getting a grouper off the bottom.
When you’re dealing with a bigger fish, you can charge it, which requires excellent communication between angler and captain. Driving the boat right at the structure the moment the fish is hooked will often chase the fish into open water, but if you make your move a second too early or too late, you’ll either miss the hookset or the fish will tangle you up.
If you do get wrapped, open your bail and drive up to the structure to undo the tangle. That works really well with a crab trap; not so much on a marker or large piling. You should expect to lose a percentage of the fish you hook, and it’ll be a high percentage at first.
Tripletail have relatively small and tender mouths, so hooks pull fairly easily. A No. 1 or 1/0 hook should do it. They’ll eat a variety of small live baits: Fiddler crabs, 3- to 4-inch whitebait, small or medium shrimp. Pompano jigs and DOA soft plastics have also been known to take fish. The biggest one I’ve ever seen — a 22-pounder caught at Bayshore — ate a chunk of mullet being soaked on the bottom for cobia.
Your snook tackle is generally appropriate for tripletail fishing. Most of them will be 5 pounds or less, and lighter tackle allows for some sport. (Did you know tripletail jump? Oh, yeah.) If you’re meat fishing rather than sport fishing, you might want heavier gear.
The same types of structure that tripletail find attractive also draw in cobia, and they’re more than happy to take the same baits. If you’re fishing light tackle for tripletail, it’s a really good idea to have a heavier rod at the ready for a cobia. Should you hook into a big one on light gear anywhere near a marker or piling, you’ll need a whole month’s worth of luck to land the sucker.
When it’s time to get a tripletail into the boat, remember that tender mouth. Grab the net, especially if it’s bigger than a couple pounds. You could grab him by hand, but there are a lot of sharp parts on these fish: Razor-like plates on the gills, heavy anal and dorsal fin spines, seriously rough scales. The meat is fantastic, but it’s not worth a pint of blood.
Measure before you put that fish in the cooler. It needs to be at least 18 inches to keep, and you can have two per harvester. And don’t bother at all if you’re not willing to work at those fillets. They’re good to eat, but getting through those armor-plated scales is a job.
Targeting a fish that most anglers rarely catch is a lot of fun. It’s a good way to mystify your fishing buddies and become a legend in your own time. OK, maybe not, but at least you’ll get some cool photos, great memories and — if you’re lucky — a fine dinner. What more could you really ask for?
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.