One of the oddest looking fish of all, tripletail offer a fun and exciting fishery for anglers around the entire state. Aptly named for the unique positioning of their anal, dorsal and caudal fins, tripletail exhibit strange behavior patterns and can be difficult targets to fool on a consistent basis. Found anywhere from 2-foot flats to 2,000-foot canyons, tripletail have what is arguably the widest ranging habitat of any species in Florida. Even though educated anglers throughout the state have a general idea of when and where they will show up in the largest concentrations, these unique game fish can be encountered on any given day of the year in any location of the state. Additionally, they haven’t received too much scrutiny from the scientific community so much is still rather unknown about their spawning patterns and migratory trends.
Leading the research is the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. Initializing their Tripletail Tag and Release Program in 2001, there have been an incredible amount of tags recovered, with one long-distance movement over 500 miles observed. However, the data is rather erratic. One particular report of a recaptured tripletail showed it moved a mere 55 miles over a 561-day period. Another fish tagged off Port Canaveral was recaptured more than a year later in the same spot, having grown from 15 ½ inches to 25 ½ inches. With inconsistent data, scientists still don’t have many answers. However, research and on the water observations have lead to the generalization that tripletail do not perform extended migrations. It is believed that tripletail undertake more of a seasonal offshore-onshore migration.
Sargassum is pretty much as good as it gets for lonely tripletail patiently waiting for crabs, shrimp or small finfish to wander too close.
Keeping this in mind, anglers along the Gulf report increased numbers of tripletail from March through October. The reports are similar for anglers prowling Atlantic waters, with spring to late fall offering the most consistent action. Often times appearing dead in the water, tripletail are almost always associated with some sort of floating debris or structure. With a firm understanding of their favored habitat, forage and feeding patterns you’ll have a greater chance of bringing home some tasty ‘tail.
Juvenile tripletail are common along many of the state’s shallow estuarine habitats, as overlying mangroves and downed trees offer prime cover and habitat for maturing fish. And according to otolith and recapture studies, tripletail grow at an incredible rate. Look for mature fish hanging along crab trap buoys and channel markers in the vicinity of inlets and passes. Some of the largest tripletail taken inshore occur along the shallows of Florida Bay. Numerous stone crab traps are placed in the water in October and aren’t removed until the seasonal closure in May. It should come as no surprise that the longer the traps remain in the water the more algae and barnacle growth accumulates on the buoys, which in turn attracts forage and tripletail. When fishing trap buoys and navigational markers take your time and be patient. If you spot a fish and it spooks from your approaching boat, give it some time to cool down before making a cast. It’s also important to note that fish holding on buoys and markers almost always face into the current.
Although trophy fish in the 10 to 20-pound range are caught every year throughout inshore estuaries of Florida, tripletail are listed as a pelagic species alongside marlin, mackerel and tuna. In the vast ocean there’s not much refuge for game fish. Sargassum is pretty much as good as it gets for lonely tripletail patiently waiting for crabs, shrimp or small finfish to wander too close. If you want to battle the biggest tripletail in existence you need to head over to Port Canaveral. Home to numerous tripletail world records, the waters in the vicinity of Canaveral’s shipping channel, with permanent buoys, are an annual gathering for giant tripletail.
Whether you target tripletail inshore or offshore, sight fishing is the name of the game. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t overlook crusty structures because you don’t think anyone’s home. While tripletail can be caught on artificial offerings, they respond best to natural baits with real scent and appeal. A live shrimp is one of the best baits, although larger fish also respond well to more substantial meals. When fishing natural baits, most spool with 20 lb. braid and 40 lb. fluorocarbon. A 3/0 J-hook rigged with a split shot will get your bait in the zone, as will a ¼ oz. jighead. If you make a cast and your line suddenly goes slack, you’ve got a ‘tail on the line. Lethargic feeders, don’t expect much in return until you swing back and set the hook. Once these odd fish feel the sting it’s game on, with powerful runs and acrobatic leaps!
If you want to catch tripletail on fly you better have impressive casting accuracy. Because they feed with smell, tripletail often follow your fly for great distances before striking or turning off. If you don’t get an initial reaction it will be in your best interest to pick up your fly and make another cast. If not, you risk the fish coming too close to the boat, which they may take up as a new residence. Good luck casting to a fish that thinks the shadow of your vessel is a safe haven! To get hooked up you’ll want to hit the fish between the eyes. Without a close cast you won’t initiate an instinctive strike and the fish will have too long to eye up your offering.
Although redfish and bonefish are more cherished, tripletail are viable targets no matter where you call home. Whether you head out with tripletail on the brain or consider them day savers, these masters of deception will keep you coming back for more.