Chasing ‘Tail

As a professional fishing guide I’ve been asked just about every question you could imagine. What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught? What is the best time of year to fish? Why do we have to leave so early? Are we going to fish the incoming tide? While these are all great questions, my all-time favorite is one that’s asked almost every trip. What’s your favorite fish to catch?


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While small offerings do the trick, it’s apparent they can handle larger prey. Photo: capt. Tim Daugherty

While I’m not sure that I have just one favorite, I can certainly tell you what I enjoy most. Sight fishing really gets my blood boiling, as the satisfaction of searching out a specific target, offering a proper presentation and then actually witnessing the fish eat is pretty hard to top. Although I enjoy game fish that show their colors and take to the air during a fight, I also enjoy combatants that sound deep and make the reel scream. Thankfully, I know of a fish that you have to hunt, will regularly jump on a properly presented fly, breach and tumble in the air, pull drag, sound, and cut you off on structure while also providing superb table fare. That fish is the almighty tripletail.

On the offshore front tripletail can be found lying motionless amongst floating debris and mats of sargassum weed while they patiently wait for crabs, shrimp or small fish to venture too close.

Listed as a pelagic species alongside tuna, marlin and mackerel, tripletail can be found in all temperate, tropical, and subtropical waters of the world. Seldom encountered and terribly underrated, tripletail can be targeted anywhere from 4 to 1,400-feet of water around the entire state of Florida. On the offshore front tripletail can be found lying motionless amongst floating debris and mats of sargassum weed while they patiently wait for crabs, shrimp or small fish to venture too close. Inshore arenas also offer excellent opportunities, with tripletail occupying flats and hovering near fixed structures such as lobster and stone crab trap buoys, pilings, and channel markers. As these structures load up with algae growth, barnacles and oysters they attract prime forage for tripletail.

Whether you primarily focus your efforts inshore or offshore, most boaters pass by without ever noticing this saltwater crappie on steroids. A little practice and a lot of patience will go a long way towards ensuring successful days on the water, as targeting tripletail is about hunting structure as much as it is about hunting fish. Hopefully it won’t take you long to learn that if you find a safe haven on the surface, you will find the fish you seek. Fortunately for fly anglers, tripletail are not nearly as spooky as bonefish or tarpon, however, if you get too close they will takeoff. While they may not go far, it could be a while before they resurface.

When you locate promising structure approach very slowly with the intention of looking for and identifying a target. This will of course be highly dependent on water clarity and the angle of the sun. Polarized sunglasses will also lean the odds in your favor. Do not approach any closer than is needed to get a visual and when you spot a fish, move off and plan your attack. Although sight fishing is the name of the game, a blind cast or two can pay off even if the fish aren’t visible on the surface.

When running a trap line or set of navigational markers (investigating each marker along the way), remember that there is absolutely no reason to rush. Tripletail are slow and lethargic—until your hook meets its point. The more patient you can be, the better. When you spot a fish keep motoring down the line and start counting the buoys/markers beginning with the one holding your prize. Often times, I may investigate another 30 traps looking for additional fish, giving my sighted quarry time to cool down from my initial approach. When I am ready, I simply turn around and count backwards until I get back to the fish. The most integral part of your tripletail assault is in the hands of the captain. Driving up on the fish with the engine rumbling usually ends with a spooked fish. It is far better to drift by the fish, or stealthily approach with a trolling motor.

When targeting fixed structures tripletail will almost always face into the current, so plan on making your initial cast up-current from the fish. The idea is to draw the curious predator away from its crusty surroundings. If the fish does not come out to investigate your fly work your way in closer with successive casts. Tripletail are goofy and will frustrate many a fly angler. Often times they will follow a fly all the way to the boat where they will then take up position in the boat’s shadow. Three-foot casts are tough with a 9-foot fly rod, so if you have a follower that won’t eat within the first 10-feet, pull up the fly and allow your target to reposition back on the structure. When you make a cast attempt to hit the fish between the eyes. If you put the fly right in front of its face it is likely that instincts will takeover. However if you give them too much time to investigate, you will go home deflated and depressed almost every time.

Two major factors that will affect your approach include wind and current. If you are fishing free floating structures you do not have to compete with the current, as the boat and flotsam will have the same relative motion. Here the wind will be your biggest challenge, so it is best to plan your drift so that you pass on the downwind side of the fish. If you drift directly at the fish you are going to have limited time and angles to properly present a fly to your target. More importantly, the boat will eventually get too close and spook the fish. In addition, casting in the direction of your drift means that you have to overcome the momentum of the boat during your stripping retrieve to get the fly moving. In lighter winds this may not be a problem. In stronger winds it will be a big issue.

The proper gear for tripletail isn’t too complicated and should include a net and a sharp knife if you intend to harvest one of these great tasting fish. Remember that very sharp spines and protective scales make them formidable to handle on the boat and fillet table. Day in and day out prevailing weather conditions will dictate what you can get away with, although a 9-weight outfit usually provides enough punch in the wind and enough backbone to subdue almost any tripletail. Floating lines and non-weighted flies are preferred when the fish are on the surface, but an intermediate line will increase your odds when the fish are hanging deep or when there’s a slight chop on the surface. Eighteen inches of 20lb. or 30lb. fluorocarbon bite tippet is a must. Although tripletail are not particularly line shy, I prefer a long leader over a short one. If you need to shorten your leader to increase accuracy, do so as an accurate cast is much more important than an extra 8-inches of fluoro. An assortment of shrimp and crab patterns in various colors, sizes and sink rates will put you in the game.

Permit, tarpon, and bonefish are great adversaries, but tripletail are active year-round. Put them on your list of fly targets no matter where you call home. It may take you a bit of time to spot them and master the stealthy approach, but once you get the hang of things you’ll be surprised how many you’ll see. In my opinion tripletail are as close to the saltwater angler’s perfect fly-fishing target as you will find.