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Creatures of Contradiction

Occurring in what is arguably the widest ranging habitat of any species in Florida, and doing so while blending into their surroundings with unparalleled mimicry, tripletail exhibit strange behavior patterns and can be difficult targets to find and fool on a consistent basis. At home in the backcountry carelessly floating atop seagrass and also hiding within sargassum seaweed in the Gulf Stream, these creatures of contradiction appear to be a mix of a freshwater bream and saltwater sunfish and far from a sleek predator recognized for its impressive agility and sporting qualities.

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Juvenile tripletail often display yellow, brown and black coloration to mimic dead and decaying mangrove leaves.

Aptly named for the unique positioning of their anal, dorsal and caudal fins, tripletail can be encountered on any given day of the year in any location of the state. They are distributed worldwide and unusually prevalent along particular regions of the Gulf and Atlantic. Juveniles found along inshore habitats often mimic floating plant matter in color, pattern and movement, while fish found offshore adopt a wide variety of mottled color patterns to blend in with lush sargassum seaweed. Regardless of habitat, tripletail prefer to drift in an unassuming stance with head and eyes carefully focused on the surface.

While little is known about the migratory patterns of pelagic tripletail stuck in the North Atlantic Gyre and Sargasso Sea, tagging studies have revealed interesting findings on near-shore movements in Florida’s waters and beyond. As the scientific community uncovers more about the spawning patterns and migratory trends of Gulf and Atlantic stock tripletail, anglers can hypothesize when and where they will show up in the largest concentrations. In Florida, some of the more consistent fisheries exist in St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral, Florida Bay, Fort Myers, Tampa Bay and Apalachicola Bay, though if you know what to look for you can easily find your own fish from any port of call.

...tripletail prefer to drift in an unassuming stance with head and eyes carefully focused on the surface.

Structure is key to success regardless if it’s a floating crab trap marker or coconut bobbing in the Gulf Stream. The longer growth has accumulated, the better chance of there being a tripletail lingering in the shadows. Inshore anglers fishing the flats and casting at mangrove shorelines report floaters popping up when least expected. These fish appear to be moving aimlessly, soaking up the sun as they digest their most recent meal and are typically quite skittish or completely lack any interest whatsoever. Often times they will wait for your bait or fly to literally float right in front of their face before deliberately moving away in the opposite direction. As discouraging as this may sound, don’t pass up a shot at a floater. Inshore anglers can also find tripletail holding in the eddy created by navigational markers and bridge piling abutments, but targeting them in this manner is somewhat potluck and the sole reason this mysterious fish remains an anomaly few consider chasing. However, there are opportunities across the state where tripletail can be pursued with relative consistency.

Whether it’s a line of white mooring balls protecting a nearby swimming beach, series of colorful stone crab trap floats that are removed seasonally, or permanent buoys like those marking shipping channels or overnight anchorages, the aging algae and barnacle encrusted tethers stretching to the seafloor provide the perfect arena for tripletail to ambush unsuspecting forage. And, if you look carefully you might even find tripletail hovering alongside the occasional PVC stake in the backcountry marking smaller cuts transecting the flats, clam leases or the entrance and exit to isolated channels.

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Photography: Doughertyphotos.com

In what is perhaps the state’s most celebrated tripletail fishery, anglers on the Space Coast sight fish giant blackfish just off area beaches as they drift with sargassum and other forms of flotsam in green-tinted water. These floaters eventually intercept the permanently anchored navigation buoys near Port Canaveral. Home to numerous tripletail IGFA world records, the waters in the vicinity of Canaveral’s shipping channel see an increased prevalence of tripletail from March through June. Here, there’s a chance you might cast to a fish approaching 20 pounds!

Along the Sunshine State’s southern cape stretching into Florida Bay, stone crab trap buoys dot the surface from October to May and provide ample structure for tripletail to take advantage of. While stone crab claws are a delicacy, the buoys also provide prime sight fishing opportunities. Yet despite the thousands of buoys dotting the surface, there are certain factors that will contribute to your success or failure. Accessing this distant fishery beyond Everglades National Park boundaries is best accomplished by trailering to Flamingo and running to the Gulf through Lake Ingraham. From here, the colored buoy lines exist just five or more miles west and stretch to the north for many miles.

Apalachicola Bay is yet another hotbed for big tripletail and here the game is focused around blue crab trap buoys in depths as shallow as four feet. The same story plays out in Tampa Bay and the backwaters of Charlotte Harbor. However, just because your hometown isn’t revered as a tripletail hot spot does not mean there aren’t big fish to be found.

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Photography: Pete Milisci

There is still a lot to learn about tripletail, but the scientific community is starting to reveal some interesting tagging data through traditional streamer tags and underwater acoustic telemetry. Louisiana’s Cooperative Marine Fish Tagging Program is one of several organizations focused on uncovering the secrets of the globally distributed pelagic species. Tagged during the summer of 2016 near Grand Isle, Louisiana, one of their most noteworthy fish was recovered in Marco Island, Florida, after traveling 543 miles and spending 168 days at large. Hopefully, with increased angler participation scientists can more accurately determine fish population structure, movement patterns and habitat preferences across the tripletail’s wide-ranging ecosystems.

Similarly, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources operates acoustic and cooperative tagging projects in hopes of adding to the knowledge of these seemingly lazy fish. Here, it has been revealed that Florida and Georgia share a migratory population of nomadic tripletail that spend the winter in South Florida before returning to Georgia during the spring where they remain until November.

Another institution undertaking research on tripletail 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, but the data that has been accrued from the scientific community as a whole has been rather erratic. Amid individual fish covering many miles, one particular report of a recaptured tripletail revealed it moved a mere 55 miles over a 561-day period. 

In any venue, this is an incredibly exciting sight fishery. And, with any tact where you desire to peer through the water’s surface it’s best accomplished with the sun high in the sky to lessen the glare. You can pitch live or dead shrimp, artificial shrimp or crabs, or a shrimp or crab imitation fly. Most of the time tripletail have a hard time ignoring anything that resembles a shrimp, but that is not to say that every fish will commit. Anglers fishing artificial baits will sometimes encounter fish that follow closely throughout the entire retrieve only to turn off at the last second. Fortunately, you can often make several casts to the same fish before it retreats out of sight.

No matter what you choose to toss, you don’t want a heavy offering that will land with too much force. The goal is to present your bait or fly a few feet up current from the fish and let the moving water sweep the bait into the strike zone, making it look as natural as possible. A live shrimp is arguably the best bait, although larger fish drifting offshore respond to more substantial meals and have no problem engulfing a live finfish. I’ve had tripletail refuse live shrimp rigged on 15 lb. fluorocarbon leader and others commit to a live pilchard on 50 lb. leader and 3X circle-hook rigged for yellowfin tuna.

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Spanning the water column, crab trap buoys and pot lines that are covered in growth offer prime habitat for tripletail.
Photography: Pete Milisci

When targeting tripletail with natural baits, most spool with 20 lb. braid and 20 lb. fluorocarbon. A 1/0 J-hook is often all that’s needed to get your bait in the zone, though a 1/8 oz. jighead or tiny split shot will help if current or wind requires added weight. Tripletail are lethargic feeders, but that all changes as you swing back and set the hook. Once these odd fish feel the sting it’s game on, with powerful runs and acrobatic leaps the norm.

If you’re fishing an individual buoy or find a pallet floating offshore, then it’s highly advised you approach in a silent manner, either drifting or under trolling motor power. Along a trap line where multiple opportunities exist you would be greatly limited by approaching each so cautiously. Rather, run the skiff on plane about 50 feet from the buoys with the sun at your back. When you’re scouting crab trap buoys that are periodically removed from the water be sure to make note of any seagrass or sargassum floating on the trap line. Chances are, if the line is clean then the trap was recently pulled, disturbing any nearby tripletail. In this case, it’s suggested you jump to another trap line that’s had a lengthier soak time.

When you spot a tripletail on a trap line resist the urge to immediately pull back the throttles. Instead, keep running for another couple buoys before making a wide turn and idling back to the fish. Most of the time tripletail aren’t pushed down by boat wake and even an idling outboard won’t send them scurrying, but if you see a really nice fish then it’s understandable why you would want to play it safe and silent. And, while tripletail under flotsam in blue water might occur in numbers, when fishing trap markers and buoys seldom will you encounter more than one fish per floater.

Mention sight fishing in a watering hole full of old salts and it is highly likely tall tales of tipping redfish overcome the conversations. However, tripletail have plenty of big fish attitude and 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.

 

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