Located within Everglades National Park at the southern tip of the state, Flamingo is one of Florida’s greatest treasures where the angling opportunities truly are endless. From the park’s entrance in Homestead anglers have a 38-mile drive to contemplate their day before reaching the marina at the Flamingo Visitor Center.
Redfish, snook and tarpon are the mainstays of Everglades National Park, with black drum, sheepshead and seatrout popular targets during the cooler months of the year. Whether fishing the area’s fertile flats, creeks or shorelines, visiting anglers are always in awe over the natural beauty and lush surroundings of this world-class destination. There really is no place like Flamingo and to have this unique venue in our own backyard makes me feel very fortunate. It is a very special place for many reasons and with a wide variety of game fish and fishing scenarios there’s always something to catch and never a dull moment. While sampling the area’s shallow water game fish is certainly not to be overlooked, we had a different plan this particular morning. We were going to venture out beyond park boundaries on my technical poling skiff and hunt tripletail on light tackle!
Once I’ve spotted a few fish I generally stay on the same line. Chances are that this set of buoys has had a longer soak than others nearby, hopefully attracting more crabs, shrimp and baitfish for tripletail to eat.
Tripletail—like most all game fish—use structure, tidal flow and wind to their advantage when hunting or simply hanging out. These odd looking fish can be found statewide along numerous arenas from inshore navigational markers to floating debris in thousand foot depths. Not particularly picky, tripletail can be found along nearly any form of flotsam or structure. These fish are rather mysterious and their migration and spawning patterns are relatively unknown. With tagging programs recently initiated, hopefully more will be revealed about these strange fish. While we occasionally encounter tripletail inshore, there is a much better approach.
From October to May, stone crab trap buoys dot the surface beyond park boundaries, and these buoys provide perfect structure for tripletail to take advantage of. While stone crab claws are a delicacy, the buoys also provide prime sight fishing opportunities. This area must yield the vast majority of the state’s stone crab claws, because the crab trap buoys are literally everywhere! However, don’t think just because you find some sort of structure you will find tripletail. Weather and tides are huge factors that will contribute to your success or failure. Clear skies will make for easier sight fishing, but you must also consider the wind direction and tidal flow.
Hunting tripletail isn’t something you can do everyday, but when I get the itch and want to venture beyond park boundaries I will look for days with winds out of the west or southwest. The majority of the traps are along the southwest coast, just west of Flamingo. When fishing this region a strong west wind generally makes the water dirty, but it also helps concentrate these fish along the coast.
If we get a few days of west wind, and a day or two of calm weather right after, then you can reach the fish without getting too beat up. Match the calm seas to arrive at the trap lines around the end of the incoming tide to fish throughout the beginning of the outgoing and it’s tripletail time!
If you are in a skiff and have some knowledge of the area you can run through Lake Ingraham after departing the marina at Flamingo. Either way, once you get past park boundaries start looking for crab trap buoys. Once you’ve found a trap there will be many more in the area and you can follow the trap lines for miles north. Not all buoys will hold fish and you want to search for ones with the most growth. The ones that appear dirty usually have not been picked up or checked in a while and these seem to get the most attention from tripletail. Until the trap is ripped from the water, tripletail have no reason to leave.
Since the buoy lines stretch north for miles and not every trap holds life, I like to run the skiff on a slow plane about 50 feet from the buoys so I can get a clear view of what lies beneath. Having the sun behind you will help tremendously in your ability to spot hovering fish. Once I’ve spotted a few fish I generally stay on the same line. Chances are that this set of buoys has had a longer soak than others nearby, hopefully attracting more crabs, shrimp and baitfish for tripletail to eat.
It’s important to run close enough that you can clearly see around the buoys, but it’s a fine line and if you get too close the fish will spook for deeper water. When we spot a tripletail on a buoy I generally keep my course and check out the next two buoys ahead, giving the spotted fish a chance to settle down. From here I will make a wide turn and idle back to the fish. Once within casting range I shut off the motor, but if your boat is outfitted with a trolling motor you can cruise right up to the buoy with a stealthier approach. Most of the time the fish aren’t very skittish and even an idling outboard won’t send them scurrying.
When it comes to proven offerings, it all depends on your preferred approach. You can pitch live or dead shrimp, artificial shrimp or crabs, or a shrimp or crab imitation fly. Most of the time they 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 and head back to the trap at the last second. Fortunately, you can often make several casts to the same fish before it retreats to deep water and follows the trap line out of sight.
No matter what you choose to toss you don’t want too much weight, because these fish usually hover just below the surface. The key is to present your bait or fly a few feet up current from the fish. Let the moving water sweep the bait into the strike zone, making it look as natural as possible. I really enjoy fooling them on fly and once you get their attention, short, steady strips will usually get them excited enough to strike. Different scenarios call for different techniques and if there isn’t much current you can sometimes get away with dropping your fly or bait right on their head.
This fishery is so visual that everyone will be oohing and aahing as the fish take control of the situation. Once hooked, tripletail fight rather hard for their size and often take to the air in an attempt to shake the hook. Tripletail must be 15 inches to harvest and many fish encountered beyond park boundaries are well over the legal limit. These temperamental fish excite anglers statewide, but there’s no better place to target them than right here. If you’ve never experienced this unique sight fishery you really are missing the boat.