The Tricky Tripletail

News & Tips: The Tricky Tripletail

TrickyTripletail 2Ever been pulled overboard by a fish? That's only happened to me once, and that distinction is awarded to the tripletail, certainly the oddest sportfish on the Gulf or Southeast Atlantic states. Getting yanked overboard requires a powerful fish, but that's no problem for a critter that sports "three tails."


Our little boat was tied to a Gulf platform just offshore, a known hotspot for these fish. Spotting a good-sized triple loitering next to a piling, I dabbled a gold spoon in front of it, which was promptly inhaled. I knew these fish are powerful and my 20-pound line inadequate for the job, so I set the hook and ran the length of the jonboat, hopping from seat to seat, horsing the fish away from barnacle-covered pipes. But this tripletail was different. Instead of bolting for cover, their normal method of escape, he ran for the horizon. This sudden sideways yank caught me in mid-air between boat seats, and whap! I hit the water hard, landing on the side of my face.


Underwater without a life jacket, I sank down in murky green water, a little stunned, but kicking and still holding a bent rod. Back on the surface, I handed the rod off to a mirthful fishing buddy, who was soon busy turning that puppy around, a fine 15-pounder. One of five tripletail we caught that blissful but soggy summer afternoon.


You see, it's that broad, "triple" tail that makes these fish fight so hard. Normally they dive straight for cover and break off a great many lures; we've only had a handful ever run for the horizon like that. Indeed, while snorkeling Gulf platforms, I've seen a number of tripletail with trout jigs still on their lips, fish that couldn't be stopped.


It's obviously easier to catch a tripletail in open water. This is a pelagic fish perfectly happy in deep or blue water, but they crave any possible cover and shade, even if they can just stick their faces under a crab trap float. They prefer and concentrate around bigger floating weedlines offshore, along with floating crates, trees and planks. Hook a triple in open water around a simple crate or plank, and you can wear him down with light tackle. Unless he brushes that floating object, or his sharp gill plates don't cut the line. For that reason, a short, hard, mono leader of 20 or 30 pounds is recommended.


Since tripletail also leave the clear Gulf and wander the bays in murky water, they're well hidden in higher boat traffic areas. But alert boaters passing by can spot them, when these fish bask flat on the surface, resembling nothing more than a semi-submerged garbage bag. If the boat roars by too close, these fish invariably dive from sight-spooked by the commotion. That's why the best way to target them is to ease quietly within casting range of anything in the bay offering shade, and blind-cast a live bait under a cork. Either drift by, use an electric motor, or quietly anchor and cast.


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Tripletail love cover and shade.

When fishing solid structure, like a navigation "day marker" in the bay, or a metal ship channel buoy, use stronger tackle and don't hop around in the boat. One good casting option is the Ambassadeur 7000 reel that doesn't backlash easily, yet has the muscle to pull very hard. You would also want a hard, abrasion-resistant line for that reel, like 40-pound Ande. With that heavier tackle you would need a stronger hook, as well. We use 4/0 J-hooks with our 20-pound baitcaster rigs, and 6/0 hooks for the heavier gear just mentioned. Tripletail have a fairly solid mouth, but a set hook tends to remain there, unlike the rock-hard mouth of a sheepshead.


Anglers spending a serious day searching for these fish would do well to invest in an electric motor, since these fish are very noise-shy. When nearing likely structure, or after spotting a floating tripletail, it's best to cut the outboard motor at perhaps 30 yards and idle in closer for a cast. An electric would also make it easier to anchor in the ideal spot, without using the noisier outboard. Without electric, you're at the mercy of wind and current when making an approach, unless the gas engine is running. Anchor as quietly as possible, without heaving the anchor out with the old "Captain Hook splash."


Tripletail are so little known, there were no limits on these fish until 2012 and 2013 in Texas and Louisiana. Though little known, no limits meant they were left wide-open for plunder by anglers who figured them out, and both states saw abuse on the coast by just a few boats. Texas put a stop to that with a limit of three, and then Louisiana with five fish. Five still sounds extravagant; four guys in a boat can still keep 20 tripletail every day of the week, when they can find them. That's a lot of attrition, for a temporary visitor from the Gulf.


Natural baits are best for tripletail. This predator operates in a stealthy fashion, sitting so quiet, passing baitfish might take him for cover. I've seen it happen once, while offshore in blue water. We were at a big weedline that contained a huge floating tree. In it hovered a sizeable tripletail, unmoving, watching passing small 5-inch amberjacks (or banded rudderfish, which look identical). Closer and closer they passed the tripletail, which never moved, and appeared dead. Then, wham! Quick as a snake it bolted two feet and seized a baitfish, which are normally quite fast and agile. But probably too slow to process this dead, floating object that suddenly came to life. The tripletail sat there with half a rudderfish sticking from his mouth, the tail still squirming. We were slack-jawed. And we didn't catch that tripletail, it simply eased back under the mat of floating grass to enjoy its meal.


Anyway, go with live baits if you have it. Anything bite-size and wiggly will work, but you need a small, strong hook that will fit the baitfish without slowing it down. Big, live shrimp are also a favorite. Shrimp and mullet will have to be kept in a good live well, while a tougher live bait would be marsh minnows that can live even in a coffee can, if you change the water now and then. And marsh minnows wiggle much harder than shrimp. The wiggle-factor seems to turn on tripletail, along with many other predator fish.


As for artificial baits, we've caught triples on gold spoons with strong treble hooks, and also a variety of jigs both bucktail and with plastic tails. One of my tripletail inhaled a pink MirrOlure, cast near a wrecked shrimpboat in the surf. They're not a picky fish, they just need an offering placed in front of them, either dangled or worked very slowly until this odd fish makes up its mind.


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Using spinning tackle is best for hooking tripletail for a long fight in the open water.

Carry a variety of jigs. You want a slow-sinking model with plenty of wiggle when casting at surface tripletail. However most tripletails are spotted on the surface, and a weighted lure soon sinks past their vision. Use something like an 8th ounce jighead with a twister plastic tail. A heavier half-ounce jig will probe the depths around and even inside platforms; I've seen many tripletail hovering 15-20 feet down, inside structures.


Hooking a tripletail on spin tackle would be best for a long fight, but that would require open water with no obstructions. Like a weedline offshore, though a long fight could involve weed caught on the line. A floating crate with a lurking tripletail would be a good target with spin gear. Heavier gear is required, however, around permanent structure. These fish are quite powerful, capable even of jumping, and they are certainly structure-crazy, often diving into cover as quickly as any snook or grouper. Even with heavy gear, some tripletail are too strong to stop. They've been caught up to 37 pounds, at least.


Best season is June through September for these fish. If you happen to land one, keep in mind that a small one has very little meat, just like the sheepshead. A five-pounder might give you enough fillet meat for a dinner for two. Be sure to release those that are smaller, since they grow much bigger and quickly, too. There is nothing sadder than a picture of pile of two- and three-pound tripletail piled up in a boat, prior to the new daily bag limits.


My personal best tripletail was also my first one, a 22-pounder that hit a bucktail jig dangled perhaps 15 feet down. It was a blind strike (I was fishing for trout), and was literally standing on a small Gulf platform. The mystery fish made a strong run, then jumped and revealed itself about 20 yards out, shaking its head. After him! We both jumped down in the small boat and motored after him-a strong fish making a powerful run that threatened to empty my reel. There in open water it was finally gaffed in the lip and swung aboard, an impressive trophy that later yielded two thick white fillets back home. Baked in the oven back home, one bite was enough to make your eyes roll back in your head.


Tripletail are assuredly the best-eating fish found in most coastal waters. They have white, delicate meat that is a special treat either baked or fried, better than competing gag grouper, cobia, flounder, redfish or sheepshead.