The Bama Coast's 'Other' Game

When it comes to saltwater angling on the Alabama shore, bluefish and tripletails attract scant publicity. Is that why these tough

customers always seem to be fighting mad? (June 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Inshore anglers on Alabama's Gulf Coast have a multitude of species to choose from once spring water temperatures have risen into the mid-60s, flounder, speckled trout and redfish being the most-targeted.

But for a change of pace, bluefish and tripletails are on the fishing menu as well. And if you opt to go after these two species, you're likely to face less competition.

BLUEFISH

While the solitude of wade-fishing can be most relaxing, the quiet along our coast at this time of year is often interrupted by the savage strikes of marauding bluefish charging the beaches in search of food. They may not be glamorous -- but they'll put up a fight!

Bluefish roaming the beaches will hit a variety of artificial lures. Since the blues are primarily after small finfish, any lure in a minnow pattern gets their attention. Silver is the best color to start out with, as that color mimics the scales on the sides of most finfish.

Not all bluefish are running close to the beach. With this in mind, you should have some heavier, more aerodynamic lures in your tackle box, too. Metal spoons can be cast a good way out from the beach, and will cut through a stiff sea breeze, and so fit the bill admirably in this situation.

Spoon weights of 3/4 to 1 ounce are helpful for gaining distance on the cast. All of these lures can be tweaked a little with the addition of a small plastic trailer. Often the addition of a color like, chartreuse, pink or yellow can stimulate more bites from blues.

Besides being a ravenous feeder, the bluefish possesses an awesome set of choppers. Its tiny, razor-sharp teeth will shred plastic baits, so have plenty of trailers on hand. Those teeth also can cut through most small-diameter monofilament lines.

To keep from losing all your baits to the bluefish's bite, you'll have to employ one of two tactics. The first involves using steel leaders of at least 20-pound-test at least 6 inches in length. This approach will provide protection for your lure supply.

Another option to help in your battle with the toothy blues is the use of braided line, which is very abrasion-resistant. Despite that, however, you'll have to cut and retie your line after three or four bluefish.

Structure-Oriented Blues

Shallow areas and beaches aren't the only places in which to zero in on the tenacious bluefish; they'll be found wherever a sufficient supply of baitfish is present. For instance, any barnacle-covered structure in Mobile Bay may be a haven for the small baitfish that draw in bluefish.

One of the blues' favorite feeding tactics is to stage just off the side of any structure when the current's flowing to exploit small baitfish that are swept into the structure and bang into it; disoriented by the collision, they become easy snacks for blues. To take advantage of blues feeding in this way, anchor your boat close enough to cast the bait and have it sweep by the edge of the structure. The bluefish will be waiting behind the structure, ready to pounce on anything passing.

A lot of these structure-fishing situations involve fish waiting in the shadows. Using a very brightly colored lure gets the attention of these ambushing bluefish.

Once while fishing the Sand Island Lighthouse, I located a highly active school of blues. By using a shad-colored plastic grub, I was getting strikes consistently. However, the sharp-toothed bluefish were shredding my plastic baits, so I looked into my tackle box to find some lures that I could afford to part with and tied on a bright chartreuse grub; it was inhaled on the first cast. After a little more fishing, I experimented with an outrageously hot pink; fish after fish slammed that grub. After a while I found a hot pink MirrOlure in my box; that nearly-indestructible hard-plastic bait produced bluefish till my arms were tired!

If you're not into artificial offerings, several natural baits will get the job done. Live shrimp freelined in the current will attract blues around structure. Frozen cigar minnows also yield results when presented on drift-lines behind your boat. Use just enough weight to get your baits down a couple of feet in the water column.

Blues Cruise

Fishing for bluefish doesn't always require you to walk along the beach or to do any structure-hopping to be successful. Many anglers take a leisurely approach to catching bluefish while they take time to enjoy the gorgeous coastal scenery, and trolling lures is one easy way to catch blues with little effort.

During the summer months, bluefish are plentiful around the point on which Fort Morgan sits to the east of the mouth of Mobile Bay. Catching them can be as simple as trolling spoons behind the boat as you sip on a soft drink.

Locating fish is similarly simple: Home in on bird flocks hovering frantically above schools of minnows that the blues are feasting on. Pulling spoons through this activity can produce bluefish or Spanish mackerel. Regardless of which of these fish are feeding, using wire leaders saves valuable lures.

Regulations

At this time there are no size or creel limits on bluefish in Alabama waters. Since bluefish don't freeze very well, you should only keep what you intend on eating for the next few days after your trip.

Bluefish can be a blast on light tackle. The feisty nature and acrobatic antics of the fish just add to the enjoyment.

TRIPLETAILS

The tripletail, which is sometimes call a "blackfish" along the northern Gulf Coast, is one of the least understood species of fish that enters inshore waters. With a large, oval-shaped body adorned back and belly with large fins that give it the look of having three separate tails, this fish has been known to bewilder anglers unfamiliar with this warm-weather visitor.

Often just bycatch incidental to the pursuit of nearshore species, tripletails move into inshore waters during late May and stay close until waters cool in late September. Water temperature and salinity are critical factors in the equation that describes successful tripletail angling.

Tripletails average about 6 to 12 pounds; however, fish over 20 pounds are pulled from Alabama waters each summer, and some anglers refer to tripletails as "bream on steroids." Unlike the gregarious species, tripletails prefer to roam

in smaller schools. That doesn't mean you can't catch more than a few on a fishing trip, but in order to be win at this game, you have to learn more about the habits of the fish.

Shade-Seeker

The primary thing to remember about tripletails is their affection for shade. Blackfish seek out the comfort and protection of shade, making them predictable enough to target despite their relatively low numbers. Oddly enough, they often lie on their sides near the surface in the shade, looking like large dead leaves.

Farther out, tripletails lurk underneath grasslines. The noticeable silvery-black color of larger tripletails contrasts obviously with the grass, but smaller individuals wear some camouflage: Gold scales intermixed along their sides blend in easily with the hue of Sargassum grass found in the Gulf. Tripletails are also found under floating debris in the Gulf; buckets, plastic, wood and other trash can provide them with desirable hiding places.

In inshore waters -- particularly in Mobile Bay -- tripletails associate with any structure that casts a shadow. Gas rigs, channel markers, floating marker buoys and tall pilings can all hold tripletails if conditions are right.

Tripletail Targets

Of the places mentioned that can be concealing some tripletails, none are more reliable than the channel markers of Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound. Mobile Bay Ship Channel is dotted with these markers from the mouth of the north end of the bay to its mouth.

Not all the markers indicate the presence of tripletails; in fact, a lot of the fun of fishing for them lies in the process of seeking them out. Often you can catch several fish at a single marker, and then have to check out several others to find the next fish. It also appears to be the case that the older a marker seems, and the more that barnacles encrust it, the better the chances are that tripletails are in the vicinity.

Along both the ship channel and the Intracoastal Waterway running through Mississippi Sound are several tall range-markers. Ships use these four-legged beacons to keep to the middle of the channel. These markers usually sit just off the main channel, and are therefore in slightly shallower water.

In Mobile Bay, several artificial reefs have been built for inshore fishing. Constructed of shells or concrete rubble, they are then encircled with large markers to indicate their location -- not least to warn shrimp boats off from pulling over the structure and ripping their nets.

The marker poles can be magnets for tripletails, and competition for angling space on these reefs from inshore anglers can be correspondingly stiff. These poles are best fished at midday, when other fish have gone off the bite, thus thinning out the anglers. Tripletail fishermen can have the reefs to themselves when this occurs.

Other objects to keep an eye open for when searching for tripletails are crab-trap floats. These often hold fish, particularly when other more-permanent structures are getting a lot of fishing pressure.

When you're after blackfish, it'll pay to check any floating object you encounter. The fish have been caught under floating logs, plastic bags -- even under dead fish. If it makes shade, it may attract tripletails.

Tripletail Tactics

There are two schools of thought on tactics for tackling tripletails in coastal Alabama. The first advocates employing all-modern methods; the second style is known as "old-school." Let's start with the modern methods first.

Technology has brought many advantages to today's angler. From innovation in rods and reels to advanced engineering in fishing lines, today's anglers have it made. Lightweight rods supply the casting capacity needed to drop a bait in front of a tripletail's nose, and the brute strength of today's reels and lines allows you to muscle up on a tripletail and drag it away from structure.

The most common setup for taking tripletails is a medium-to-heavy spinning or casting rod at least 7 feet in length. The reel will be spooled with 50-pound or stronger braided line. A black swivel is attached just below a barrel weight of at least 1/2 ounce. Next, a fluorocarbon leader of the same test and 2 to 3 feet is tied on. Finally a 6/0 heavy-duty bronze hook is used.

The most profitable assaults on tripletails entail teamwork: One person steers, holding the boat in a downcurrent position, while the other casts the bait to the targeted structure or floating object. The angler slowly reels the bait, trying to match the speed of the current. Several casts are made to sweep the lure or bait past each likely spot.

Tripletails don't seem to spook especially easily, so some anglers ease the boat right up to the structure and jig the bait vertically, being careful to work around the entire area. This vertical jigging will draw strikes from other species hugging the structure as well.

Some Mobile Bay anglers fish for tripletails in a style that dates to an earlier era. Using large Calcutta poles was the conventional method for going after blackfish in the bay for over 75 years. The poles resemble large bamboo canes, but are much stronger. Unlike the bamboo pole, which is hollow, Calcutta poles have fibers all the way through, giving them strength.

Tripletail fishermen use 14- to 16-foot poles to drop the bait right beside the object that they're focusing on. The long poles allow a little more control over the bait, so the angler can concentrate on the shady side or the "sweet spot" of the target.

The poles are matched to at least 80-pound monofilament line tied to them; a large balsa float on the line serves to detect strikes. Crimped-on lead weights are used with a heavy-duty hook below.

Once a fish is hooked, the angler signals the driver to pull away, thus keeping the fish out of the structure. With no reel on the pole, it's man against beast! The angler must apply leverage with the pole, holding it at different angles to steer the fish and making sure that pole and line are never aimed straight at the fish.

Baits

The No. 1 bait for tripletails is a large live shrimp -- the bigger the better. Bait shops often pull the really big shrimp out (probably to take home for dinner or the home freezer) and don't have them for sale. If you can't locate big live shrimp, you may do better to stop by the seafood shop to pick up some fresh jumbos. Live is better, but dead does work.

Tripletails also hit small live mullet or croakers. The flashier the bait is the better, so keep a lively minnow on the hook.

Tripletails can be tricked with artificial lures, too. Plastic minnow imitations draw strikes, as do large shrimp imitations. D.O.A. Baits makes a jumbo-sized plastic shrimp that catches tripletails. Natural colors like clear or smoke work best.

Regulations

The limit on tripletails in Alabama is three per person. The minimum size limit is 16 inches total leng

th.

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