Peach State Hide & Seek Tripletails

These odd-acting game fish show up along the Georgia coast this month, offering some challenging angling. Join the author as he explores sight-casting for tripletails in May. (May 2009)

Brooks Schoen took this tripletail offshore of Jekyll Island in the spring. Photo by Capt. Spud Woodward.
Photo by Capt. Spud Woodward.

In this era of the Game Cube, the X Box, and other devices seemingly designed to paralyze youngsters in front of a television or computer, it's encouraging that children still play hide and seek. While most of us leave that game behind with our youth, a group of saltwater anglers has discovered a new and socially acceptable way to play hide and seek courtesy of a peculiar looking and acting fish that visits the Georgia coast -- the tripletail.

Looking somewhat like a freshwater bream on steroids, the species gets its name from the location and shape of the extended dorsal and anal fins, which makes the fish appear to have three tails. Usually mottled brown or gray in appearance, the tripletail has an almost supernatural ability to instantly change color. The mouth, located at the tip of the snout, looks deceptively small, but can quickly open wide to engulf unsuspecting prey.

The drab and chunky tripletail makes up in angling challenge what it lacks in beauty. Imagine a 10-pound bluegill with the fickleness of a wily old gobbler and the personality of a mad Brahma bull when hooked.

MYSTERY FISH
Like many other migratory saltwater fishes, the first tripletails arrive in Georgia waters about the end of March, when nearshore ocean water temperatures have reached the mid-60s. The appearance of cannonball jellyfish off the beaches is a sure sign that it's tripletail time in coastal Georgia. By mid-April, the fish are here in good numbers, and May can be one of the best months to target them.

While scientists are still working on ways to accurately age tripletails, some believe the species can reach a weight of 5 pounds in the first year, making it one of the fastest growing saltwater fish. The Georgia record is a hefty 38 pounds, 14 ounces, just a few pounds off the all-tackle world record of 42 pounds, 5 ounces caught off South Africa.

While a 30-pound tripletail is exceptional, Georgia anglers catch several tripletails over 25 pounds every year. All sizes make great table fare, but most anglers prefer to keep the mid-sized fish and release the big ones, as they're usually older females, which are more important as spawners than as dinner.

Offshore, anglers usually find tripletails around Sargassum weed and other floating material. Inshore, tripletails lie at the surface near fixed structure, such as channel markers, pilings and crab-trap floats. Small fish, shrimp or swimming crabs pass close by or may seek shelter around the structure or even under the floating tripletail itself. To these small prey the tripletail is just another place to hide. Unfortunately, for some, they don't notice the difference until they're ambushed.

Curiously, the tripletails that congregate in the waters offshore of Jekyll Island during the spring and early summer exhibit a variant of this floating behavior. They simply lie on their side in open, shallow water without any association with structure or buoyant materials. While the behavior itself isn't unusual, it's very much a mystery why hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tripletails pick this small area of the Atlantic Ocean to call home for a few months each year. Especially when there are plenty of other places along the Georgia coast with similar features.

Perhaps it's the abundance of white shrimp and small menhaden spilling out of the St. Simons estuary that draws them to this spot? Maybe they congregate for spawning? Whatever the reason, there's no other place along the Georgia coast where tripletails can be found in such large numbers in such a small area of open ocean.

For years, a very select group of anglers fished near inshore structure around the Golden Isles for tripletails, or eddyfish as they called them. Amazingly, no one actively targeted the abundant free-swimming fish. Things changed abruptly in the mid-1990s when anglers and fishing guides took notice of the large numbers of floating tripletails just off Jekyll Island. Soon the word spread about this unique fishery that combines the best of hunting and fishing. Nowadays, it's common to find a couple dozen or more boats in the area on a sunny May weekend.

THE HUNT IS ON
Sight-fishing for free-swimming tripletails is a mixture of relaxation and intensity. You wake at the civilized hour of 8 a.m. and load the boat with tackle, a cooler of beverages and food, and the rest of your usual safety and angling gear. After stopping to purchase a quart of live shrimp, you and your fishing buddy pull away from the Mackay River public boat ramp at a leisurely 9 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, you arrive at your destination in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile east of the north end of Jekyll Island.

The sun in the cloudless morning sky illuminates the water's surface, and a light westerly wind barely ripples the swells left from the previous afternoon sea breeze. The tide is coming in, and the water beneath the boat is free of suspended silt. Conditions are perfect, but will the fish be on the surface?

Idling along at the slowest speed possible, you begin scanning the water as your partner readies two rods baited with live shrimp. You and your partner look near and far for anything floating on or near the surface. A tripletail may resemble a drifting trash bag, a bucket lid, maybe even a floating stick. You're looking for anything out of the ordinary. Hat brim, glasses, and most importantly, the boat's position relative to the sun help tame the glare.

After 15 minutes of searching, you remove your sunglasses to wipe perspiration from your brow just as your partner shouts.

"There's one!"

He points off the bow at the 2 o'clock position. Frantically, you fumble with your glasses as you pilot the boat on a course parallel and upwind of the fish. Closing within 20 yards, you move the throttle to the neutral position. It's up to your partner now.

He makes the cast, but you share the performance anxiety. If the bait hits too close, the fish will be startled and disappear from sight. If the bait lands too far away, your buddy will never get the live shrimp back in front of the tripletail before the boat drifts down on the fish. Fortunately, his angling geometry is just right, and the float lands a short distance beyond and in front of the motionless fish.

A few turns of the spinning reel handle puts the bai

t in just the right spot -- tripletail and orange cork converge. The fish goes from horizontal to vertical in the blink of an eye, and you see the flash as it maneuvers to catch the panicked shrimp. A millisecond later, the cork disappears, and your partner sets the hook with a twist of the hip.

The tripletail leaps from the water, then dives for the bottom only 8 feet below. Quickly, the fish changes course again and heads straight for the boat. After a couple of failed attempts to tangle with the outboard lower unit, the fish finally tires. You scoop it up with the landing net and bring it onboard.

Leaving the fish in the net, your partner lips it with the BogaGrip and removes the hook, carefully avoiding the steak-knife-like edges of the gill cover. The fish drops the hand scale to 10 pounds, and the smiling angler pauses for you to take a photo before he releases the fish.

You quickly move to the bow, and bait up the spinning rod with another shrimp as your partner takes the wheel.

"There's another fish off our stern!" he shouts.

The hunt is on again.

NOW YOU SEE THEM, NOW YOU DON'T
Sight-fishing is a wonderful group activity, because the more eyes you have looking, the greater the odds of finding fish. Standing on an elevated platform, such as a cooler, leaning post, poling platform or even the gunwale, gives you a greater field of vision. A hat with a dark brim and high-quality polarized eyewear are musts.

The optimum conditions for sighting free-swimming tripletails are clear skies, moderate to light wind, calm seas and clean water. Under a bright sun, floating tripletails, especially the large females, typically appear white against the background of greenish-brown water. Fish in the brown color phase show as a dark spot on the surface. When the fish are not in a horizontal position at the surface, all you'll see is the dark dorsal and tail fins. Seeing that first fish can be a challenge, but once you do, it becomes easier.

Sunbathing tripletails can be found at all stages of the tide, but have a tendency to move inshore and offshore with the change between flood and ebb. According to Capt. Greg Hildreth, a Brunswick guide who has a passion for tripletails, you see about 25 fish on the average trip and get to present bait to about half that number. On my best day of the 2008 season, we saw 60 tripletails, cast to 21, and brought eight to the boat. By sight-fishing standards, that's an exceptional day.

A free-swimming tripletail is an unpredictable adversary. Some fish are oblivious to the boat and angler, while others seem to know you're looking at them and submerge the instant you spot them. Some fish are so aggressive they hit the float several times before going after the bait. Then, there are those that swim up to your carefully positioned terminal tackle only to refuse to eat. This fickle behavior is part of the allure of sight-fishing for tripletails.

If you see a fish and it submerges when you approach, stay in the general area, as it may come back to the surface within a few yards of where it was originally spotted. After five minutes or so, you have two choices: Cut the engine and loiter in that area in hopes you'll see more fish, or put the engine in gear and search some new territory. Both approaches can be productive. It's just a matter of your preference.

While it's possible to see a free-swimming tripletail anywhere along the Georgia coast, the area just east of the north end of Jekyll Island is the only place you find a large congregation of free-swimming fish. About midway down the island's shore from St. Simons ship channel, a long sandbar extends out into the ocean. The area from this sandbar north to the edge of the channel is the most productive zone. Since the bottom is largely a featureless expanse of sand, it's best to use a GPS-plotter device or landmarks on shore for orientation.

Tripletails can be found within a few hundred yards of the beach out to three or four miles offshore in depths from 6 to 12 feet. Look for schools of menhaden and glass minnows as clues to the whereabouts of tripletails. Be aware that all motorized vessels must remain 1,000 feet off the Jekyll Island oceanfront beach between May 1 and Sept. 30 to protect swimmers.

TACKLING TRIPLETAILS
While a few tripletail anglers opt to use baitcasting gear, most prefer medium-action spinning outfits spooled with new generation super braid lines. Regardless of your personal preference, keep in mind that pinpoint accuracy at a distance is the key to success when sight-fishing. On any day, you might find yourself dueling with fish from 5 to 25 pounds, so choose your line-test accordingly.

Terminal tackle for natural baits is a simple proposition. Using a 30-pound-test barrel swivel, connect a 12-inch length of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon to the end of the main line. Next, you need a high-visibility float to keep the bait suspended in the water and mark the location of your terminal tackle. I like the kind commonly use for freshwater fishing that has a spring-loaded hook on each end. I attach the float just above the barrel swivel. A weighted rattling cork like the Cajun Thunder model can be also be used. The same length of fluorocarbon leader is tied directly to a barrel swivel located at the end of the wire below that type float.

The tripletail's ambush-and-gulp feeding style seems a perfect match for circle hooks. However, most anglers still use conventional hooks. I'm a big proponent of circle hooks, but I follow the majority in that I prefer wide-gap or Kahle hooks, such as the L141 Eagle Claw in size 2 or 4. So far, I've not seen any difference in response to hook finish, although I admit to a fondness for red hooks.

A live shrimp is the bait of choice, and a state-licensed live-bait dealer is the best source. Hook the shrimp in the head or through the tail, whichever your preference as long as the bait is lively and able to swim freely. Small menhaden and finger mullet draw strikes from hungry tripletails, but sometimes they're so fast and agile, the frustrated tripletail gives up. I slow down the baitfish by substituting a 1/4-ounce jighead for the conventional hook. Interestingly, mud minnows, an easy-to-catch and durable baitfish found in the tidal creeks, don't work well for tripletails.

Weight-integrated shrimp imitations, such as those made by D.O.A., Betts and Berkley, can be effective. Small to medium-sized topwater lures in colors that mimic menhaden, such as the Yo-Zuri Banana Boat and Rapala Skitter Walk, produce strikes when tripletails are in an aggressive mood. Free-swimming fish are also a great target for flyfishermen, as well. An 8-weight outfit spooled with floating line and paired with a saltwater baitfish or crustacean pattern can be deadly.

THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW
In 1997, forward-looking fishing guides and anglers from the Golden Isles area voiced concerns about the unregulated tripletail fishery to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Although little was known about the species, the Georgia legislature, at the urging of the DNR and these concerned indivi

duals, responded by establishing harvest regulations of an 18-inch minimum size and five-fish-per-person daily limit in 1998.

The popularity of tripletail fishing continued to grow. By 2005, anglers and guides were once again fearful that the five-fish daily limit was too liberal. This time, conservation groups like the Coastal Conservation Association of Georgia and the Georgia Wildlife Federation joined in to advocate for change. In 2006, the Georgia legislature reduced the daily limit for tripletails to two fish.

Even now, there are several individuals who believe this limit is too generous, particularly if we want to ensure the long-term viability of the springtime fishery for the free-swimming tripletail off Jekyll. They see boats filled with four to six people, each taking their two-fish daily limit as irresponsible and very risky. However, in the absence of more science-based information about tripletails, it's difficult for the DNR to recommend further restrictions.

While Jekyll marks Georgia's prime spot for tripletail congregation, there is one more location along the Atlantic Coast where these fish amass -- the area around Port Canaveral, Florida. Anglers believe that tripletails concentrate in both places to spawn; however, there is no credible science-based evidence. The DNR and the University of Georgia are conducting a joint study during 2009 and 2010 to determine if the tripletails offshore Jekyll Island are actually spawning in the area. Information from this study will help decide whether the springtime fishery deserves special management or not.

In the meantime, anglers continue to look forward to a rite of spring -- playing hide and seek with the camouflaged mystery fish. Grab your fishing and tackle and join the game.

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