Triple the Fun on the Gulf

Tripletails have some odd habits to go with their outlandish appearance. But they put up a good fight and are great on the dining table!

A hefty tripletail can put a bend in a fishing rod and a smile on the angler's face.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.

From what I've seen, heard, and learned during almost 40 years of living within a very short cast of some excellent saltwater fishing here on the Gulf coast, I doubt I'd be far wrong in believing that at least half of the anglers who regularly fish these waters have never seen a tripletail, much less caught one!

Part of that presumption is based on personal experiences. For almost two decades, I fished in waters that I later learned were full of them before I encountered my first one. It was 20 more years before I actually caught one! But after that, I began seeing them all over the place!

In fact, "seeing" is the main factor in catching these tantalizing, tentative -- and quite tasty -- fish. To catch them consistently, you have to be looking for the fish, and for the better part of my life on the coast, I wasn't. Since I got that first one, I sure have been!

What do you look for? Well, something that resembles a humongous freshwater crappie is one way to put it. Tripletails are brownish-black while in an upright position -- which is how most fish pass their time. But not this species, which likes to lie on its side just under the surface. While doing so, the fish appears starkly white.

I once asked a nationally renowned fisheries biologist about those color variations and why they occur. After several mumbled attempts at postulating plausible theories, he admitted, "Pete, I just don't know."

Whatever the reason, look for a brownish-black upright fish or a big white one lying on its side, and don't worry about "Why?"

Tripletails commonly range up to 10 pounds or so. But in the northern Gulf of Mexico, some in the 40-pound range have turned up. That's pretty big for a crappie!

Most tripletails weigh in the single digits, and for culinary appeal, that's just right. Fillet, skin, cut out the red meat and then slice the fillets into chunks. Next coat them with a beer batter and fast-fry them. Folks, that's hard to beat. Still, to reach this point, first you have to catch one.

These fish are found in temperate waters worldwide. Along the Gulf Coast, you may encounter them in water ranging from roughly 6 to 1,500 feet deep. They also inhabit large coastal bays and sounds, often in numbers that can provide a good day's sport. Usually, however, the best and most consistent action lies in near-shore waters.

Of the number of 'tails I've taken over the years, almost all of them came from the Gulf in water between 30 and 60 feet deep. More importantly, they were found along a current line, or "rip." Most important of all, that rip had accumulated odds and ends of flotsam. While these fish can certainly be found associating with stationary structure like pilings and buoys, the free-floating debris on rips is more dependable.

Flotsam that draws these fish occurs in many forms, shapes, and sizes -- both naturally and man-made -- and more of it is always better than less. Virtually anything afloat can serve that purpose, and as in many other types of fishing, a "different" piece of debris within the larger collection can be the best game in town.

A while back, I hosted one of television's biggest saltwater-fishing celebrities for a few days. Sea conditions were perfect throughout the period, and on one of those days, we decided to fly-fish for whatever we might come across out there.

Eventually we discovered several acres of Sargasso grass, some of which had compacted into small, thick mats. That is prime structure for tripletails. But our search through this very promising area yielded not a single fish. At least, not until we noticed a log in a small opening in the grass. That different structure held a school of tripletails, and we soon caught enough of them to provide delicious entrees at supper that night.

Toward the end of that day, something occurred that simply must be reported. Those fish had been fairly cooperative, and after we had caught a few of them on sinking flies, I suggested my guest try a popper. That amounted to rank speculation, since neither I nor anyone else I knew of had ever caught a 'tail on a popper.

But my guest did! That was a real hoot to watch. Try to imagine

a 6-pound bluegill taking a bream bug off the surface, and you have some idea of how it went. On flat water, it's well worth trying.

Just as these fish vary in color when you spot them in different positions, they can display radically different attitudes toward your offerings. Generally, though, a fresh shrimp impaled on a 1/4-ounce jighead suspended a foot or so beneath a popping cork is taken without much hesitation. Cast the rig close enough to the fish to get its attention, but not spook it.

With this rig, the main perk is that the bait stays in the fish's face. Without the float, the bait sinks or you have to retrieve it. Either of those options usually causes the fish to lose interest. The almost stationary presentation provided by the cork gives the fish time to make up its mind to eat it. A live shrimp in lieu of a dead one might help convince the fish to eat.

Another attribute of a popping rig is its ability to "call out" fish that lie beneath a thick mat of grass and some distance from its edges. Plunk it down alongside the mat, give the cork a good pop, and then let it sit for a few moments. If any tripletails are at home, they may come out to at least investigate it.

Medium-weight spinning or casting tackle and 15- or 20-pound line are appropriate for this fishing, since you may also call out a larger cobia.

As for fly-fishing for 'tails, that's the method used for something like 95 percent of those that have been caught from my boat. Sinking flies are extremely effective at times, and for apparently the same reason that the suspended shrimp are -- they stay in the fish's face. Small unweighted Deceiver-types and crab patterns that measure between 2 and 2 1/2 inches long on a size 2/0 hook work well. A 10-weight outfit complete with a 16-pound leader tipped with a foot of 40-pound fluorocarbon is about right. It also serves adequately for most cobia that might suddenly appear.

Present the fly to a point beyond the floating tripletail and in such a way that you don't cast right over the fish and "line" it. Then retrieve the fly right across the fish's nose, usin

g slow, short strips. But you may have to vary that retrieve speed if no strikes are drawn. Just try something different if the fish looks like it's losing interest.

Once you finally hook a tripletail, don't be surprised if you get a nice jump or two out of it, no matter what kind of gear you are using! That's another part of this fish's personality that so endears them to me.

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