The Gulf's Bountiful Blackfish

Whether you know them as blackfish or tripletail, these fish love the shade. Here are some tips for catching these cool customers.

by Mike Thompson

All along the Gulf Coast, anglers in the know get very excited when waters warm in late spring and early summer. Not only do the conditions for fishing comfort improve but also the odds for tangling with a truly odd saltwater gamester as well.

The fish is the blackfish, which is also known as a tripletail. This species received little fishing pressure until the discovery of how good it is as table fare.

Until recently, not much was known about the blackfish. What is known is that they start to appear in the northern Gulf of Mexico around late April and early May. This coincides with warming and the rise in salinity of the Gulf's coastal waters. The blackfish remain in the bays, sounds and nearshore areas until water temperatures start to cool in September and October.

Blackfish are noted for their odd habits. The best-known peculiarity is their fondness for seeking out shade, and the fish are attracted to almost any object that provides it. Channel markers, crab trap floats, buoys, floating grass mats and almost any floating debris congregate the fish.

As the blackfish move into inland waters, they are prone to relate to objects near channels. Wooden markers are especially attractive to blackfish as they travel inward on their summer migration.

Photo by John E. Phillips

The habit of seeking out shade has not gone unnoticed by anglers specifically targeting blackfish. There can be stiff competition for the limited number of markers or buoys that are known to attract blackfish.

The newfound popularity of targeting blackfish has prompted many anglers to engage in "pole politics." Two boats targeting a specific set of poles or markers get together and form a plan as to who will fish which markers. This eliminates the racing from marker to marker trying to beat another boat to a particular spot. Because of this, some anglers have come up with their own unique methods to attract the fish.

Years ago, before folks realized how important it is to keep our environment clean and pristine, some blackfish anglers created their own shade to attract blackfish. These fishermen would take a newspaper and place the sheets out along the edges of channels, where it floated and attracted blackfish. The sheets would be spread out at 200-yard intervals. After the entire daily paper was spread, the anglers would go back and start fishing at the first sheet.

Another - more environmentally friendly - way to attract blackfish is used by anglers who don't mind working for their catch. Plywood sheets cut into 2-foot by 2-foot squares, with a small hole drilled into one corner, can be anchored to bricks. This temporary shade is placed out in a probable area where blackfish travel. After a day of fishing, the "blackfish motels" can be gathered up and be used another day.

Catching blackfish can sometimes take on the characteristics of a hunt. Anglers looking for tripletail spend a great deal of time simply looking for floating objects. Once, while heading for a group of channel markers, a fishing partner and I came across a blackfish under a dead catfish! The blackfish was not feeding on the dead cat, but merely taking advantage of the shade the carcass provided. We managed to catch that 3-pound tripletail with a live shrimp!

Blackfish hit a variety of natural baits. Live mullet, croakers or pinfish tempt hungry tripletail, however, nothing seems to turn on blackfish more than shrimp. Blackfish rarely turn down a large, frisky, live shrimp.

Fresh dead jumbo shrimp also catch the attention of blackfish, with the fresher the better. These dead shrimp can be just as effective if presented properly. Dead shrimp are usually drawn up in the shape of a C after they expire. To make them appear live, insert a common wooden toothpick through the length of the shrimp. This gives it the natural straight appearance of a swimming live shrimp.

Angling for blackfish is really a search for both structure and shade. Find one and you usually find the other. If the structure you target is stationary, such as a channel marker or buoy, it is best to approach on the up-current side of the object, anchor and allow your baits to drift down to the structure.

If the object you target is floating, you can simply drift along with it, making casts to different areas around the object.

The use of a float or cork is vital to blackfish success. The float does two things. It keeps the bait near the surface and provides the visual indication of a strike that is needed when the fish softly takes the bait.

The average blackfish you encounter will be between 3 and 12 pounds. While not caught nearly as often, some fish exceed 20 pounds. With that size fish a definite possibility, you want you use stout tackle.

The most common rig used for blackfish is a medium to heavy spinning outfit. A 7-foot rod gives length for casting but should also have backbone for the fight. The reel should be spooled with 17- to 20- pound-test line. Fluorocarbon leader material of 40-pound-test offers advantages around the many barnacle-encrusted structures you target because it is strong and less visible to the fish.

Since tripletail of double-digit weights are a possibility, the hook you choose should be up to the task. A heavy, extra-strong bronze hook fits most situations. Black barrel swivels in the No. 7 size can handle even the toughest blackfish.

There are several areas along the Gulf Coast where anglers prefer to target blackfish using an older more traditional method. These fishermen employ a large Calcutta pole. Unlike a bamboo pole, which is hollow, the Calcutta has an almost solid core. A cross-section of one of these reveals fibrous strands running throughout the pole.

Calcutta poles of at least 16 feet are preferred. These poles are matched with 80-pound-test monofilament. A large cork is slipped onto the line and the hook is tied at the end. Crimp-on-weights are used to get the bait down to the desired depth.

One person controls the boat, positioning the other angler so that he can drop the bait directly beside the object being targeted. Approaching from the downcurrent side allows the driver to use the engine to hold the angler in position while the bait is placed all around the cover.

When the cork disappears, the angler on the pole informs the driver of the hook-up, so that they can move away from the structure to play the fish. Because the pole has no drag system, the fight truly becomes a battle of man vs. beast.

Even with the very heavy line, the key to fighting the fish is to keep the angle of the pole upright or to the side. This allows the pole to wear down the tripletail.

On the real brutes in excess of 20 pounds, keeping the angle just right is tough. When a blackfish pulls so hard that keeping the angle is not possible, some fishermen resort to unorthodox method.

"Throwing the pole," as it is referred to, is just that. Before the fish has a chance of straightening out the angle, which gives it the advantage, you simply throw the Calcutta pole overboard. Since it floats, you can follow the fish and pick the pole back up to resume the fight with a better angle.

Blackfish have gained a lot of respect lately, not only for their tough fighting ability, but also for their great taste on the table. After you hook up with a bruiser tripletail this summer, you, too, will find that the only thing better than the sport of this fish is the great taste of a large filet, freshly cooked on the grill.

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