Ross Gallagher goes through his angling arsenal that he uses to fish for big tarpon.
Stuck in winter’s icy grip? Head to sunny South Florida for the action-packed tripletail bite.
With the onset of fall’s north winds, comes one of my favorite fisheries in Southwest Florida. Tripletails begin showing themselves just a few days after the season’s stone crab traps are set along coastal beaches in mid-September. Tripletails are one of Florida’s most-unique pelagic species, featuring a prehistoric “three-finned” tail shape, razor-sharp serrated gill plates, and armor-like iridescent yellow/brown scales from snout to stern.
These fish are well known for their unusual behavior of floating on their side just beneath the surface near floating debris, in a rather ingenious attempt at camouflage. In Southwest Florida, the fish are most often targeted by sight fishermen following the long strings of crab pot buoys that float along the surface. These “trap lines” will quickly begin to host a variety of marine life along the length of the rope. Drifting crabs, shrimp and small baitfish will attempt to seek refuge and rest along these floating structures, only to be quickly snapped up by an aggressive tripletail.
While most anglers will opt to cover large areas running on plane, searching for fish floating on the surface, there are opportunities for patient anglers to target fish by slowing down their approach. With the right gear and mindset, you can work the entire water column of larger structures, using a variety of presentations.
Tripletail often use floating objects, such as crab pot buoys, as cover.
To help narrow down your hunt for productive structures, you’ll want to focus on navigational buoys along coastal inlets, beaches and bridges. Most of these structures are cleaned only once a year, if that, and so they harbor the thickest layers of tripletails. The opportunistic fish are attracted to the abundant marine growth. Most of these structures see a fair amount of angling pressure, but most fishermen will only make a cast or two near the surface before moving along. This often leaves a healthy population of tripletails untouched in the mid-water column.
Oversized tripletail, like this pair, begin showing up along coastal beaches in late fall.
Specialized tactics will help you target and land more of these hidden gems. Large, live shrimp are the most popular method for targeting big tripletails. A large, frisky shrimp slowly sinking on a brightly colored jig head will quickly get the attention of any nearby tripletail. You’ll want to use the lightest weight jighead possible, one that allows your shrimp to sink vertically. Often a 1/4-ounce head is perfect, but weights up to 3/4-ounce or more might be needed in the deepest inlets and channels. The shrimp should be rigged as naturally as possible to prevent the bait from spinning. Thread your jighead a single time through the shrimp’s nose, or tip of the tail. Either way works great, although on certain days the fish may prefer it presented one way over another.
If you find yourself coming up with a cleaned jig hook more than you’re hooking up, it’s a signal to try small swimbaits, jigs and larger live baitfish. These options may be your best bet for keeping pesky bait stealers off the hook.
JUMBO LIVE BAITS
Big fish eat big baits and the biggest tripletails are no exception to this rule. Large finger mullet, pilchards and pogy in the 5- to 8-inch range make excellent baits. You’ll need to change up your rigging to accommodate these larger offerings. A 6/0 circle hook on a 2-ounce knocker rig is ideal for tail-hooking a frisky pogy or mullet. Hook the bait just behind the anal fin, and cast it just a few inches away from the structure. You’ll quickly notice the bait frantically swimming for the surface as the weight slowly pulls it down vertically. The panicked vibrations sent off from your bait will quickly get the attention of neighboring trips.
Tripletails have relatively small mouths in relation to their body size, but are still quite capable of inhaling a large meal.
Tripletails have relatively small mouths in relation to their body size, but are still quite capable of inhaling a large meal. Once the familiar “thump” is felt at the end of your line, gently feather out slack line from the reel for a five count. Quickly close the bail, retrieve slack and crank down into the rod tip for the circle hook to find purchase. This allows the tripletail time to hold, adjust and swallow the bait. Patience during the bite is crucial, as a too-eager hookset will often yield a missed fish.
A SOFTER TOUCH HELPS
Anglers who prefer to use artificial lures won’t be missing out on the action. Medium-sized bucktail jigs and jighead-rigged paddle tail swimbaits are ideal for casting to floating and suspended fish. Natural-colored jigs often produce the best. Mottled browns, yellow and black jigs produce well in clear water conditions. Brightly colored soft baits in bone white or chartreuse are best when the water is cloudy or stained. Some of my favorite jigs for tripletails are 3/4-ounce Spro jigheads and 4-inch Hogy Bunny Swimbaits. Both of these should be rigged on a 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, connected to the jig via a loop knot. You don’t need heavy tackle for this kind of fishing; a combo I find nearly ideal is a 7-foot 6-inch, medium-weight fast-action rod, paired with a Shimano Sustain FG 4000 reel spooled with 20- to 30-pound Power Pro Super Slick line.
This tripletail fell victim to a live mullet fished near a channel marker.
Strikes occur most often on the drop. Increase your hookups with careful slack management; watch your line closely as the jig sinks. Halfway down the line, begin a slow 6- to 10-inch jigging motion to “pop” the jig, while slowly retrieving back toward the surface. Repeat this “drop and jig” technique several times, on all sides of the structure, before moving along.
Looking for a unique angling adventure? Nighttime is the right time for Biscayne Bay’s shrimp-hungry winter tarpon.
“Nothing stays the same,” the old saying goes. How true it is. As I write this it’s late December and I’m in my office, with some time to reflect on another successful fishing season here in Southwest Florida. Late 2015 saw us blessed with an unusually mild transition to winter, which resulted in extending the local tarpon season a few extra weeks, right into the Holiday Season. A merry Christmas indeed.
TARPON: THE MARVELOUS OBSESSION
It’s common for outdoorsmen to get into a comfortable rhythm in our sporting activities. Most of us are creatures of habit and patterns, and few species bring out these qualities like the tarpon. We follow our quarry day after day, joining their mysterious, prehistoric rhythm as those days turn into weeks, and then, months. Fortunately, for anglers here in Southern Florida, nearly eight months of the year offer favorable temperature and conditions for tarpon fishing, starting in March and holding well into the late fall.
Few species captivate me as an angler like the tarpon. It’s hard to argue the Silver King’s position as the ultimate inshore saltwater game fish. These animals have migrated across the warm southern oceans for millions of years. They follow ancient routes along the Caribbean through the Florida Keys, pausing along the immense labyrinth of islands and mangroves that make up the Ten Thousand Islands region then moving northward, along the upper Gulf of Mexico, and back again. Frequently reaching sizes upwards of two hundred pounds, the tarpon will test the best anglers’ wits, tackle, and stamina. Some days the fish feed with reckless abandon, devouring almost anything crossing before them. And then there are days when you might watch hundreds of tarpon swim past you, ignoring even the most-delicate presentations.
Indeed, tarpon are both predictable, and wholly unpredictable at the same time. One minute you’ll find yourself feeling confident, even cocky, only to be quickly humbled as the fish suddenly disappear on a single tide change. This supreme challenge—the hunt, the presentation, the strike and the battle—melds into one of our sport’s greatest achievements, a goal that has spawned many an angling obsession. There is a brotherhood of guides and anglers that targets these fish exhaustively for months on end, only to patiently wait out the brief winter months, and eagerly begin the process all over again in early spring.
Late-season tarpon can reach epic proportions, as this South Florida monster proves.
SAVORING THE YEAR’S ‘LAST DANCE’
The last few weeks of extended tarpon activity have indeed been unusual and special, but I always try to hold onto the memories of the last couple local fish of the season. Those brief, electric moments of excitement will be rehashed again and again over the next few months, and likely, not until you’ve been bitten by the “tarpon bug” will you be able to fully understand why. There’s just something special about recounting past battles of strong gamefish over a few strong beverages, a much-needed salve that helps dedicated tarpon anglers await the springtime return of the Silver King.
SHINY REWARDS FOR WINTER TRAVELERS
For anglers like myself who can’t go more than a few weeks without hunting tarpon, know there are dependable angling opportunities even during the coldest winter months—if you know where to look. It’s not exactly a secret, but word doesn’t travel far about one of the best “off-season” South Florida tarpon bites. Every winter, during the coldest of fronts and despite the strongest of winds, a truly epic bite unfolds under the cover of darkness along Miami’s Biscayne Bay and its connecting inlets. When the tides are right, shrimp migrations of massive proportions begin pouring out of Biscayne Bay toward the ocean to spawn. This massive movement of food can gather tarpon by the thousands as the fish gorge on the large, tasty crustaceans. A few select anglers have followed this migration for years, and can accurately predict the best tides and winds to fish this epic bite. The most productive techniques include “matching the hatch”—drifting palm-sized shrimp on light-wire hooks along the inlets. Strikes can be explosive for those brave enough to battle the typically inclement weather, looking for a few of South Florida’s shiniest hidden gems: Ravenous, and marvelous, winter tarpon.