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.