I will start this article with a warning: TRIPLETAIL FISHING IS ADDICTIVE: PROCEED WITH CAUTION. They are not necessarily an inshore target, not necessarily and offshore target and not typically an accidental bycatch no mater where you fish. But what they are is the absolute best fish to sightcast, suprisingly hard fighters, cooperative eaters, and one of the best table fare you will come across. Did I mention they are addictive to fish for?
I am surprised how many of my clients have never heard of or seen a tripletail. The best description to someone that has never seen one is basically a prehistoric dinosaur looking bream on steroids with razor sharp gill plates, sharp fins and well, 3 tails. Some people think they are gorgeous, some people think they are odd looking but no one can deny how tasty they are.
A few years ago I started realizing I was beating up the same inshore spots, the same schools of snook, trout and redfish and the same general paths each day. I decided I needed to switch it up and try something new. Tripletail have been in the Tampa Bay area for decades, but was and still is a relatively untapped fishery. I have run across tripletail over the years well offshore on floating debris while looking for dolphin but never left the dock with tripletail as a main target until about 6 years ago. As I write this article I remember my 1st tripletail trip like it was yesterday, did I mention this type of fishing is addictive? We left the dock about 3 hours later than my normal departure with 4 dozen shrimp and 4 spinning rods. a couple hours later we were back at the same dock with a cooler full of tripletail. From that moment on I had a new favorite species to target.
I have a long list of what makes these fish so much fun to fish for, but instead of boring you with a list I will just give you some tips and techniques and I think you will agree, it is a fun way to fish. Since that first tripletail excursion I have tried many different lures, areas, techniques, rigs, etc. The beauty of this fishery is that it is not very technical at all. Everyone from a novice to a pro can have great success just doing some basic techniques. As with any fishing there is some luck involved, but there is more luck with tripletail than most species.
The good news is that even if you have never caught or seen a tripletail you most likely have everything you need to target them. Basic tackle setups are typical inshore spinning setups. The same rod and reel you use to catch inshore species will work just fine for tripletail. 3000-5000 series spinning reels with a 6-7.5ft rod rigged with 15lb braid and a 25lb leader tied to a 2/0 circle hook is all you need. If your gear is a little heavier or lighter don’t worry about buying anything else, it will work just fine. There is rarely any structure for these fish to break you off on. I typically use my exact same redfish tackle for redfish without changing a single component. As far as bait goes, tripletail are not very picky until you run across the biggest one you have seen and don’t have the right bait they want that day so bring some options. I very seldomly use shrimp unless I am targeting tripletail. The first thing in your livewell should be at least a couple dozen shrimp. Usually the smaller to medium size shrimp work best, avoid handpicked jumbos. I also like to bring some medium 3-4 inch whitebait for a different option on the menu. And lastly I will make sure I have Mirrolure lil johns in a variety of light and dark colors.
As you can see the rigging and bait prep is fairly easy. Finding tripletail “hotspots” is just as easy, remember the luck part of this species. Between October 15th
and May 15th
tripletail are easily targeted on stone crab buoys. You do not need to have decades of fishing experience or have to buy numbers off anyone. All you have to do is head out any pass in out area and look for the floating buoys. Try not to think about how many buoys you have passed in previous years without looking for these tasty creatures. It is really that simple! Having a tower is a huge advantage as I can stay on plane and run hundreds of traps at a time but even without a tower plan the angle of the sun accordingly and you will not miss these fish. They lay sideways close to the top of the water and purposely look like floating debris. They can easily be mistaken for seaweed or a plastic bag wrapped around the buoy. This attracts smaller baitfish using their profile for shade and eventually becoming a meal. Once you see one you will realize what to look for. And at the same time you will realize even more how good they are at imitating debris on the line.
After running tens of thousands of traps I wish I could tell you exactly which ones produce more fish than the other but here is where luck comes into play. Also, this is what gives the 1st timer the same odds of catching a cooler full of 15lb’ers as a pro. Some days they may be on the traps in 12ft of water 100yards off the beach, the next day they may be 8 miles offshore. Some days you can run and see one every 10 traps, the next day it is 1 every 200 traps. Some things I have learned over the years is that these fish are unpredictiable but be patient and you will get them. To increase your odds choose areas with alot of crab traps, the more you increase your odds the better your luck. I like to run with the sun and wind at my back and run a similar depth for a couple miles, if I am not seeing fish I will bump out another mile or 2 and continue that trend until I consistently see fish. I also like to look for buoys that have a decent amount of algae growth as these attract more bait then clean lines. The traps are loaded with pigs feet, fish carcasses etc that act as natural chum line for the bait, the bait then attracts the tripletail. You will see a considerable amount of difference in marine life on old traps verse new ones. If you run into a crabber pulling their traps be respectful and choose another line to run. The last thing you want to do is get hung up on a line they are about to pull. Be patient, run traps and you will eventually have luck.
So far you can see the setups are easy, the bait is easy and the spots are easy. Good news, it gets even EASIER! Tripletail are my absolute favorite fish to sightcast, there is not a close second. They will let you get 4 feet away from them, you can stare them in the eye, cast a bait and literally watch their mouth open and inhale the bait. I like to run about 20-25ft away from the traps on plane until I see one. When I spot a fish I will run another few traps and let the sighted fish settle down. I come off plane spin around and put the sun at my back. I like to start with a shrimp or whitebait freelined on a circle hook. You will have plenty of time to get ready as these fish are attached on the buoy. Hook up a bait and point the bow at the buoy, you will clearly see which way the fish is facing. Their mouth is normally against the trap line, cast past the buoy on the opposite side of where they are facing. Reel the bait back to the trap line, you will see the fish spot the bait and, get ready for your addiction to begin. It is one of the coolest bites you will ever witness.
I prefer circle hooks as I feel I get a better hook up ratio but you have to be careful not to react too quickly to the epic bite you witness, let the fish eat it all the way and load the rod before reeling. One of the fun, but difficult things to figure out is how the fish will react once hooked. One fish will stay airborn and jump like a juvenile tarpon, the next one will run like a snook and another will go straight to the bottom like a grouper. You will most likely be in 15-40ft of water with very
little structure for them to break you off so play the drag and take your time. I like to use a net to land them as they have very sharp gill plates that can cut leader between the top of the water and your gunnel. Be careful handling them once in the boat, they have an outer gill plate that is a guaranteed finger gash of not careful.
Did I mention tripletail is addicting and fun! Invite some family friends, neighbors to come along. I like to compare tripletail fishing to scalloping. The people you may want to go on boat rides with but not necessarily wake up before sunrise and fish hard all day with, well those are the ones you can do both with. My wife and 18 month old baby girl are my go to tripletail crew. Pick a destination for lunch, brunch, sunset etc. Grab the family and friends and make this a destination trip. I like to look at wind direction and angle of the sun and head out of Pass a Grille Channel. Some days we run up to Clearwater Beach, other days we end up off Venice. These are not necessarily places I would normally go, but when the tripletail are running it makes planning a day on the water easy. With a couple rods and a couple dozen shrimp in the livewell you are ready to roll, minimal preparation and maximum fun.
So, what does it take to have a successful tripletail day? Plenty of fuel, plenty of patience and plenty of time. The rest is actually easy. Don’t let those 3 things scare you. Fishing is fun, tripletail fishing is REALLY fun if you make it part of your day. Pick a destination, invite some friends and run some buoys. Just remember, I warned you it is addicting!