Tripletail: When, Where, and How | Great Days Outdoors

The tripletail is a popular target for anglers, and for good reason.

The July sun beat down as my old buddy Yano Serra and I drifted over a sunken barge in the Mississippi Sound off Mobile Bay’s western shores. We caught specks and white trout and the occasional Spanish mackerel as we allowed live shrimp to drift down toward the structure on the bottom.

“Let’s run over to that navigation marker and find out if there’s a tripletail home,” Yano said.




I like to catch tripletail, but I was not prepared for what happened when we got to the pole that warned navigators of the sunken barge.

Yano used a slip-cork rig to allow his shrimp to fall naturally toward the bottom. It allowed him to see the float above to warn of a bite.

His bobber suddenly disappeared, and his line came tight—very tight—and a strong fish made his reel screech in protest. A big, dark fish came to the surface, and then this big fish jumped clear of the water and porpoised away toward the piling.

Yano worked the fish well, but it was just too strong. The fish made a quick turn around the barnacle-encrusted pole, ending the fight.

Photo by Ed Mashburn.

 

I was excited and depressed because this was easily the biggest tripletail I had ever seen.

Yano laughed at my reaction. “Don’t worry,” he said. “He’ll be back; we didn’t spook him.”

We let the water calm down for perhaps five minutes, and then Yano sent another shrimp on another slip-cork rig next to the same navigation marker. He was right. The same thing happened again, except this time Yano worked the big fish away from the structure and into open water.

After a long ten-minute struggle with several powerful runs and some mighty rolls at the surface, a very big tripletail was boatside and exhausted. I slipped the landing net under the fish—I didn’t lose this one for Yano—and I struggled to lift the heavy fish into the boat.




A quick application of the hand-held scales showed this tripletail weighed over 26 pounds. That’s a very good tripletail in anyone’s book.

The best part of the whole tripletail experience in the Mobile Bay system is that lots of tripletail hang out there. Although they won’t all be as big as the monster Yano caught, they are all strong and eager to bite an angler’s offering. And they are very good to eat.

When to find Them

For a long time, I assumed that tripletail (blackfish) were a purely hot weather fish. I have since learned that it’s not entirely true.

While fishing the Mobile Bay system and its rivers and surrounding waters, I’ve seen tripletail start showing up and hanging around crab traps and other floating stuff as early as March and April. If the winter has been mild and temperatures rise early, tripletails are here early, too.

These early fish tend to be smaller, yet still legal-size fish.




When the weather gets warmer—mid- to high-seventies—in June, July and August, the bigger fish generally show up.

Water salinity is critical to attracting tripletails so look for green, salty water. These better quality fish are often the females. They are heavy with eggs and eager to take in lots of nutrition for the spawning season.

Where to Find Them

Tripletail are notorious for being found near floating material, and that is where most people find and catch tripletail. It’s a lot of fun to motor down a crab trap line and look for tripletail floating near the surface.

Boat wakes don’t bother them much, and usually a tripletail that is hanging on a crab trap float will stay right there and allow an angler to circle back and get into position for a cast.

Generally speaking, tripletail are not picky eaters, and anything that looks remotely like a shrimp or small fish will be taken.

Crab traps are great places to look for tripletail which lie just below the surface, on their sides mostly, just waiting for something which looks edible to drift by. In fact, many people miss tripletail because they look so much like some kind of trash floating in the water.

Generally speaking, tripletail are not picky eaters, and anything that looks remotely like a shrimp or small fish will be taken.

Captain Yano has this advice. “Anything floating—crab traps, channel markers, buoys, grass or weedlines, plus old debris such as plywood pieces or old boards—these will attract tripletail.”

As a matter of fact, I have seen tripletail suspended below a large, dead catfish that was floating on the surface. Tripletail don’t care what it is. If it’s floating, they’ll use it for cover and shade.




Although most tripletail are caught as they float on their sides near the surface, they are also found in deeper water, too. Water 15 feet or deeper with some sort of structure on the bottom is just as likely to hold tripletail. Just because we can’t always see the big, dark fish, that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Very good but difficult-to-fish places for Mobile Bay system tripletail are old duck blinds. Places like the Mississippi Sound and its backwaters have dozens of last year’s old duck blinds left in the water.

Tripletail love to hole up in these old blinds. But the large structure of cane and other brush used to construct the blinds make standard fishing almost impossible. Even if the tripletail takes a bait offer, the first thing it does is run back into the blind and break off the line.

“I catch a lot of tripletail in duck blinds,” Yano says, “but blinds are hard to fish. When I know I’ll be fishing blinds, I’ll use a 20-foot long cane pole with 100 lb line—braid is good. I dip the bait in the blind, and when the tripletail takes it and runs back through the blind, I throw the pole into the water and let the fish take it where it wants to go.  Usually, he pulls the pole through the blind and out the other side. We just go on the other side of the blind and pick up the floating cane pole.”

Photo by Ed Mashburn.

 

Tripletail will very often locate around wooden pilings and poles in the water.

Navigation markers are great tripletail locations, but the fish don’t always hold on poles up toward the surface. Tripletail will very often be in the vicinity of the piling, but too deep to be seen from the surface.

Captain Yano likes to lower a live shrimp very close to the pole and let the shrimp sink with the current. A slip-cork rig allows the shrimp to fall naturally while the angler still has control of the line and can tell when a bite occurs.

Too often, anglers give up on a particular structure too soon. Don’t move on after a single drop of the bait alongside a pole. Give the pole another drop on a different side, and then try yet again. Sometimes, a tripletail will not see bait or they will ignore it, but a second drop may trigger a strong strike.

How to Rig and Fish for Them

When choosing bait for tripletail, anglers will do best finding the very biggest shrimp possible. Tripletail love to eat shrimp. Big shrimp are more than a hungry tripletail can resist. Live shrimp are better, but tripletail will eat big dead shrimp almost as fast as live ones.

Anglers soon discover something very helpful about those old brown fish. Tripletails are not hard to fool. Some call them “dumb” when it comes to bait moved into their line of sight.

Just about any moving bait that fits their mouths will be bitten. Tripletails will bite jigs and spinner baits. Top-water plugs are just the ticket for some hot tripletail bites. Anglers have to come ready for anything with tripletail.

A seven-foot spinning rod with a good quality reel and at least 20 lb line will serve for almost all tripletail situations.

A developing fishery in the Mobile Bay system is fly-fishing. Tripletails are perfect fish for sight fishing, and an angler with a carefully controlled boat can approach a floating tripletail close enough for a good accurate fly-cast.




“An eight-weight setup with a 12- to 15-lb leader is fine,” Captain Yano says. “A Clouser or other shrimp imitation fly is good. I try to cast 15 feet or so past the fish, then I slow-strip the fly toward the fish. When it gets close, I stop the fly when the tripletail approaches it. When the fish takes the fly, he generally sets the hook himself. I just put a little pressure on the fish and then fight him. It’s very important to get the fly line on the reel and fight the fish from the reel. You’ll need the reel’s drag to help you when the fish decides to run.”

A seven-foot spinning rod with a good quality reel and at least 20 lb line will serve for almost all tripletail situations.

Tripletail have very tough mouths, Hooks, whether flies or bait hooks or artificial lures, need to be very sharp.

Tripletail make very strong runs and they will absolutely pull drag and try to wrap a line around structure. Unlike redfish, which almost never jump when hooked, tripletail will very often take to the air and put on a very exciting show.

Special Considerations

Tripletail are one of the best eating fish to be found anywhere, and keeping a few smaller ones or one big one for a supper is a great idea. Just be careful when handling fish.

Tripletails have gill covers which are equipped with edges that are like razors. Don’t try to lift a tripletail by the gills. It’s is a surefire way to suffer some serious trip-ending lacerations. When handling tripletails, use a lip gripper or move the fish directly from the landing net to the ice chest.

Also, tripletails have extremely tough scales and a thick skin which make standard filleting very rough.

“I scale a line from the tail of the fish up to the gills,” Captain Yano says. “Then I take a very sharp knife and cut a slit through the tough skin. After this, I can use the sharp knife point to skin the fish and then cut the fillets off the bone structure.”




Once the fillets are removed, you’re ready to cook some of the best fish you’ll every find.

One thing to consider is dehydration when fishing for tripletail in the hot summer. Bring lots of tea or water to drink, and be sure to wear good headgear.

It’s easy to get too excited chasing these strong brown fish and forget about taking proper safety precautions against sunburn and heat exhaustion.

 

 This article originally appeared in the print edition of Great Days Outdoors magazine in June 2013. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.

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