With a limit of red snappers already cooling in tthe fish box, we decided to turn toward home.
Perched high in his flying bridge, Captain Sammie Faulk watched with keen eyes and years of experience for any shadows or activity near buoys or floating debris in tide lines. In tide lines, where two layers of water mix, driftwood, floating weed patches and other flotsam accumulates.
Baitfish attempt to hide around the only cover they can find in the barren sea. Surface feeders, such as tripletails, dolphin and cobia, lurk under such floating cover to ambush any straggling morsels they can catch.
“Let’s look over any buoys or floating structure we find on the way back,” the captain said. “It’s pretty common for dolphins (mahi mahi) and tripletails to hang around floating driftwood, buoys or other debris.
“Except for oil platforms and a few channel buoys, there isn’t much cover out here,” he said. “Platforms are fished pretty heavily, so many fish hang around buoys or other structure. Bigger fish hang below the baitfish and feed on them. Sometimes, you might find a piece of driftwood three feet long and see a couple of big tripletails or a cobia around it.”
The strategy worked. As the captain piloted the boat near a channel buoy, he spotted a shadow and some movement. With polarized sunglasses cutting the summer glare, the shadow turned into a flat fish lurking under the buoy. One of the anglers grabbed a light rod, baited it with a cigar minnow chunk and tossed it toward the buoy. It slowly sank. Beneath the buoy, the dark circular shadow darted out to inhale the morsel. The fish found itself hooked, and the fight ensued.
Looking something like a dark brown goggle-eye on bad steroids, the flattened six-pound fish sported one tail and two fins that closely simulated additional tail lobes, giving the fish its name.
Ranging throughout all the warm water of the world, tripletails can exceed 30 pounds, but most range in the 5- to 15-pound class. Mrs. Eddie Porter landed the Lone Star lunker at 33.50 pounds from Matagorda Bay in June 1984. The world record, a 42-pound, 5-ounce fish, came from off South Africa in 1989.
They are relatively small sized compared to other Gulf of Mexico fish and have a solitary nature, so Texas tripletails don’t often attract much attention. Most of the time, anglers ignore them as they race out to the rigs for snappers or troll for king mackerel and cobia. However, they do provide exciting action on occasion.
In Texas, anglers can catch them all year long without limit or size restrictions, although the best fishing occurs from late spring through fall.
“Tripletails occur all along the Texas coast,” said Paul Hammerschmidt, a marine biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. “I’ve seen them from Aransas Bay to the Galveston area. Only a few people in Texas specifically target tripletails and know how to do it. Once people are hooked on tripletails, it’s a lot of fun. It just takes some skill to catch them.”
Tripletails hide around pilings, jetties, buoys and floating debris. Occasionally, they hang around oil platform legs where they feed on crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans that hide among the barnacles. Snapper fishermen might catch a few of them around oil platforms, but most people hunt for them if they bother with them at all. Occasionally, they present unpredictable targets of opportunity.
“Tripletails are kind of a ‘now you see them, now you don’t,’ fish,” explained Capt. Erik Rue, an offshore charter skipper. “About 99 percent of the ones we catch are seen first. Then, we cast to them and watch them eat the bait. When I’m targeting tripletails, I get in an area with a lot of floating debris and burn a lot of gasoline. It’s sight-fishing, almost like hunting. We have to see them before we can catch them.”
Floating debris or matted grass provides the best cover for hiding tripletails. Appearing sluggish, they drift with floating cover up and down the coast. Rivers and ship channels provide excellent hunting grounds for finding tripletails. Fertile waters beyond river deltas spawn abundant plant growth, giving tripletails many places to hide in large mats of seaweed.
The mouths of rivers and ship channels often carry floating debris out to sea, especially just after high water. Moreover, sailors on ships navigating a channel may toss objects overboard. Winds also blow material off ships. Boxes, crates, lumber and other junk fall into the water. These bits of flotsam provide excellent cover for tripletails.
Tripletails don’t necessarily need large objects, such as huge grass lines or big buoys. Sometimes, they hide under even the smallest, most inconspicuous bits of flotsam. Sometimes, anglers might even catch tripletails hanging under something as small as a floating drink bottle.
“When I’m specifically targeting tripletails, I hit every buoy and some of the smaller platforms,” Faulk explained. “I look under floating debris. Sometimes, I might see one or two, possibly four or more tripletails. Sometimes, we cast and they seem to disappear, but they are still there. Around a buoy, they are usually down below eating barnacles off the chain or buoy anchor. Sometimes when they disappear, drop a bait to the bottom and they’ll hit it.”
Fortunately, tripletails don’t spook easily when people do see them. Not a heavily pressured fish, they tend to remain near cover. They might disappear for a while, but often re-emerge shortly in the same area. Polarized glasses enable anglers to see better past reflected glare. Having a spotter equipped with polarized glasses and perhaps binoculars high in a flying bridge helps put more tripletails on ice.
Along a floating weed line, look for them almost the way a bass angler would work a shoreline. Scout along one edge for a while and then come back on the other side. Pay particular attention to anything unusual floating in the grass. Be ready to throw quickly at shadows.
Frequently, tripletails hang just beneath the edges. If people throw lures at tripletails in a weed line and miss, they can usually come back a while later from another direction and catch them.
After spotting tripletails, approach from upwind. Stalk them almost like a hunter, only using the wind to carry the boat near structure instead of human scent away from an animal.
Watch tidal flow and wind direction. Don’t shut down the motor in a place where the wake might bounce against structure hiding tripletails. That could spook them. Usually, an idling motor doesn’t bother them, but watch how they react. If necessary and available, use a trolling motor to maneuver into position for a good cast.
“In the spring and summer, when the sargassum drifts into the channels, people sight-fight for them around floating mats of vegetation,” Hammerschmidt said. “I like to use large shrimp on a free line fished under weed mats or floating debris. They eat a lot of invertebrates, like shrimp and crabs.”
Tripletails readily take many different kinds of natural baits including shrimp, pogies, squid, minnows, crabs or cut bait. They also smash several styles of artificial lures. They devour 1/4- to 1/2-ounce leadheads tipped with jigs, grubs or other soft plastics in a variety of colors. If they refuse to hit one bait or color, come back a while later and tempt them with a different bait or color.
In grassy areas, anglers might want to throw silver or gold spoons. If tripletails feed on the surface, you might tempt them with small topwater baits, such as Spit’n Images, Zara Spook Juniors, Pop-Rs or small Chug Bugs. Tripletails also hit a variety of crankbaits, Rat-L-Traps and other offerings.
Bait placement matters more than selection for catching big tripletails. You may often enjoy several chances to bag a finicky fish, but make the first cast count. Throw the lure or bait past the fish and bring it right past the fish’s nose. Don’t throw right on top of it.
“Tripletails hit just about anything when they are feeding,” Rue said. “I use a light leadhead to keep the bait close to the surface. A heavier bait might fall out of the strike zone too quickly. Occasionally, if they get finicky, I tip a jig with a piece of bait or even toss them a live bait. Tripletails are an excellent target for fly fishermen. They readily eat a fly tossed at them. That’s a lot of fun.”
Often, tripletails either suck in baits as they cross their noses or start following them. If one starts following the bait, let it fall. Frequently, tripletails follow a bait down. Once out of sight, they might attack it. Despite sluggish habits and a slothful appearance, a big tripletail can exhibit amazingly quick bursts of speed and lightning strikes. They are a tough fish built like a weight-lifting panfish, so they provide outstanding sport on light tackle.
“They are a lot of fun to catch,” Rue said. “In open water, they generally jump and thrash on the surface, dive and run. They are a really wide fish and they use the leverage of their bodies to get away. They can burn off some line. They are tough fish to catch with hard mouths.”
Many anglers cast for them with standard bass, speckled trout or redfish tackle. A medium action rod with 14- to 20-pound test should suffice for most tripletails. When targeting larger fish or casting near barnacle-encrusted structure, anglers might opt for heavier tackle. A tripletail can easily ensnare tackle in line-slicing structure under a rig.
People don’t need a huge boat to run 60 miles offshore to find tripletails. Most anglers catch them within 10 miles of the coast, although some anglers report catching tripletails more than 100 miles offshore. At times, tripletails penetrate quite far up bays and estuaries, wherever they can find deep, salty water. People can catch them from bay boats, even bass boats.
“I’ve seen juvenile tripletails right up against docks,” Hammerschmidt said. “Larger tripletails are usually out in deeper water, not necessarily far offshore. They could be in the deeper channels.”
Often, people blast out to the rigs for snapper, cobia and king mackerel, but they might pass some of the best, most exciting sport fishing available. Before heading home, try to put a few more fish on ice. Take a little time to look for shadows under floating debris or fins sticking out of the water. Look carefully around channel buoys, floating trash, grass or tide lines and keep a few light lines ready just in case.
An excellent source of fresh fillets, tripletails add a delicious and abundant bonus to the catch of the day. Broiled, fried or grilled, the delicate white flesh makes sumptuous eating. After catching limits of snappers, cobia and king mackerel, spend the afternoon trying to get a piece of ’tail!
—story by John N. Felsher