When most fishermen hear about saltwater sight-fishing out of Biloxi, they immediately think about spotting redfish tailing in the shallows of the marsh or pushing water against a bank.
But the best sight-fishing experience for those who spend a lot of time on the water might be for tripletail, aka blackfish.
Tripletail enter the Mississippi Sound and Biloxi Marsh areas in the late spring and stick around all summer, until the water temperature drops below about 70 degrees. September is a great month to target them before they head for deeper water.
These fish are hard fighters, tasty on the table and, this time of year, they’re easy to find.
For Ronnie Daniels of Fisher-Man Guide Services out of Pass Christian, tripletail are the ultimate sight-fishing quarry.
“Tripletail are a somewhat mysterious fish that a lot of people don’t know much about,” he said. “They look a lot like a big, black crappie. They like to hang out under anything that’s floating, anything providing shade. They’ll lay on their side just under the surface.
“That’s part of what makes them so much fun to catch. You can ride along until you see one, circle back, pitch a bait to them, watch them eat the bait, and when you set the hook, you better hang on, because it’s about to get exciting.”
Instead of checking electronics for telltale signs of structure, baitfish or temperature breaks, finding tripletail is as easy as finding anything that provides underwater shade.
That’s another pleasing aspect of the sport: You can do it running at speed, which is great on a hot summer’s day.
“Tripletail will come up to the top and put their eyeballs right in the shade of anything that’s floating,” said Daniels. “The best bet for me — since I know where lots of crab traps are — is to run a whole crab-trap line and just look under the trap floats until we find the fish.”
When he finds a tripletail, Daniels likes to have his clients is usually visible through the entire process. Once the shrimp is in position, he advises anglers to resist the urge to do anything other than let the current carry the bait to the fish.
“You can catch these fish on artificial lures, and sometimes we’ll do it if we run out of live bait or if we’re fishing with strictly artificials for other species, and (we) happen upon a tripletail,” he said. “But when we’re really targeting them, you can’t make it any easier on yourself than by using live shrimp.”
Once the fish sees the shrimp, the hardest part for anglers is the waiting. You’ll see the fish react to the shrimp as it turns its nose toward the bait. It might look at it for several seconds from an inch away before it actually bites, so anglers need to be patient but ready to set the hook.
When it comes to tackle and rigging, Daniels prefers three different setups. For all of them, he uses 7-foot-2 custom Parker rods and 3000 series spinning reels spooled with 40-pound braid and 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
He calls his first setup a free line; he splices the fluorocarbon leader to the main line with a knot, then puts one small split shot weight about a foot above the bait, which is impaled on a No. 8 treble hook.
In his second setup, Daniels uses an Oddball popping cork with a 12- to 18-inch leader tied to the treble hook. The third is a slight variation of this, using a 3-foot leader under the cork. This one is for fishing around floating objects when the tripletail get spooked, dive and are hesitant to return to the surface.
It doesn’t take hours riding to check crab-trap pots and find fish; Daniels said if you’ve got a good pair of polarized shades, you don’t have to slow down very much to spot these fish, and they aren’t as easy to spook as many folks think.
“When I’m looking for these fish, I’ll run down the line of floats anywhere from 26 to 34 miles an hour, depending on what the water conditions will let me see. As long as the splash of your boat doesn’t land directly on top of the fish, it’s not a problem. Even if the fish go down in the water column when you pass by, they’ll come back up, and you can still catch them.
“Don’t put an angler up on the bow where it’s a safety concern. Once you’re on plane, if the fish are up top and willing to bite, you can see them from anywhere in the boat. These fish are used to crab boats running by and checking crab traps; they’re used to fishermen blowing past them, and they’re used to the wake. As long as you don’t get close enough to directly splash the fish — unless it’s one of those rare days when all the fish are finicky — they’re going to stay up, and you’re going to have a shot at them.”
Mark Wright of Legends of the Lower Marsh Fishing Charters in Pass Christian said the trick is to stay on plane while checking floats.
“If you go too slow, you’re kicking up a bigger wake and disturbing the water more,” Wright said. “Just stay where the water isn’t splashing on top of the floats. The wake when you’re on plane doesn’t bother them.”
Daniels said that while floats are easy to find and predictable places to find tripletail, anglers shouldn’t ignore other types of floating debris, no matter how small or unnatural.
“We’ve caught tripletail under a discarded surgical glove before,” he said. “Half a watermelon, floating plywood, anything on the surface that creates shade — you need to check it out. Sometimes even a small clump of floating grass will have two or three tripletail under it.
“If you encounter multiple pieces of floating grass or other debris, you will often find at least one fish under every piece, and they will stay in the shade of that clump even as it floats freely with the current. You always want to check anything you see — no matter how small it is — that’s floating on the surface.”
Wright agrees that anglers shouldn’t pass up anything offering shade. Even fixed vertical objects like PVC pipe that’s stuck into the bottom to mark areas like oyster beds will hold tripletail.
“Floating objects are definitely targets you always want to check, but even the thinnest PVC pipe that is stuck into the bottom gives off enough shade to attract these fish,” he said. “The advantage is that there’s no float or buoy rope to worry about tangling your line in.”
Wright also likes live shrimp for bait, and he said small, live menhaden are good bets, too. He prefers to free-line his bait with a single split-shot when he’s able to see the tripletail just under the surface, but he will use corks when the fish don’t show themselves.
“Whether it’s because of too much chop on the water or because the fish simply are staying down, just because you can’t see the fish doesn’t mean they aren’t under these floating or fixed objects that give shade,” Wright said. “This time of year, the tripletail are around, and you’ll find plenty of them on these objects. If you can’t see them, it’s a good bet they’re just a little too deep, and you can catch them on popping corks with one to 3-foot leaders.”
Both captains agree that one of the biggest mistakes anglers make is not realizing that more than one tripletail is often under the same floating object. They advise anglers to keep their eyes peeled for a second or third fish once they spot one.
When you see more than one, the other fish will usually stay put once the first hooked fish is out of the way. Once the initial tripletail is in the boat, cast another shrimp as quickly as possible. Chances are high that you’ll catch that second fish, and it’s not at all that uncommon to hook the third one as well.
For information on Capt. Ronnie Daniels’ Fisher-Man Guide Service, call (228) 323-1115 on visit his website at msfisherman.com.
For information on Capt. Mark Wright’s Legends of the Lower Marsh Guide Service, call (228) 324-7612) or visit legendsofthelowermarsh.com.