I have to name the tripletail as my favorite fish to catch and eat from the Gulf of Mexico. You must employ stealth to get close enough to cast to them, but an accurate cast will almost always draw a strike. Once a tripletail is on the line, you must move quickly to get it away from ropes, chains and buoys.

The tripletail has a dorsal and an anal fin that sweep back toward its tail, giving it the appearance of having three tails and resembling a huge freshwater bream. In many areas, the tripletail's called the black fish, the buoy barren or the silverside.

The tripletail has the unique ability to change colors and camouflage its body to almost the same color as the structure on which it holds.

Anglers and biologists know very little about this species of fish, including where it lives and its travel patterns. We don't know if tripletail have migratory patterns, if they're all alike or what's their home range. We do know for certain that when filleted, battered and deep-fried, tripletail have very few competitors for such a sweet-tasting, lightly flavored meat.

On a recent trip with Capt. Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Fishing Charters in Bay St. Louis, we raced down Lake Borgne in eastern Louisiana, keeping careful watch on every crab trap, looking for tripletail. I saw a flash of silver, and yelled, "There's a tripletail."

Although Schindler never said a word, when I looked back at him, I saw a big smile that stretched from one ear to the other.

"We've got to stay away from the crab trap, approach the tripletail from downcurrent, and try to land our live shrimp upcurrent of the buoy," instructed Schindler. "We'll let the current pull our cork and live shrimp right by the buoy, and if the tripletail's hungry, we should be able to catch it."

That day, we caught a fine 10-pound tripletail.

"In years past, we usually could catch three to 15 tripletails per day from the end of June throughout July, and sometimes into August," Schindler said. "But this year, the state of Mississippi has begun to regulate tripletails with new length and bag limits. To keep a tripletail, it has to be 18 inches or longer, and we only can keep three per person, per day, which to me, is plenty. The new bag and length limits are good things.

"The people who fish for speckled trout and redfish with us always like to look for tripletail on the way home from the Biloxi Marsh. We usually catch from one to five tripletails each day when we're out fishing for speckled trout and redfish."

To learn more about why the State of Mississippi imposed a length and a bag limit on tripletails this year, we talked to Read Hendon, assistant director and research scientist at the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. Hendon and his partner, Jim Franks, keep up with sport fish populations along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and work with a federal tag-and-release program.

"From a biological standpoint, to protect the fishery and maintain a good, healthy population of tripletails, the length and the bag limits are necessary," Hendon said. "As more regulations are being imposed on the more-popular and historical species in the Gulf of Mexico, a lot of fishermen are turning to alternate species, like the tripletail, to catch and eat or catch and release. These fish not only are fun to catch, but they also are delicious. So, there needed to be some type of size and bag limit implemented to ensure the Gulf of Mexico will continue to produce quality numbers of tripletail.

"The biological data collected by (Franks) indicates that 50 percent of female tripletails are sexually mature, and will have the opportunity to spawn and contribute to next year's tripletail crop. About half the females that are 18 inches have had an opportunity to spawn. At 20 inches, all the females are sexually mature. However, 18 inches is a good point for a minimum size limit to keep tripletails."

Also, according to Franks, the tripletail has a phenomenal growth rate with a 5-pound tripletail usually only 1 to 1 1/2 years old. The more female tripletail that spawn, the more offspring they'll produce, and the more tripletail anglers can catch and keep.

Hendon, however, said there's not much scientific data available to support the three-fish limit.

After researching the tripletail limits in other Gulf States, Mississippi decided to adopt the same bag limits. Generally the state sets up bag limits based on scientific data collected on a particular species of fish. However, because of so little information available, no one can know how many tripletails anglers can take each season without negatively impacting the population.

"The more we learn about the tripletail, the more we find out that we don't know," Hendon said. "The background data on the bag limit of tripletails lacked enough information to scientifically support the three-fish limit. So, this regulation is a rule-of-thumb type guideline. Scientists really don't know how many tripletails of what size are caught and brought in each day from Mississippi or any other place where tripletails are caught."

The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources made the final decision on length and bag limit based on the data provided by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

"We assume that tripletails spawn offshore because none of the tripletails collected by (Franks) as part of the study in the Mississippi Sound, just outside the barrier islands, was in any imminent spawning condition, meaning the tripletail would not have spawned within 24 hours while near shore," Hendon said. "However, (Franks) found some tripletails that had spawned and some tripletails that would spawn.

"Therefore, we made the assumption that the tripletails didn't spawn in the Mississippi Sound, but moved offshore to spawn. The tripletails may be coming back inshore after the spawn. They're possibly feeding near shore before the spawn as a feeding strategy in preparation for the spawn and to feed up heavily after the spawn.

"We have found larvae and juvenile tripletails associated with sargassum weedlines offshore. But we don't have enough data, nor have we checked enough tripletails, to definitely confirm that all tripletails spawn offshore. However, based on recent data, we know that some tripletails spawn offshore."

Hendon and Franks have attempted to collect more data on tripletails through a nationwide tagging program that extends from Texas throughout the Gulf of Mexico and up the Atlantic Ocean to the Georgia Coast.

"Most of the tagging program, however, has taken place in Florida," Hendon said. "But in the last couple of years, we've seen many more Mississippi anglers helping us tag tripletails."

Tripletails in Mississippi generally start showing up in the late spring and the early summer, and when cold weather begins to move in during the fall, the tripletails seem to move offshore. But little information exists about where the tripletails go or where they hold during the winter months.

"Instead of being an east-to-west migration or a west-to-east migration, we believe tripletail have an inshore-to-offshore migration," Hendon said. "We don't have any indication that the tripletail is a coastline migratory fish, like the cobia, because there isn't much fishing effort for tripletails during the winter months."

Anglers know the tripletail's a master of disguise. If it's holding next to a white, 5-gallon bucket floating in the Gulf of Mexico, it will take on a ghost-like silver color. If you find a tripletail feeding under sargassum weeds, it may have a yellowish color or some type of brown. A tripletail holding next to a black trash bag floating in the Gulf of Mexico often looks like it's black.

"We know tripletails will hold on structure as well as in bays, where the salinity of the water isn't nearly as strong as it is in the open water, where the tripletails often are found," Hendon said.

The tripletail generally is a homebody. Fishermen have caught fish tagged in Mississippi off the Alabama and Louisiana coasts, but the generally don't move much more than that. However, as with all things in nature, there are exceptions. For instance, a North Carolina angler captured a tripletail tagged off Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Fishermen rarely target solely tripletails on a fishing trip. Generally, to catch tripletails, you have to see them before you catch them, which means you need to fish when the sun's high and bright, and the water's really clear, usually between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Most fishermen fish for speckled trout, redfish and flounder, and then look for tripletails during the times best to spot them.

Most anglers consider the tripletail as a fish of opportunity. If you can spot a tripletail along a weedline, you quickly and easily can move up to the weedline and start casting to it. Or if you see them while fishing for other species of fish on a rig, you can catch them.

Tripletails will bite a wide variety of baits, with live shrimp the preferred, easiest bait to catch and keep alive. However, tripletails will eat dead shrimp, pieces of pogies and a wide variety of other live and dead baits.

If you see a tripletail holding high in the water, suspend your bait 1 to 2 feet under a cork, cast upcurrent and let the current sweep the bait by the buoy.

If you spook the tripletail and no longer can see it, you may want to cast a shrimp with a small piece of lead shot 12 to 18 inches up the line or no lead, and let the shrimp run with the current by the buoy. Watch for your line to jump or twitch, indicating a strike.

If the tripletail's holding next to a buoy or a crab trap or any other type of structure that can tangle or break your line, as soon as the fish bites, set the hook hard to pull the fish away from the chain or rope to keep it from tangling or breaking the line.

Oftentimes anglers will keep their motors running and, as soon as they set their hooks, shift their motors into reverse. They'll use the power of the motors to help pull the fish away from the line, the chain or the cable. Always use a net when trying to land a tripletail.

If you want some fun catching and delicious eating, look for tripletails off the Mississippi Gulf Coast under every floating structure you can pinpoint. When you see a tripletail, prepare for a great fight and a delicious dinner.