When the reds and trout quit biting, crank up the outboard and start looking for a fat, tasty tripletail.
When mid-day settles upon the Gulf of Mexico near Bay St. Louis, slack winds and mirror-calm seas shut down the speckled trout fishing.
The only relief from the heat and humidity is artificial wind created by a swift boat, and that’s when Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Charters goes hunting for a different kind of quarry. Having released a couple of big redfish and filled the cooler with trout, the only thing left to fill the Mississippi Triple Play is to put a tripletail or two into the box.
The Atlantic tripletail is an unusual-looking fish that inhabits inshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Shimmering, mottled brown bestows understated elegance that rival the coppery glow of the redfish and the pink aura of the trout. Its signature features are its soft, round dorsal and anal fins that gives it the appearance of having three tails, hence its name.
Unlike trout and redfish, tripletails do not prowl flats, feeding in large schools. They prefer to hover around floating structure and daintily snack on the food chain that sets up around them.
For Schindler, ending a trip with a tripletail is the cherry atop the sundae.
“It’s certainly a good payoff when it happens,” he said. “This time of year, it’s 91 degrees outside. Most of the time, you hit trout (and) redfish early, hopefully. You may do well, or you may not do well, but it’s miserably hot. You still want to fish, but you don’t want to sit there and cook. We’ll ride around, listen to music and let the customers have some cocktails, but we’re looking for fish. When we stop, we figure out who wants to catch one. Typically, everyone who does it wants to do it again.”
To apply a hunting analogy, fishing for trout is like a dove shoot. The action is rapid, and you’ll fire a lot of shells. Redfishing is like pheasant hunting. Schindler compares fishing for tripletails to turkey hunting, the run-and-gun variety.
“They’re such a weird fish,” he said. “It’s 50% skill and 50% luck. If you know what you’re looking for and have a genuine idea how do it, the odds go through the roof to catch them.”
For tripletails, Schindler uses a 7-foot Okuma Reflection rod with a medium-heavy action mated to an Okuma Trio Baitfeeder spinning reel.
“If I’m fishing heavy structure like well heads or pilings, I’ll spool one with 50-pound braid,” he said. “It’s not so much for the fish, but for the structure. Tripletails are notorious for running you around and dragging you through stuff, so that’s mainly to stop them from breaking you off.”
If you prefer a good fight, Schindler uses a 7-foot Okuma Reflection medium-action rod with 20-pound braid on an Okuma Epixor 30 spinning reel.
“That’s my favorite trout rig,” Schindler said. “You definitely get more fight out of the fish with the lighter stuff. I use that if he’s under a (floating) log where’s he’s not going to drag you under anything.”
After the trout bite dies, Schindler runs a large circuit checking navigation buoys, crab-pot buoys and any other prominent surface structure. A keen eye often spots a tripletail’s silhouette hugging the structure near the surface.
“I’m checking under anything and everything,” Schindler said. “If I’m seeing minnows and little crabs floating around or pogeys flickering, I’m going to slow down.
“I usually go 25 to 30 miles per hour, but when I get in area with structure and debris and things just look right, I’ll come down to an idle and give that stuff a once-over.”
Not all structure is productive; Schindler looks for specific clues.
“I want clean water. I want to see baitfish and crabs,” he said. “The ideal conditions for me are hot, still, calm, clean water with little to no current. The luckiest is when you find a debris line with grass and driftwood and stuff that’s been out in the water for a while. Not stuff that has floated out of the river, but stuff that’s come from offshore.”
Catching tripletail is a numbers game, Schindler acknowledged. Most spots won’t hold fish, so he keys on the spots that have the requisite combination of triggers.
“If you’ve run three buoys, and there’s fish on two of the three buoys, start scanning the area and making wide circles around it looking for other structure or debris,” he said. “You might stumble on an old crab trap or a log floating around. If you work in a grid or in circles and find more habitat, those fish seem to stage themselves in the same area.”
Schindler said he’s just checking, looking, observing. Only when all the puzzle pieces mesh does he cast.
“Some of my friends make a lap around a channel marker see if anything in there, but if it’s hot, still and calm at mid-day, you don’t want to stop at everything and do a loop around it,” Schindler said. “You can, but you might burn yourself and the crew out. If you’re running and looking, the more stuff you run under the right conditions, typically, the more fish you’re going to see.”
Over time, Schindler said he’s noticed that he encounters tripletails in clusters. They don’t school like trout, but Schindler said he believes tripletails travel in dispersed groups.
“I firmly believe that they travel in a pack or a herd,” Schindler said. “You may run 10 miles and not really see anything, but then you’ll find a buoy or a piling, and there’s one. A couple things later there’s another one. That’s when you need to start making wide circles, because I’m convinced those fish travel in a school.”
Carelessly approaching a promising bit of tripletail cover guarantees failure. You must get close, but you must approach quietly, keep a low profile and cast quietly with a soft splashdown.
“Get as close as you can to it,” Schindler said. “That’s why I like little to no current. You can work up and down whatever the structure is. They’re almost 100 out of 100 times on the downcurrent side, right against the structure, but you know it is with floating debris. Anything goes. I got one recently that was making laps around a big, old log. We waited for him to come around, and when he did, we got him.”
A tripletail is an aggressive predator stimulated by lively prey. Schindler said that a big, fresh shrimp is irresistible.
“You can’t get a big-enough shrimp,” Schindler said.”When we buy live bait in the morning, I tell my customers to leave the monsters alone in case we see tripletail.”
Again, the cast must be subtle so that the splashdown doesn’t spook the fish. When the cast is complete, the shrimp will do the dirty work.
“We typically catch them at or near the surface,” Schindler said. “You can free-line and keep them high, or you put them a couple of inches under a cork and leave shrimp to freak out next to structure.”
Unlike trout or redfish, which slam a bait, a tripletail is a delicate nosher. He slurps a bait and savors it.
“Tripletails typically eat and stay put or swim up to the cork,” Schindler said. “You have got to pay close attention. Braided line helps you feel the ‘pluck.’ More often than not, he’s going to eat it and stay there or swim upwards. Of course, if the cork goes under, that’s awesome. Just make sure you don’t snag whatever structure you’re fishing.”
My first tripletail was a delicate take, just like Schindler described. After passing several vacant structures, Schindler stopped at one bit of cover that had all the proper trigger elements. A close look through polarized sunglasses confirmed that a tripletail was home.
“It’s not like casting to a redfish,” Schindler said. “You want to cast away from the fish and slowly ease it to them. If they spook, and it’s a fixed structure, leave them alone. Go do something else. Mark it and come back in 20 minutes or an hour. The longer you let him sit, the better your odds of getting him if someone doesn’t come in behind you and scoop him up.”
Schindler recruited a magnum-sized shrimp for the mission and handed me the rod. I landed a soft cast beyond the structure and gently reeled the shrimp into the strike zone. The cork did not plunge. The line twitched almost imperceptibly, as if it bumped a bit of grass. Schindler dropped his arm softly, signaling me to drop the hammer. I reeled in the slack and swept the rod gently backward. The reward was two-fold. A big tripletail put up a magnificent fight on light tackle, and it checked another box off my wish list.
The trout we caught were delicious, of course, but as table fare, the tripletail was in a higher league.
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