It probably happens every day. An unsuspecting angler on his or her way to the fishing hole runs right by a nondescript brown blob, hovering just below a crab trap buoy, that may have turned out to be the catch of the day.
Nine times out of 10 such patches of color are merely clumps of floating weed that have become entangled in the rope that attaches the buoy to the trap.
But every once in a while it is something highly desirable: a peculiar fish called a tripletail.
Unusual to say the least
The name tripletail is pretty much self-explanatory; its unique body shape makes it appear to have three tails, although the upper and lower are actually extensions of the anal and dorsal fins.
They are good to eat, exceptional actually; their filets have a sweet taste and are firm, almost hard, to the touch. Their bodies are covered with touch skin and scales, which makes them somewhat difficult to clean.
For their size they have remarkably small mouths, something potential triple-fishermen should know. Even a 10-pounder's mouth is too small to eat a hand-sized pinfish or big-scaled sardine. They have only small raspy teeth so heavy leaders are not required.
Most of the fish in the Nature Coast area are in the 5- to 10-pound class, but occasionally bigger ones are seen. A 25-pounder was caught off Pinellas a few years ago, and the state record is more than 35 pounds.
By far the tripletail's most unusual features are its habits.
Although their bodies appear to be designed for upright swimming, with eyes on either side of the body, they are commonly found cruising or lying motionless on their side with one eye looking up, the other down.
They have an affinity for floating objects or debris and will get defensive when those objects are touched or moved.
Crabbers occasionally report stubborn tripletail following their buoys to the boat, even pecking at the hook used to retrieve the rope. In several cases we have landed tripletails that were sitting just under floating 5-gallon buckets. The fish had gone inside the buckets to hide and we merely picked them up by the handle — not exactly shooting fish in a barrel but close.
Nearly all tripletail fishing is done while sight casting. You see the fish, toss them a bait and hopefully draw a strike. It is fairly common, however, for them to be finicky and not eat your offering. In some cases you can get around this by modifying your bait.
By far the best bait is a small live shrimp. Small crustaceans often cling to floating debris and are one of the tripletail's primary food sources.
By freelining a live shrimp up to the floating object, you imitate its normal food and have the best chance of hooking up. If you do not have a live shrimp, small pinfish or scaled sardines may work. Again, smaller is better.
One of my favorite tricks when my baits are being refused is to add a float to the line about a foot above the hook. I then take scissors and cut a small cube out of a pinfish or minnow. I put the bait on the hook and cast it up-current from the fish and allow it to drift back into range with the tide. The float helps keep the bait at the fish's level, the scent from the cut bait seems to help and the reduced size of the bait makes more appealing.
The gear required for tripletail fishing is pretty basic. A rod that allows you to cast a light bait accurately with 10- to 15-pound line is all you need. This generally means spinning tackle (revolving spool reels do not cast very light baits well) and a 6½- to 7-foot rod. Poles longer than 7 feet cast longer but reduce accuracy.
Since small baits are used, small hooks are also helpful. Given that you are usually trying to fool an often finicky fish, you do not want an oversized hook with a tiny bait. I like a 1/0 circle hook, such as the Gamakatsu Mutu. Once you hook a fish with these circle hooks, it rarely comes off.
Light leaders are preferable but not always necessary. We once landed a 15-pound tripletail on a tarpon rod with 80-pound test leader on it.
Keep an eye open while running to and from the fishing grounds. Stone crab season is open, which means there are thousands of floating objects out there that may hold the attention of these weird but tasty fish.