This time of year there is an annual migration that gets the attention of a growing number of anglers along the Georgia coast. The Atlantic tripletail show up, and with their arrival, a very different option for anglers becomes available.
Tripletail get their name from their large, rounded dorsal and anal fins, which closely match the rounded tail. These fish are widespread throughout the Atlantic and Gulf, and they spend most of the fall and winter months in southern Florida waters.
In the spring, when Georgia waters reach about 65 degrees, tripletail show up in numbers along our coast. And while it isn’t entirely clear why, it is well known that they suspend on their sides just a few inches under the surface.
Capt. Greg Hildreth, of Brunswick, has been a professional guide in the Brunswick and Golden Isles area for more than 25 years and is acknowledged as one of the most knowledgeable when it comes to tripletail. I had the opportunity to go out with Greg in mid April and witness this interesting activity firsthand.
We left St. Simons at 10 a.m. and headed out through the sound. Greg said there was no need to go out too early since good light is a factor in finding fish.
“Pursuing tripletail is more like hunting than fishing,” said Greg. “You are constantly on the move and on the lookout for fish.”
To me, it sounded a little like bonefishing, and in fact, Greg refers to the tripletail as the “bonefish of south Georgia.” Unlike bonefish, tripletail are pretty stationary but can be difficult to spot until you have a trained eye.
About 3 miles offshore from the beach at Jekyll Island, we saw a collection of boats cruising the surface.
“That’s a good sign,” said Greg. “Let’s start looking here. These fish can be anywhere from 1,000 feet from the beach to 5 miles or more offshore. You just have to keep looking until you find them.”
Greg said most of the guys help each other out and report when they find fish. There are usually plenty of tripletail to go around.
Some of the boats in the area were equipped with spotting towers, much like you see used for cobia fishing.
We dropped our speed to a slow troll and began looking. Greg instructed me to scan the water from the 9 o’clock position to the 3 o’clock position. I was to keep my eyes moving until I spotted a tripletail.
“The fish are holding from 6 to 15 inches beneath the surface and will look like a black garbage bag or silver pie plate, depending on how they are laying and the direction of the light. Their color changes with the surroundings. Sometimes they look black and sometimes silver. But when you land them, they are a mottled brown.
“You will usually only see one fish at a time, and if you move too quickly or get too close, they will go down,” said Greg. “And once they drop more than about 18 inches below the surface, they are impossible to see.”
Blind casting in the general area of the fish won’t work because the tripletail don’t chase the bait more than a few inches. You need to see them and make an accurate cast to hook up. But if you stay in the area and wait a few minutes, the tripletail will often resurface nearby, and you might get another shot at it.
We were a little early in the season since the peak of tripletail sightings doesn’t start until mid May. Greg told me that he would be happy if we spotted a fish or two. That goal didn’t take long to reach. Greg spotted a good fish within about 20 minutes and set the boat up for the cast.
“It is important for the cast to be right on target,” said Greg. “Otherwise, you will very likely spook the fish, and it will go down.”
Greg made a cast well past the fish and pulled the bait slowly back until it was just a foot or 2 in front of the big tripletail, and then he let it sink. The big fish nosed up to the bait but didn’t take it. Within a few seconds, the fish turned away from the bait and descended out of sight.
“Sometimes it’s like that,” said Greg. “Especially early in the season.”
Greg prefers to cast to the tripletail with light- to medium-weight spinning tackle.
His outfit of choice is a 7 1/2-foot spinning rod and a Penn Slammer 3500 or 4500 reel spooled with 20-lb. test braided line.
The terminal tackle consists of a small, egg-shaped popping cork and a 20- to 25-lb. test monofilament leader of about 12 to 18 inches. He uses a relatively heavy leader because the fish have very sharp gill plates that can cut lighter lines. These gill plates will slice a finger open, too, so be very careful when handling them. The rig doesn’t include a weight, and a sharp Gamakatsu shiner hook (a small kahle-style hook) in size 1 is the finishing touch. The popping cork is just to suspend the bait and make it easier to cast.
The bait of choice is a live shrimp hooked through the tail to make casting easier. Artificial D.O.A. shrimp will work, too.
Whether you are using live or artificial shrimp, the presentation has to be subtle. Casts have to be made well beyond the fish and the bait pulled slowly into position right in front of the fish’s face, and then the bait needs to be allowed to fall naturally into the strike zone. When the fish takes the bait, don’t set the hook. Tripletail will often sit still with the shrimp in their mouth for a few seconds before taking it fully, and if you set the hook early, you may jerk the bait out of its mouth. Give the fish a few seconds, and just give a short tap on the rod. This will usually do the trick since there is little to no stretch in the braid.
Other that at this special time in May and early June when the fish hang out on the surface, tripletail usually relate to some type of structure, either on the surface or near the bottom. They like to suspend under sargasso weed, particularly farther offshore. Also, at slack tide, big tripletail hang out near the channel markers at the entrance to the sound and will take deep baits offered to them in the calm water. These fish are holding in 8 to 15 feet of water in eddys created around the channel markers.
Greg said that the locals fished for them in these eddys around the markers for years and referred to the tripletail as the eddy fish. Many still call them by that name today. Be aware that when the fish feels the hook, it will head straight for the channel marker to try and escape. Heavier casting tackle is important in this approach.
Greg said that an effective technique for a fish that is holding a bait is to try and drag it slowly away from the marker by backing the boat away. Once in the clear, you should be able to set the hook and fight the fish back to the boat freely without fear of hanging up in the structure.
Tripletail can also be taken on a fly rod. Greg uses an 8-weight rod and weight-forward floating line with a 15-lb. test leader. He ties his own flies, essentially a knockoff of a Wooly Bugger, and presents the fly in the same fashion as the bait on the spinning rod.
I’ll admit that it took me a while to get the hang of spotting these fish. Greg saw several before I saw my first one. Amazingly, we saw more than 15 tripletail in a four-hour period. That was very unexpected considering we were so early in the season. The fish were finicky though, and we only got a couple to bite. But we saw several fish that appeared to be heavier than 15 pounds.
Tripletail in these waters tend to average 17 to 19 inches in length. The minimum size for keepers is 18 inches, and the creel limit is two fish per angler per day.
There are some really big fish taken every year. The state record is a 38-lb., 14-oz. monster landed by a Brunswick teenager in 2005. Most of the bigger fish are caught in the deep water around the channel markers.
While not a great deal is known about this interesting fish regarding their habits and migration patterns, there is a good deal of research underway to gather more data. Greg said that Dr. Jim Franks of the University of Southern Mississippi is conducting a significant amount of research and even trying to start a project to raise tripletail. More information is available from the University on their website, gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/tripletail.php.
The tripletail fishery in the Golden Isles is among the best in the country. However, this style of fishing is unique and can be challenging. So I recommend you go the first few times with someone who knows what they are doing.
Greg Hildreth clearly knows his way around the tripletail fishery and would be more than happy to take you out and show you what it is all about. Tripletail will be active in south Georgia waters from now until at least the middle of June, so give Greg a call and set up a trip. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Greg can be reached at (912) 617-1980 or on his website, georgiacharterfishing.com.
And, by the way, tripletail are rated as one of the best-tasting saltwater fish, so don’t be reluctant to take a couple home.