There is one certainty this time of year. Well, there are many, but one of them is that the tripletail will be in the ocean off the beaches of Jekyll Island. Each year in April, the tripletail just sort of show up. No one really knows where they come from or how far they travel, but biologists tell us that they migrate here each year.
These hard-fighting fish resemble an oversized bluegill. With a high arching back and elongated anal and pectoral fins, they look as if they have three tails—hence the name. When a hooked, 10-lb. tripletail turns sideways, any angler has his hands full! They are one of the hardest-fighting fish you will find in Georgia or anywhere else for that matter.
You may find a few of these fish a little farther south off of Cumberland Island or a little farther north off of St. Simons. But the concentration of fish will be within about 3 miles of the beaches of Jekyll. Why they choose this particular area is a mystery even to Georgia’s DNR biologists. Theories abound though, the most popular being that they are here to spawn.
Tripletail fishing in May requires a lot of cooperation from the weather. You need to find a day when the wind is light or nonexistent, and when there is little or no cloud cover. While later in the summer you can find some tripletail hanging on some channel buoys, fishing for them this time of year is a true sight-fishing adventure. We don’t put a line in the water until we see a fish.
On a good weather day we can actually see the fish we are going to catch. Tripletail have a habit of coming to the surface where they drift along with the current. If you have been off the beach in a boat at Jekyll Island, you have probably gone right past a tripletail and not recognized it as a fish. It almost looks like a piece of trash or flotsam just under the surface.
Why do they behave this way? Once again there are many theories, the most prevalent being they are disguising themselves as flotsam to attract baitfish. In the ocean, small fish like to hang under any cover they can find to escape the sun’s rays.
Once you know a little about these fish, catching them can be easy and fun. The idea is to slowly move about off the beach, as we said up to about 3 miles off, and look for a dark spot just under the surface. Once you find one, carefully maneuver the boat so that you can cast a bait several yards ahead of and beyond the fish. The current will be moving the fish either north or south, depending on the tide. Now move the bait back into the path of the fish. When the fish gets close to the bait, he will almost always take it. These fish spook easily, so a quiet stalk is imperative. Some anglers will cut their engines before they get too close and allow the residual forward motion to take the boat closer.
When we talk about bait, we are talking almost exclusively about live shrimp. Some anglers will use a Gulp! Shrimp, but by far a big live shrimp is the preferred bait. We hook the shrimp through the head, being careful not to puncture the dark area, which is the shrimp’s brain. This hook-up keeps the shrimp active and kicking under a float.
The floats we use are the beaded, wire-cored floats. Cajun Thunder is a popular brand along with the locally produced Thunder Chicken. Both floats accomplish the task well. We tie a 20-lb.test, 12- to 15-inch long, fluorocarbon leader under the float, and a 6/0 circle hook to the leader. This rig makes for easy, long-distance casting and keeps the bait right at the surface where the fish is located.
We use medium-heavy spinning gear when we fish for tripletail, because these fish can reach upward of 30 to 40 pounds. While the average fish you will catch in May will be around 5 to 8 pounds, fish in the 20- to 25-lb. range are not uncommon. You really don’t want to fight a 20-lb. fish on 8-lb. spinning tackle.
We made a trip in mid-April looking for some early arrivals off of Jekyll Island. April weather can be “iffy,” so we waited and picked a day with very light wind and no clouds.
We launched at the public ramp into the MacKay River off the St. Simons causeway and motored around to the St. Simons Marina to get our live shrimp. We were in no hurry, because the sun needs to be up in the sky in order to see any fish on the surface. This is a lazy man’s fishing day.
We ran out the St. Simons Sound channel and into the ocean, around the shallow sandbar that borders the shipping channel. It was calm and almost flat with a light breeze from the southeast—perfect weather. We then turned south and ran down to about a mile off the beach and cut the boat back to a fast idle. The hunt was about to begin.
After hooking a live shrimp up, we put one angler on the bow of our 20-foot bay boat, armed with his baited tackle. As we idled along, he would keep dipping the shrimp in the water to keep it alive and frisky.
The day was calm, but there was a slight swell coming in from the east. That swell makes seeing the fish much easier. If the sea is completely flat, the fish are difficult to spot.
Sunglasses are not just a good idea, but they are required. You and everyone on your boat need a good pair of polarized glasses. It’s great eye protection, but in our case it allows us to see the fish. The polarization cuts the glare off the water and allows us to see the fish just under the surface. We can actually spot a fish many yards away on a good day with good glasses.
You need to develop a pattern in your search for fish. As noted, they can be as far as 3 miles or as close in as a half-mile. The concentration of fish will likely be off of Jekyll’s northern half, and once you find one, you will likely find more. They tend to group together, hence the spawn theory. Haphazardly idling around may find a fish, but a definitive search plan makes you more likely to be successful.
There are two ways we search. One is to idle along parallel to the beach, moving either north or south. Turn and idle out a bit and then idle back the other way—back and forth, a little farther off the beach each time. However, the best way we have found is to idle out from the beach to about 2 miles and then turn and idle back in. Just move in and out, back and forth, east and west. The current is moving north or south, carrying the fish with it. Instead of you running into them, they drift into you.
So, with one angler on the bow and another angler standing as high in the boat as possible, the search was on.
On one pass about a mile off the beach and approaching that shipping channel sandbar, we spotted something in the water. It was a mottled dark spot about a foot in diameter very close to the surface. Tripletail!
The current was running north, so we kept our distance and idled north to get ahead of the fish. Cutting the engine, we waited for the fish to float closer. Our bow angler was ready, and he cast the float rig out beyond and across the fish’s trajectory path. Then he slowly dragged the bait back to where we thought the fish would drift by. When the fish was 6 feet or so from the float, our angler popped the float one time. The brass beads rattled, and the shrimp kicked. The fish saw the shrimp and inhaled it. This was a huge tripletail—we estimated to be at least 20 pounds.
Sometimes these fish will attack the bait, even to the point of striking at the float on the surface. But more often than not, they simple take the bait, sometimes not even swimming off with it.
But, then something happened that will ruin a fishing trip. Our bow angler forgot that he was using a circle hook, and gave a hard fast hook set as soon as the fish struck. The hook came right out of the fish’s mouth, and the entire float rig launched out of the water back to the boat.
Circle hooks. They are great. But, you must know how to fish with them. Never or almost never do you set the hook when fishing with circle hooks. They are designed to aid in reducing gut-hooked fish. As the fish moves away with the bait in its mouth, or even swallowed, the pressure will pull the bait and hook out of the stomach and into the mouth. As the fish moves away a little faster, the line ends up coming out the side of the fish’s mouth, and the hook penetrates neatly into the fish—right in the corner of the jaw.
If you set the hook when the fish takes the bait, you will almost always pull the rig completely out of the mouth and miss the fish.
We continued our search pattern, staying close to the area where we had just lost the first fish. Tripletails don’t school up, but where you find one, you will likely find others. It’s a watch-and-wait game.
After some time idling about, we spotted another dark area on the surface. We eased the boat in the direction of that dark shadow on the surface and located another nice tripletail. But, before we could get a bait out to him, he sounded.
There were several boats in the area—the north end of Jekyll from about a half mile off the beach to as far as 3 miles off and just south of the sandbar. All of them were idling along looking for tripletail.
One angler said he had caught four the day before, but he had not spotted even one on this day. It was the same with the other boats we passed and talked with. The fish were there the day before, and everyone had a different opinion as to why we were not seeing more today. Most of the anglers we spoke with said that four or five fish on a half-day outing would be a good day.
We fished from noon until about 4 in the afternoon, along with many other boats. But, today they were not there, at least not on the surface.
By now the wind had kicked up and made spotting fish and standing on the bow difficult. The afternoon sea breeze had kicked in making the seas a little bouncy. So we headed back in.
These fish are there now, and the fishing will only get better in May and June. The St. Simons Marina has some huge live shrimp that are ideal for this fishing. There is no need to go early, because you can’t spot the fish until the sun gets up. So, take your time, relax and head out to Jekyll Island’s beaches. The tripletail are there waiting for you!
The Cobia Bonus
While we were searching for these tripletails, another boat was idling and repeatedly casting to something behind them in the water. It turned out to be a cobia, but they were not able to entice a strike. The consensus was they had the wrong bait. So, as you plan your tripletail trip, make sure you have a heavier rod rigged with a GULP eel or a small live fish at hand.
You may happen upon a single cobia swimming the surface or a manta ray. There may be several cobia swimming along with the ray. This is the time the rays and the cobia migrate north following warming water. Be prepared!