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September 21, 2007

Fast-Track Tripletail

The bizarre tripletail provides an unusual and exciting sight-casting experience around the crab-pot buoys of Florida Bay.


The author shows off a nice tripletail taken from the crab pots west of Islamorada.

It's a rare thing when commercial fishing gear works in favor of anglers, but that's the case in Florida Bay, where thousands of crab-pot buoys create the perfect environment for pursuing one of the world's most unusual species. One look at a tripletail and you'll know how the fish got its name. Its large dorsal and anal fins are positioned far to the rear of its body, giving it the appearance of having three tails. The creature actually looks more like a fresh water sunfish or oscar than any kind of marine species! However, that's not the only thing odd about this unique fish, as I discovered firsthand on a trip last February with Captain Richard Stanczyk.

The owner of Bud n' Mary's Sportfishing Marina on Islamorada in the Florida Keys, Stanczyk is an expert when it comes to tracking down tripletail amid the crab-pot fields of Florida Bay. In order to make the long run across the shallow bay, we hooked up with Jim Bernardin of Pines and Palms Cottages on Islamorada, whose 18-foot Hewes flats skiff skims over inches of water at 40 mph.

High-Speed Spotting

I expected Stanczyk to slow to a crawl as we approached the pots, but he kept going at 20 mph, checking out the buoys along the way. Suddenly he cut the throttle and swung the skiff around. I hadn't seen anything unusual, but Stanczyk idled over to one of the buoys and pointed out a dark shape below it that he assured me was a tripletail. Though the fish was relatively small, it provided a good opportunity to practice the casting drill.

Fast-Track Tripletail
Captain Richard Stanczyk prepares to gaff a nice tripletail brought to boatside by Jim Bernardin on light spinning tackle.

Stanczyk set me up with a light spinning outfit and explained that I had to cast just beyond the buoy, so the shrimp could be retrieved slowly past it without snagging the trap line. The shrimp itself was rigged with a 2/0 hook threaded from tail to head. A tiny split-shot was pinched onto the line ahead of the bait for casting weight.

My first cast wasn't particularly accurate, and I managed to snag the trap line just as the tripletail took the bait. Fortunately, Stanczyk was able to maneuver around the buoy so that I could clear the line and land the scrappy 15-incher.

After that I got the hang of retrieving my shrimp close enough to the buoys to attract the fish without snagging the line. The trick is to reel the bait past the float to lure the tripletail out from hiding, then stop the retrieve and let the shrimp sink so the fish can nail it. The hook should be set by reeling quickly, then the boat should be thrown in reverse to keep the fish from getting back to the trap line.

It took a while for me to spot the triples as we cruised among the pot buoys, but eventually I got the hang of it. In most cases they looked like nothing more than a leaf or piece of weed attached to the trap line. Curiously, the fish didn't spook easily. It was hard to believe that they wouldn't take off after we roared past only yards from their home, then spun around to get within casting range. The tripletail not only stayed put, they inevitably darted right out for the shrimp when it drifted past. Since I can only catch ignorant fish, this suited my skills to perfection! If my cast wasn't on the money, it was simply a matter of making another that would provide the proper presentation.

Triple Facts & Regs

Tripletail are found in very shallow coastal waters and far out to sea in the Gulf Stream. They have various color phases, but both the inshore and oceanic fish are the same species - Lobotes surinamensis - which is found from the Mid-Atlantic coast to Argentina, as well as in the Indian and western Pacific oceans.

Tripletail can be found around permanent and floating structure throughout the Southeast, and are often spotted under floating debris well offshore to the north. Richard Stanczyk says the Keys crab-pot fishery begins when the pots are set in August and ends when they come out in mid-April, although some pots are never removed. Tripletails live there year-round, but are hard to locate without the pots. Prime time is March and April. The minimum size for tripletail in Florida is 15 inches, with a limit of two per day. They also taste great, although their tough hide makes them difficult to clean.

The key to this fishery is a calm or fairly calm day. Stanczyk isn't too concerned about water clarity, except when the area is hit with dark, tannin-stained water, which none of the local species like.

Anglers can also do very well by casting jigs and flies to the pot buoys, although Stanczyk emphasizes that jigs work a lot better when tipped with a piece of shrimp. He also notes that the fish are not always as "spook-proof" or cooperative as they were on our trip. Nevertheless, South Florida tripletail offer fairly dependable sport, so if conditions are right, don't fail to take a shot at them the next time you're in the area. - Al Ristori

Super-Cooperative Fish

Fast-Track Tripletail
Stanczyk uses a flats boat to get quickly from one crab-pot buoy to the next, with obvious success.

The tripletail we encountered that day were full of surprises. Later in the morning I lost a big fish when my hook pulled during the fight. Since I still had a piece of shrimp on the hook, I flicked it back to the tripletail, which jumped right on it! To prove that this behavior isn't unusual, one of Bernardin's fish did the same thing later in the day. Talk about cooperative fish!

We covered a lot of ground and hundreds of buoys in order to get shots at relatively few fish. Sometimes we'd find two or three triples in a string of pots, and once we found two at a single buoy, but other strings held none at all. Stanczyk seemed to sense when it was time to change areas, and by spotting at such high speed we never waited long for a shot. After starting out with a few barely legal-sized triples, we began spotting larger fish and passed up the smaller ones.

Shallow-water tripletail typically weigh two to five pounds, although many of the fish we caught were in the five- to eight-pound class. The largest fish were spotted as we left the main concentration of crab pots and headed toward Marathon. There were fewer buoys and we were moving even faster, but those big triples were easy to see. Whereas young tripletail are darkish and have beautiful markings, the larger specimens have a blander coloration and actually appear whitish in the somewhat cloudy Florida Bay water.

Captain Richard Stanczyk takes out charters when he's not too busy at Bud n' Mary's Marina, (800) 742-7945, in Islamorada. If he's not available, there are plenty of other competent guides in the marina who can take you fishing for tripletail. There are a few rooms and a small houseboat for rent right on the premises, but you'll find plenty of accommodations in the area. For general information on the Keys call (800) FLA-KEYS. - Al Ristori

Great Jumping Tripletail!

Fast-Track Tripletail
Thread shrimp baits on the hook from tail to head and squeeze a split shot on the line for casting weight if needed.

At one point I hooked a particularly large triple that displayed another unusual characteristic of this seemingly ungainly species - a leap that took it some three feet out of the water! That fish weighed 10 1/2 pounds, which is unusually large for the area, although tripletail can reach 30 pounds or more. (The IGFA world-record tripletail weighed 42 pounds, five ounces, and was caught in 1989 in Zululand, Republic of South Africa. The IGFA doesn't have line-class records for the species, but Vic Dunaway in his Sport Fish of Florida lists a record in the Sunshine State of 32 pounds.)

Bernardin caught another tripletail of about eight pounds that also made an impressive leap. Stanczyk noted that this behavior is rather common, even though the fish doesn't appear capable of such acrobatics. Indeed, tripletail may be the most underrated game and food fish in all of Florida. Best of all, they're usually ignorant enough to make up for casting errors by visiting anglers such as me who have to polish their casting skills every time they make a trip to the Keys!

Backwater to School


Fast-Track Tripletail
Instructors Captain Ron Gauthier and Captain Bo Johnson help student Dave Mull boat his catch.

The Genmar Evinrude Backwater Fishing School offers a curriculum to help anglers of all levels learn new skills - or brush up on old ones - and catch more fish. The three-day/four-night school, held at the Tarpon Lodge at Pine Island, Florida, provides plenty of instruction with professional fishing guides, including two full days of on-the-water fishing education.

Day one starts in the classroom with an overview of backwater ecosystems given by a marine biologist from Mote Marine Laboratory, a non-profit research organization. Doctor-taught safety and first-aid presentations are followed by an electronics seminar presented by a Raymarine regional manager.

After lunch, the guides discuss tackle selection and preparation. The class then breaks into groups of up to three students for angling-skills instruction on the lawn at Tarpon Lodge. Each group rotates through intensive sessions where the guides teach casting, knot-tying, throwing a castnet and more. The last session of the day offers hands-on boat-handling and navigation aboard the fleet of Evinrude-powered Genmar fishing platforms, including boats from Ranger, Hydra-Sports and Wellcraft. After washing down the boats, students eat dinner with the school staff.

The next two days are spent putting those refreshed angling skills to good use, targeting the spotted seatrout, red drum, tarpon and snook that roam the waters around Tarpon Lodge. The instructors ask the anglers to navigate, spot fish and tie knots (only using school-approved knots learned the previous day - and they check them back at the dock!). The school holds an informal graduation ceremony at dinner on the last night.

The organizers have tried to keep costs low, so the fee for the school is $1,690.70, including all meals, accommodations, tackle and instruction. For more information, visit http://www.genmarbackwaterfishingschool.com or call (800) 755-1099 ext. 490.
- Jason Y. Wood

Tasty Tripletail

Tripletail Millinaise is a simple, delicious recipe from Uncle Joe LePree, owner of Uncle's, a restaurant located at 80939 Overseas Highway (mile marker 81 oceanside) in Islamorada, Florida. For more information about Uncle's, call (305) 664-4402 or visit http://www.keysdining.com/uncles.html.

Tripletail Millinaise

Ingredients:

    Tripletail fillets
    1 cup flour
    4 eggs, beaten
    1 cup Italian bread crumbs
    1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil

Sauce Ingredients:

    1/4 cup white wine
    2 tbsp. butter or margarine
    3 tbsp. lemon juice
    1 tbsp. capers

Heat the oil in a saut¿ pan. Dredge the tripletail fillets in flour, dip them in the egg wash, then coat them with Italian breadcrumbs. Saut¿ fillets in hot oil until they are golden brown, about three minutes per side.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a saucepan and heat thoroughly. Spoon sauce over saut¿ed tripletail fillets.