A Tripletail Treat

Tripletail prowl Georgia's coastal waters and just off the beaches in June. Try sight fishing or bait under a cork for these powerful saltwater bream.

Capt. Rod Ellis | May 30, 2010

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a tripletail up close; the fish flopping on the deck of the shrimp trawler I had boarded looked like a huge brown bream.

“What in the world is that?” is the reaction of many who see a tripletail for the first time.

This was well before the days of mandatory TEDS (Turtle Excluder Devices) on shrimp trawlers on the Atlantic Coast, so it was not uncommon for the shrimpers to catch large 25-lb. and better “sunfish” as they referred to them. Bear in mind, I had lived and fished on the Georgia coast my entire life and f0elt that I knew a lot about it, but I was about to learn more and become fascinated by what many of the locals who targeted this species often called the “eddy fish.”

Tripletail are off the beaches right now. They’re fun to fish for, fight like crazy, and they taste fantastic. These fish are unique in that they lie on their sides on the surface and look down as they ambush prey that swims below. I had a Florida Game & Fish buddy of mine tell me this strange behavior had some of the older locals around Canaveral wary of eating these fish if they even caught one, due to them appearing “sick” from lying on their sides. Well, if any of you down there are reading this, just pack up the ones you don’t want in a cooler and ship them to me. What a fantastic eating fish!

Lifelong coastal resident David Smith with his first tripletail. It certainly won’t be his last because David, like so many who have battled this fish, is now hooked.

I’ve been blessed in life in many ways; one of those was to have spent a large portion of my working life as a conservation law-enforcement ranger for DNR. I turned my love of two things, boating and police work, into one endeavor. I retired from DNR in 2005 to pursue other things, but I’ll always have that green and gray flowing through my veins. I have two brothers in the boating business, so I retired from DNR and went into that business full time along with one of them.

I missed law enforcement badly, but the constant drag of being on call and nights and weekends had been enough for me, so I returned to it a second time by working days to protect and serve in our county as a school resource police officer. Now I get to share my love of outdoor pursuits and expose kids to things in the outdoors that are all around them — things they may not even notice unless someone points it out to them. This is also the job where I became close friends with a gentle bear of a man, David Smith. David and I worked together at Glynn Academy High School trying to keep more than 1,700 kids safe and on the straight and narrow. As we were talking one day, I’d learned that David had never been tripletail fishing.

“Boy, you’re in for a treat. I’m going to take you out and get you hooked up with one this summer,” I boasted. I told David what a challenge these fish were and how hard they fight. He just smiled and nodded and said he was up to the challenge as soon as the summer rolled around.

One of the most productive ways to tangle with a tripletail is to drop a live shrimp under a cork next to a marker buoy or some other type of structure.

How I First Met Goliath

In the summer of 1991, I was out on a saltwater patrol with Sgt. J.L. “Chip” Bright. I looked over and saw the 19-foot Mako ease up to a day marker in the Satilla River in Camden County. There was a lady at the helm and the gentleman up on the bow with what appeared to be a trout rig on the pole in his hand.

“Why is he fishing for trout right there”? I asked Chip.

“He’s not, they’re fishing for eddy fish,” Chip said.

“So that’s how they do it,” I thought. I’d seen boats pulling up to markers and other objects fishing along the coast from the DNR helicopter, but never quite understood what they were up to.

Chip and I eased up to the boat, careful not to rush in and bump the boat or disturb them. We recognized the fisherman as Charlie Bruce, a local guy from Brunswick. I’d checked Charlie before and knew he was an accomplished fisherman and boater. Our goal in this encounter was not to see if Charlie was in compliance, but rather to see if there was something lingering around that navigational day marker. In those days there were no laws regulating tripletail, so the people who fished for them regulated themselves. After some small talk, Charlie graciously agreed to give me a quick tripletail lesson. He even asked if I wanted to try. Since I was on duty, I respectfully declined, but I told Charlie to take me to school. He explained the gear he was using, and what he expected to catch. He already had one 20-inch tripletail on board. This would be to see if another one was hanging around. Chip and I backed away, and Charlie’s wife eased the boat toward the marker. Chip sounded like a play-by-play announcer at a ball game, explaining to me what was about to happen. As Charlie dropped the live shrimp down close to the marker, it was not in the water 15 seconds when the cork sunk like a rock!

“Watch this!” Chip exclaimed, as Charlie’s wife dropped the 150 Mercury in reverse and eased away from the marker. I’d noticed that Charlie had not even reeled or for that matter even set the hook on this fish as they backed away.

“You have got to get them away from the structure or they’ll break you off,” Chip explained.

After they were a safe distance away, Charlie set the hook… and brother… the fight was on! The fish bent the pole over double and even jumped out of the water twice. After about a five-minute brawl, Charlie’s wife netted the 10-lb. plus fish. That was it… I was hooked as well, and I knew I’d be seeing Mr. Tripletail again.

My first solo attempt at them was successful, and I’d even put my older brother, Bobby, a longtime Brunswick boat and engine dealer, on them on the second trip. He does not fish that often since our dad, R.J. Ellis, had him on the water so much as a kid, but, if you mention something about tripletail, he’s ready to go. Now the mysterious fish that I’d known long-time Brunswick area angling names such as Bluestein, Parker, Cate, Bright, Thigpen and Moody as well as a few others had gone after for many years was maybe not so mysterious after all.

Mystery of the “Eddy Fish”

Tripletail are still somewhat of a mystery. They occur in tropical and temperate waters around the globe. The IGFA world-record tripletail weighed 42-lbs., 5-ozs., and was caught in 1989 in Zululand, Republic of South Africa. Georgia’s state record is not too far away, a whopping 38-lbs., 14-ozs. caught by Kyle Thigpen in 2005 (rumored to be in the Hampton River). And the ladies record is a 22-lb., 7-oz. fish caught by Joan Thigpen in 1994. You don’t reckon’ those Thigpens are on to something do ya? Many fisheries biologists and anglers have noticed there is a large concentration of these fish gathering on the coastline in a 240-mile stretch from Port Canaveral, Fla. up to Jekyll Island when the water temperature gets to around 68 degrees.

I have seen these fish with my own eyes here as late as November when it was cold. It was during that month when on patrol one afternoon I pulled alongside a boat fishing for trout in the Brunswick River near the Sydney Lanier Bridge. Before I could even get alongside them, a guy on board held up a fish and said, “Officer, you think you could tell us what kind of fish this is?”

Much to my amazement, he held up a 12-inch tripletail, well below the legal size at the time. These old boys were from Douglas and had no idea they were breaking the law, so instead of citing them, I gave them a copy of the regulations, a courtesy warning that cost them no money, and although I was really supposed to confiscate the fish, I let them keep it and told them how best to fillet and cook him so that he did not die in vain.

As I explained the cleaning process, one of them asked, “Are those things good to eat?” My reaction said it best… “Now, if you don’t want him…nuff’ said.” He got my drift. After a few days I received a call from one of the men saying how great the fish was on the palate, and he asked if I’d explain to him how to catch them. I obliged him as best I could over the phone.

Different Strokes

There are many techniques and favorite ways to catch tripletail. One of my buddies, Capt. Greg Hildreth, is a renowned area guide who has been taken with a passion by these fish. Greg is one of those who likes to fish for tripletail by sight casting for them as they float on the surface on their sides offshore of Jekyll. Another guide that likes to sight fish for tripletail is Capt. Larry Crews. Capt. Larry and I have caught some good fish sight fishing, but the weather conditions have to be almost perfect to have what I consider a good day on these fish considering my limited time available to go after them.

I would recommend this method of sight casting off Jekyll if you’ve never done it, just to say you have. There are many area guides who can help you go after tripletail using this method. You can use live bait or artificials and enjoy the challenge of sight fishing, but to me, nothing beats a big ol’ Georgia white shrimp flipping backward under a cork. In June, these fish tend to move in from offshore into the sounds and rivers. I’m sure there are a few stragglers here and there at other times, but this is when the largest concentrations of these fish move in.

I’m one of those strange folks who loves the fishing as much as the catching, so I generally do not use very heavy tackle. Such was the case when my buddy David inquired what gear he needed to arm himself with for his upcoming battle with Goliath. When I suggested a stout trout rig, I cleverly knew that David would be going into battle almost as much disadvantaged as did the Biblical David, going up against a giant with a slingshot! I prefer to slip up to a structure with a live shrimp on a float rig and just see what lurks beneath — the way of some of the old timers like the late Bubba Bluestein.

The time had arrived, and David and I prepared the 19-foot Key West, stopped and bought a quart of live shrimp, and quietly slipped out one August morning last summer at low tide. We put the boat in at Jekyll, and David settled in on the front console cooler seat, and I pushed the throttle forward on the 115 Yamaha, and we were off. We fished a few spots with little success.

“Too much tide still running,” I explained to David. “We’ll need to let it slow down a little.”

This is the downside about fishing bait under a cork on structure. If the conditions are right, sight fishing offshore for these fish can be productive at any time of day and at any tide, with noon being the best since the glare factor on the water is lessened. When fishing structure, you have a short window of time, and the water must be slack, either dead low or at the top of the flood tide. I told David to be patient, for I knew Goliath lurked nearby.

We moved to another spot, and I told David to be ready since the conditions were right.

“Deepen up a little David,” I told him as we idled closer to the buoy.

David moved the stopper up the line. I handed him a fresh large white shrimp that was flipping its tail and very lively, and I told David to hook him near the horn. A yacht headed south lumbered by, and I told David that the wakes would probably help us. I eased the Key West up to the buoy, and David dropped the cork down beside it, almost as if he was pitching crickets for bream up on the Altamaha River. The cork bobbed for a few seconds and BAM! It went down like a rock. I told David to be patient and not put the steel to him yet as I put the Yamaha in reverse and eased the boat back. The fish was hooked and just rolled a few feet below the surface. David was slowly reeling and looked at me and said, “I thought you said these things fought hard.” I smiled and said, “Just wait.”

When we were about 50 yards from the marker, David had managed to reel the fish in to about 5 feet from the boat, and he was a grown one, I figured well over 20 pounds. Well, you know the rest of the story right? When the fish saw the boat and figured out what was going on, he made a beeline for the marker, and David no longer wondered about the fighting ability of the tripletail!

He yelled, “Great God Almighty!” And this mountain of a man I’d seen break up fights between 200-lb. plus teenagers with one hand now had his knees buried in the side of the boat and was hanging on to the fishing pole for dear life. The fish had the upper hand from the start, and in typical tripletail fashion, went straight to the buoy’s anchor chain, wrapped the line around it, and broke it off. David looked at me in amazement, and I was dying laughing. Score round one for Goliath. Like a kid at Christmas unwrapping toys as fast as he could, David grabbed another rod and baited it up.

“Let’s see if he has a little brother under there that maybe will be a little more manageable,” I said as I eased David up to the buoy again, and in no time at all, the cork sank. This time the fish was considerably smaller, and David brought him to the side of the boat, and I netted him. Although not Goliath, he was a legal fish, and we high-fived in triumph. And without a doubt, David W. Smith, a lifelong resident of coastal Georgia, could no longer say he’d never been tripletail fishing, and needless to say, he’ll be back.

Footnote from the Author: During the writing of this article, I lost my brother Timothy Ellis, an extremely talented marine outboard technician and accomplished angler. I dedicate the article to his memory and wish him fair winds and following seas in heaven.

Editor’s Note: Capt. Rod Ellis is a lifetime Coastal Georgia resident and is a retired DNR law-enforcement sergeant.

If you have any questions about this article, or would like to go and have a summer tripletail experience on the coastal Georgia water like this one, he can be reached by e-mail at <[email protected]> or by calling (912) 230-0676.

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