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Tripletail On The Summer Structure

As the water warms, focus on buoys, flotsam and structure.

Ron Brooks | June 5, 2016

In April of last year, we did an article on catching tripletail off the beach at Jekyll Island. In what most biologists believe is a spawning gathering, these fish float along on their sides just under the surface. It’s sight fishing at its finest, and it happens each year beginning in late March and early April.

The question everyone has on their minds is just where do these fish go after their April and May float trip? The answer is simple, and it makes these fish even easier to catch.

With sight fishing, you have a lot of territory to cover in the ocean up to a mile or so off the beach. Seeing three or four fish that you can cast to is considered a successful outing. Catching three or four of these fish is considered outstanding. Some days you can look all day and never find one. On calm, weekend days, you will see many more boats off the beach looking for tripletail. Everyone on the coast who fishes knows about the “tripletail season.” Not as many know where to look once summer arrives and the presumed spawn has ended.

Beginning in June, these fish will be looking for structure. It does not take much to keep a tripletail happy when it comes to structure. They have been seen and caught out from under seaweed, a piece of wood and any other type of flotsam. They will sometimes be seen just under a single crab trap buoy. Single-pole markers, multipole markers and any other fixed structure in the water will attract tripletail.

We made a trip to St. Simons and Jekyll Island in May to find some tripletail that had already moved on from their spring float trip off the beaches. The fish were still off the beaches at the time, but we thought perhaps a few had made the summer transition to structure. We were looking for fish that were identifying with any type of structure. In this case, the structure was the large green, red or black buoys that mark the main channels coming into the St. Simons and St. Andrew sounds.

In the case of the St. Simons Sound buoys, they mark the edge of a dredged, working, shipping-channel depth of around 36 feet. It’s the channel that container ships and tankers use to get into the port at Brunswick. In the St. Andrew Sound, the buoys mark the edge of the natural, inlet channel that can be as deep as 50 feet and as shallow as 12 to 18 feet at mean low water.

While any of these roughly 30 buoys at the entrance to both sounds may hold tripletail, it’s the ones in the St. Andrew Sound on which we concentrate. Sitting in around 20 feet of water, buoys No. 30 and 31 are where we usually find a fish or two waiting.

All of these buoys are very large and have a very heavy chain holding them to an even heavier anchor on the bottom. There is a variety of marine life, both plant and animal, which is attached to or identifies with these buoys. The longer the buoys are there in the water without USCG maintenance, the more marine life there will be. We’re talking about moss and other plants that attract small crustaceans like crabs or even a shrimp occasionally. These in turn can attract small baitfish, which can attract larger fish. In our case that means a tripletail.

Tripletail seem to love the large chains and will often sit in the slow current behind the chain with their nose right up against the chain. They can be right up at the surface, under the buoy or down the chain somewhere.But generally, they will be at a depth that allows them to be seen by anglers. If the current is strong you need to wait for the slack tide. The fish won’t stay in there and fight a strong current.

The fishing plan is fairly simple. We use live shrimp almost exclusively. While these tripletail can be caught on a jig, such as a bucktail, or even a fly, they generally prefer shrimp. They do feed on small crabs and small fish, but the live shrimp allows an easier life-like presentation.

We hook the shrimp through the head just behind the horns, being careful not to hit the dark spot that is the brain. Shrimp that are hooked in this fashion can swim and kick quite naturally.

The rig we use consists of a Thunder Chicken float tied to a 3-foot, 30-lb. test fluorocarbon leader. The leader is tied to a 2/0 kahle hook. We like the Thunder Chicken because it has a built-in weight at the bottom of the float. This allows us to cast a long distance and allows the weightless shrimp to swim and kick freely under the float. Other float rigs will work, but most of them require a sinker somewhere down on the leader in order for the float to sit upright in the water.

The 3-foot leader is what we use most of the time, but we also keep a rig with a 6-foot leader and one with a 1-foot leader ready to go. We can quickly switch rods if the fish is deeper or shallower than the 3-foot rig we normally use.

In a way, this is a form of sight fishing, because you more often than not will see a fish hanging around a chain. But don’t be deceived if you approach a buoy and don’t see a fish. You just may have spooked the fish with a less-than-quiet approach, and the fish simply sounded. Quietly hang around and wait. Switch to your longer leader rig, and fish as if you know the fish is there.

Once we locate a fish or decide to fish a particular buoy, we either idle the boat into the current or use a trolling motor to keep us stationary relative to the buoy. As far as current concerns go, the farther you are from the entrance to the sound, the slower the current will be. In our experience, the buoys that are farther away from the sound entrance are the ones where we find more fish when the tide is running. The current in the sound mouth can be very strong, and that requires a lot of effort for the tripletail to stay on the buoy. On these buoys, like No. 30 and No. 31, which are the ones right in the inlet, we need to wait for slack tide. This period is the 30- to 45-minute time period when the tide slows, stops and begins moving the other direction. That is when we can find fish on these particular buoys.

We always have at least two anglers in the boat. While one fishes, the other runs the boat, keeps us in position and maneuvers the boat to pull a big, hooked fish away from the buoy chain.

We usually run all the way out of St. Andrew Sound to marker buoy No. 1 to begin fishing. It’s a green buoy, as are all the odd-numbered buoys. Even numbered buoys are red. The current on the buoys this far out of the inlet will be present, but not very strong, and tripletail will hang on the chains out this far on any tide. That allows us to fish on any tide stage. Remember, the tidal current will be the weakest on a quarter or three-quarter moon.

We begin fishing by first looking for a fish sitting on the marker chain. Even if we don’t see a fish, we will put baits in the water. Once again, if you do not see a fish, go to your longer leader. That will allow a fish that may have dropped down the chain and out of sight to see a fresh bait more readily.

The current is easy to detect as it moves by the buoy. Cast your rig up current from the buoy and allow it to drift down to the buoy with the current. Because the shrimp is free to swim on the end of the leader, it will entice the tripletail to strike.

Do not be surprised if your shrimp comes flipping out of the water as it nears and passes the buoy. A nervous shrimp is a sure sign that something is after it. That something will usually be a tripletail. Once the float has drifted well past the buoy, reel in and cast up current again.

If you have been quiet and stealthy, keeping the boat stationary next to the marker, you should be fighting a tripletail by now. If you have fished for 15 or more minutes with no strike and no nervous shrimp, make a move to the next marker. In our case that will be buoy No. 2, the first red buoy on the way into the sound.

The same tactics apply to each buoy we fish. Settle the boat, cast up current and allow the float rig to drift naturally very close to the buoy. Watch for a dark shadow down in the water column close to the chain. Watch for a nervous shrimp. And be prepared to set the hook and drag the fish away from the anchor chain.

We use medium-casting tackle with 60-lb. braid for line coupled with Shimano Tekota reels and Penn Slammer rods. You will need to set a tight drag and be prepared to pull the fish away from the buoy chain. This tackle may seem a bit heavy, but you need to realize that these fish can grow pretty large.

The Georgia state record is 38-lbs., 14-ozs. and was caught in the Hampton River just north of Brunswick. I can assure you it was caught very close to some existing structure in the river. The world record caught off South Africa is only 4 pounds heavier, coming in at 42-lbs., 5-ozs.

A word of caution is needed here. With the heavy braided line and tight drag, it is possible to horse the fish too much; that is, put too much pressure on it. Braided line tends to bury itself into the reel’s spool if too much pressure is applied. At that point the drag on the reel is effectively eliminated and that jammed line means you have no drag. The first thing to break will be the leader, which is about half the strength of the braid.

You want to make sure that your drag is tight enough to keep the fish turned away from the buoy chain, but light enough that it does not bury itself in the spool. We have lost a number of fish because of buried braid. We usually put braided line only on our spinning reels for that very reason. But for these tripletail, we need a line with zero stretch that will allow us to maneuver the fish.

In addition to the buoys, tripletail can be found on almost any structure. As summer moves to July and August, you may find these fish hanging around crab-trap buoys and marker poles, particularly the multi-poled, larger markers inside the sounds. Remember that the current needs to be slow or slack. As you run, be sure to inspect the markers you go by and look for that dark spot just under the water.

For many years, no one, including our DNR biologists, knew much about the tripletail. There were no limits either in size or creel. Most anglers catching one had no idea what they had caught. Before turtle excluders were required on shrimp nets, many of the floating tripletail were caught as by catch. Today these excluders help keep the stock healthy, and our Georgia DNR now knows quite a lot about the habits and movement of the tripletail.

The size limit on tripletail is two per angler with an 18-inch minimum length. And today we know much more about these strange, reclusive fish. That is what will help ensure the viability of these great fighting and great eating fish.

You can find these fish on the buoys all summer long. Some reports have been made of tripletail being caught all the way into November if the fall weather isn’t too cold. So, go out and give it a try on a high slack tide. You may end up tripling your pleasure!

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