Atlantic Tripletail

Atlantic tripletail, illustration by Diane Rome Peebles

Copyright © Diane Rome Peebles

Similar Species

The tripletail is not easily confused with any other species of fish.

Description

The Atlantic tripletail has an unusual and distinctive appearance. The name tripletail comes from the fact that the large and rounded soft dorsal fin and anal fin extend far back on the body and closely resemble the tail in color and shape, so that the fish might appear to have three tails. The general form of the fish resembles that of a freshwater crappie. The body is laterally compressed and deep and the diagonal mouth is quite large. The tripletail's eyes are small and located far forward on the head, so that the head appears to be small. The concave profile of the top of the head becomes more pronounced as the fish ages. The preopercle, the free ridge on the gill cover, has sharp serrations.

Adult tripletail have drab, spotted and mottled color patterns, in various shades of black, brown, and gray. Juveniles are mottled with yellow, brown ,and black. Juveniles have white pectoral fins and a white margin on the tail. Tripletail have the ability to change color to match their surroundings, from nearly solid black to yellow to silvery grey.

Young tripletail are well camouflaged and resemble leaves or debris, particularly when floating near the surface in sargassum. Adults appear to be sluggish and often lounge on the surface, floating on their sides beneath floating objects or adjacent to pilings or navigation markers.

The Atlantic tripletail reaches a length of more than three feet and a weight of more than 40 pounds, though fish typically encountered by anglers weigh two to 16 pounds. Females are typically somewhat larger than males. There are no significant external differences between the sexes. Tripletail are believed to live as long as seven to 10 years.

Atlantic tripletail, photo by Jim Franks, GCRL
Tripletail. Photo by Jim Franks

Color variation in tripletailsColor variation in tripletailsColor variation in tripletails
Tripletail have the ability to change color to match their surroundings, from nearly solid black to yellow to silvery grey.
Photos by Nick Drinnen

Occurrence

Tripletail are found around the world in most tropical and subtropical seas. In the United States, they occur from Massachusetts south along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

Tripletail lurking beneath sargassum. GCRL photo
Tripletail lurking beneath sargassum. GCRL photo

They are normally solitary fish, but may form schools under some conditions. Tripletail appear in bays and inshore waters on the northern Gulf Coast in April and remain through early October. In the northern Gulf of Mexico, tripletail are somewhat migratory, moving between the ocean in winter and inshore waters in summer. Unlike cobia, there appears to be little east and west movement along the coast of the northern Gulf. In Florida, tripletail move north and south along the coast with the seasons.

While on the Gulf coast, tripletail can be found in bays, sounds, and estuaries and around the barrier islands, typically in water less than 20 feet deep. Large adults may also be present in the deeper open water of the Gulf, almost always in association with floating objects

Seemingly lazy, tripletail are fond of drifting, especially beneath floating material, boats, and buoys or adjacent to posts and pilings, usually in the shadows. One Mississippi angler reported catching a tripletail that was lying beneath a floating tennis ball, with its uppermost eye in the shade of the ball. Tripletail frequently lie on their sides and float listlessly near the surface, looking like clumps of leaves or a plastic bag. It is thought that their odd behavior and association with objects is strongly related to feeding, but there are likely other factors.

Tripletail are well camouflaged ambush predators and move quickly when they attack prey. They are vigorous when hooked.

Life Cycle & Reproduction

The life history of tripletail is not well understood and very little is known about their reproductive biology in the Gulf of Mexico.

Spawning

It is thought that tripletail spawn offshore in deeper water; larval fish are rare in inshore waters. Tripletail are a multiple spawning species. In the northern Gulf of Mexico, females appear to spawn once every three to five days during the spawning season of June through August, or 18 to 31 times per season. Peak activity occurs during July. A typical female tripletail 24 inches in total length might produce 4.5 to 8 millions eggs in a season. Egg production increases as the fish mature and grow.

Tripletail larvae 20 hours after hatching.
Tripletail larvae 20 hours after hatching, GCRL photo.

Larvae and Juveniles

Juvenile tripletail are commonly found in floating patches of Sargassum or other types of drift algae and appear to be strongly associated with shaded structures.

The tripletail grows fastest in its first year. This may be an adaptation to the high predation rate of small fishes in the epipelagic zone. The transition from a larval tripletail to a juvenile occurs between 0.35-0.37 inches (9.0-9.5 mm) in standard length.

Adults

A GCRL study of tripletail in Mississippi waters showed that 50% of female tripletail are sexually mature at a total length of 17.6 inches and an age of one year. 100% of females are mature at 19.7 inches. Males mature earlier; 50% reach maturity at a length of only 10.6 inches.

Approximate weight vs. length relationship for tripletail in Mississippi.
Approximate weight vs. length relationship for tripletail in Mississippi. Click for larger image.
Source: Franks, et. al, 2001


Diet and Feeding Behavior

Tripletail lying in ambush beneath a crab trap float.
Tripletail lying in ambush beneath a crab trap float.

Tripletail are opportunistic feeders that lie motionless until their prey comes close and they strike rapidly. They feed on fish and benthic crustaceans, including gulf menhaden, Atlantic bumper, glass minnows, swimming red crabs, anchovies, shrimp, and squid.

Predators

The primary predators of tripletail are sharks and larger toothy fish.

Tripletail from Mississippi Sound.
Tripletail from Mississippi Sound.

Fishing for Tripletail

The tripletail's fondness for floating objects, posts, and pilings makes it a good target for anglers. Fishing for tripletail is most often "sight fishing" rather than blind casting. However, good results are sometimes achieved by fishing a lure or bait deeper below the surface alongside pilings.

As of 2012, the tripletail is a regulated sport fish in Mississippi, with a daily catch limit of three fish and a minimum length of 18 inches for both the recreational and commercial fisheries. The tripletail fishery in the northern Gulf of Mexico is primarily recreational. Current Mississippi saltwater fishing regulations are available on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website. As of March 17, 2014, Louisiana does not regulate tripletail. However, a pending regulation would limit recreational catches to five fish per day with a minimum length of 18 inches.

The current Mississippi state records for tripletail are 37 pounds, 12 ounces for conventional tackle and 16 pounds, 11.84 ounces for fly rod.

Use care when handling a tripletail. The preopercule (the bony plate just forward of the gill cover opening) is serrated and sharp, and the dorsal spines are stiff and sharply pointed. The fish shown on the right was bound for the table. Fish that are to be released should not be handled this way, since the gills are very delicated and easily damaged.
19.25-inch tripletail tagged and released near Bayou Caddy, Mississippi, August 1, 2007. Photo by Doug Olander, Sport Fishing Magazine.
19.25-inch tripletail tagged and released near Bayou Caddy, Mississippi, August 1, 2007. Photo by Doug Olander, Sport Fishing Magazine.

GCRL Tag and Release Program

The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory has maintained a tripletail tag and release program since 2001. As of April 2014, 3400 fish have been tagged and released, mostly by volunteer anglers. A total of 352 fish have been recaptured, yielding a high recapture rate of 10.4%.

The results have shown that most fish on the northern Gulf are recaptured within 25 miles of where they were tagged. The longest distance between release and capture was a fish that was tagged in Florida and recaptured 510 miles away in North Carolina. Such movements are not typical of northern Gulf fish and this case was probably related to the north-flowing Gulf Stream current.

Image from tripletail t-shirt by Marty Wilson
Image from tripletail t-shirt by Marty Wilson

Anglers who target tripletail are encouraged to tag the tag fish that they don’t keep. Tagging materials are available free of charge through GCRL’s Sport Fish Tag and Release Program, funded by the MDMR through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program.¬† Anglers who tag and release five tripletail will receive a free program t-shirt, designed by local artist Marty Wilson

Read more about the tripletail tag and release program in a news article on AL.com

Tripletail on the Table

Tripletail are not widely known as a food fish, but they are greatly enjoyed by those who are familiar with them. Being a relatively flat fish, tripletail filets are not thick, but the firm white meat is tasty and often compared to grouper and snapper. Tripletail are usually treated like spotted seatrout, and are cooked in a variety of ways. The meat flakes easily and does not do well on a grill unless it is cooked with the skin and scales left intact on the filets. It's been reported that K-Paul's restaurant in New Orleans once played on an earlier success with red drum and served tripletail as "reddened blackfish."

Conservation Status and Management History

The tripletail has not been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

As tripletail have become popular sport fish, fishery regulations have been enacted by all Gulf of Mexico states. Little data exist on the status of tripletail populations in the Gulf of Mexico, but the high recapture rate from ongoing tagging research indicates the species may be more highly susceptible to harvest than some other sport fish species.

Resources and References

GCRL researchers have published a number of significant papers on tripletail.

 

Tripletail Videos

Tripletail filmed underwater by diver, near the town of Tekeli, Turkey.

"Black Fish" - Water color and print by Ocean Springs artist and fisherman Chris Stebly.
"Black Fish" - Water color and print by Ocean Springs artist and fisherman Chris Stebly. Chris inherited his love of tripletail from his great uncle, Peter Anderson, the noted Ocean Springs artist of Shearwater Pottery. Peter was very fond of tripletail fishing and occasionally cut small saplings and drove them into the bottom in shallow water off Belle Fontaine Beach to attract the fish.