Whether cooling off in the Atlantic or basking under the sun, South Carolina’s coastline creates a perfect getaway to escape the daily grind. For fisherman, there is nothing better than a trip to relieve stress and bring a few fish back home for dinner,. and for anglers looking for a new challenge who can safely navigate the Bulls Bay’s waters, the tripletail is the perfect rival.
Tripletails are one of the most-unique species in South Carolinas’s waters in both appearance and power. Their bodybuilder’s physique is built for brute power, with three large, rounded, power-pushing fins that bring three times the power to their retreat.
But, it’s not just their pulling power that makes them a unique, must-do target during the summer. Tripletails have a very unusual stance in the water column; they lie belly up or on their sides at the surface, drifting nearly motionless with the tide.
Chris Wilson of FinAddict Charters is one of the few Charleston fishing captains who specifically targets tripletails over the summer. It’s one of his favorite species to hunt down in the waters north of Charleston Harbor, but anglers need to know what to look for.
“They like to float around in the tide like a piece of trash or bag in the water,” Wilson said. “They are really attracted to floating objects, dead trees, crab-pot buoys, pylons and rangefinders.”
They choose floating objects, fixed structures and tide lines to camouflage them from any potential prey. Tripletails mostly eat small fish and crustaceans, but they will eat about anything within reach.
Tripletails prefer waters with a high salinity and will typically stay close to the ocean, and that makes Bulls Bay and the rest of Cape Romain’s 29,000 acres of salty wilderness an ideal place to hunt for a tripletail basking in the sun. Wilson will target them along the inlets anywhere from Dewees Inlet adjacent to the Isle of Palms northward through Bulls Bay to the Santee Delta. These unimproved inlets provide excellent habitat and opportunities to find tripletails sliding inland with the tide.
Wilson fishes on both sides of the tide, but he will concentrate on certain areas during each phase of the tide.
“They will float inside on rising water and will feed along the grass edges, just like any of our other coastal fish,” he said. “As the water falls back out into the ocean, the current will drift them back towards the ocean.”
As fish move back in forth with the tide, Wilson looks for them to be caught up in tide lines or huddled next to some floating debris or something to give them some shade.
“Tripletails like shade — a milk jug, a bucket or anything floating will bring them in,” he says.
Every month, lunar activity affects the tides, and excessively high tides raise the water level a foot or two higher than normal. When the water rushes into and out of the marsh, tons of trash and floating debris is pulled into the main waterways. During these high, falling-water sequences after a flood tide, Wilson closely monitors the main water courses near the inlets and openings into Bulls Bay.
“We cruise around and look for them floating adjacent to these floating objects,” he said.
Tripletails are opportunistic foragers; they will eat about anything they get the opportunity to gobble up. According to Wilson, smaller fish eat shrimp, small crabs, and small baitfish, but larger tripletail that can weigh more than 10 pounds will eat menhaden, mullet and other large baitfish.
“You cannot go wrong with a free-lined live shrimp” Wilson said. “Toss it a couple feet in their path, they will right themselves and eat it up.”
Describing them as somewhat leader-shy, Wilson will use 24 inches of 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon as a leader between an Owner 2/0 multi-light circle hook and his main line.
Live bait isn’t the only way to catch tripletails. Wilson regularly gives his fly-fishing anglers shots at tripletails with small crab, shrimp or baitfish imitations. He will also toss ¼-ounce D.O.A. shrimp or 3-inch Gulp shrimp to fish he can see drifting in the current.
Typically, tripletails will allow anglers to get a reasonable distance from them before sliding below the surface. A poor cast across their back or getting to close to the fish can spook the fish out of sight. Wilson encourages anglers not to leave yet, because there may be another shot on the horizon.
“If they spook and go down, don’t worry; they will usually come right back up,” he says.
Tripletail are one of the ghost fishes that many anglers hear about, but few make a reasonable attempt to get in the boat. Since they are strictly a sight-fishing species, it might take a few minutes searching to nearly burning up a full tank of gas cruising around before a fish is spotted. But that’s when the excitement begins. For anglers that know where to look and what to look for, the tripletail can be a real exciting rival over the normal inshore choices.
HOW TO GET THERE — Tripletails can be caught from the Isle of Palms northward through Bulls Bay to the Santee Delta. Bulls Bay’s waters are easily accessible from McClellanville’s municipal ramp off Jeremy Creek (weekly or annual fee required) or the Buck Hall Recreational Area in the Francis Marion National Forest near Awendaw (daily use fee). Both are a short distance off US 17. Once on the water, look inside of inlets on a rising tide for any floating debris or surface structure.
WHEN TO GO — Tripletails show up late in the spring as the waters push through the 70-degree mark. Look for them tail to arrive along with cobia in May and expect them to remain until the water temperatures plummet in the fall months. The best tides to find tripletails inshore is on rising water where the fish drift inside with the rising tide.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Tripletails are opportunistic feeders and they will eat small crabs, shrimp, and small fish. Anglers can cast live shrimp or small minnows under a float or free-lined on a small 2/0 circle or J-style hook attached to a 2-foot section of 20 to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. Tripletails can also be caught readily on artificial lures and flies. Small, lightly-weighted shrimp imitations, such as: 31/4- or 2- Vudu shrimp, 1/4-ounce D.O.A. shrimp, or 3-inch Gulp shrimp are perfect choices. No additional weight should be added to pre-weighted lures, and light jigheads should be used for other un-weighted lures. A slow sinking or suspending presentation is ideal. Small shrimp, crab, or baitfish fly imitations are also good choices. Spinning rods at least 7 feet are needed to make long casts. Braided line in the 14- to 20-pound class is typically spooled onto reels.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Chris Wilson FinAddict Fishing Charters, 843-224-7462, www.charlestonflyfishingguide.com. Haddrell’s Point Tackle, Mount Pleasant, 843-881-3644. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Shem Creek Inn, Mount Pleasant, 800-523-4951; Village Fish Camp, McClellanville, 843-814-7900, www.VillageFishCamp.com; Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.charlestoncvb.com; South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, www.discoversouthcarolina.com.
MAPS — Navionics, 800-848-5896, www.navionics.com, 800-848-5896; Waterproof Charts (Near shore #98), 800-423-9026, www.waterproofcharts.com; SeaLake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.sealakeusa.com; DeLorme’s South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 207-846-7000, www.delorme.com.