Florida “Atlantic” Tripletail
- Scientific Name: Lobotes surinamensis
- Common Names: Tripletail, blackfish, and many other local names throughout its worldwide distribution
- Order: Perciformes
- Family: Lobotidae. The Atlantic tripletail is the only member of the Lobotidae family in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
- Status: Not listed on IUCN Red List
Similar SpeciesThe tripletail is not easily confused with any other species of fish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Diet and Feeding Behavior
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.
The primary predators of tripletail are sharks and larger toothy fish.
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.
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.
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." The tripletail’s meat is white, sweet and flaky, similar to a prime rib cut of grouper. When it comes to preparing them, less is more. Simply pan sauté, broil or bake. Or, to take it to the next level, add a little butter, lemon, flat leaf parsley and freshly ground pepper – and consider pairing your tripletail fish entrée with a side of grilled zucchini dressed in a marinade of olive oil, fresh ground pepper and kosher salt. Resist battering or grilling the tripletail; the flavor of this savory fish can shine through on its own.
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.
FWC Florida Regulations
Minimum Size Limit: 18"
Daily Bag Limit: 2 fish per person
State regulations apply in federal waters.
Season: Open year-round
- Legal Gear: hook and line gear only (no nets or spearing)
- Harvest prohibited by or with the use of any multiple hook in conjunction with live or dead natural bait; snatching prohibited