Tripletail Dinner, Red Dessert
Sometimes when you want something bad enough, your mind can play tricks on you, and that’s precisely what happened at the third crab pot float that Capt. Jeff Wolfe ran by in the brown waters of the Cape Fear River. We were hunting tripletail, a mysterious and fascinating fish that for some reason enjoy laying on their sides next to crab pot marker buoys, and had a common experience. We were both convinced we were looking at a small tripletail laid up just below the buoy.
Upon closer inspection, the tripletail turned into a tuft of seaweed wrapped around the buoy line, but not before, trembling with excitement, I’d made a half dozen casts at the buoy with a live shrimp beneath a float.
“Well, you can’t fish for what isn’t there,” Jeff, who runs Seahawk Inshore Fishing Charters out of Carolina Beach, said with a rueful grin. “Let’s keep looking.”
Jeff, a former crabber, had been telling me about the river’s tripletails all summer, and an avowed tripletail freak who’s caught a few in south Florida, I was ecstatic to get out with him and look for some so close to home. Gary and I met Jeff on a recent Wednesday at the Fort Fisher boat ramp and the captain made a short run upriver before pulling back on the Ranger Banshee’s throttle to begin the hunt.
Tripletail are very strange fish, resembling a crappie more than any saltwater fish. Their peculiar habits, strange looks, and toughness on the hook are all more than enough reason to chase them, but there’s another compelling one—they’re absolutely delicious, with a delicate texture and flavor unlike any other fish I’ve had the privilege to taste.
It’s also a treat to chase a species I never knew even lived in NC waters until a few years ago, and all these factors had combined to turned a hank of weed gently waving in the current into a vivid image of a tripletail in my mind.
Jeff eased his Ranger Banshee Extreme back onto plane after the false start, and we ran by three more floats before seeing something else that made him pull off the throttle. This time when we gently cruised a few yards away from the buoy, I saw what clearly (to me) was a tripletail lazily laying on its side just downcurrent of the float.
“That’s him!” I cried, adrenalin pumping. “Big one, too!”
Jeff wasn’t as convinced. “You sure?” he queried, slowing the boat down. “I didn’t get that good a look at it. Might have been grass.”
“I saw his face. That was him,” I replied vehemently, at the same time wondering if perhaps it was my mind up to its old games.
I made a few fruitless casts, then pleaded for one more, landing it perfectly on the pot float at the same time, almost convinced I’d made up another tripletail.
“I think you threw the shrimp off,” the captain said as the float landed perfectly beside the buoy, sadly baitless. I gave the popping cork a half hearted tug, about to reel it in and concede defeat, when the shape behind the buoy lazily moved over and bumped the foam float with its nose.
“He just looked at the float,” I fairly shouted, more excited than I’ve been on a fishing trip in months.
Unfortunately, looking was all the fish did, as there was no shrimp on the hook to tempt a bite, and it moved off after my botched cast. I feared I was entering full blown delusions and might have made the whole episode up until Jeff nosed the Banshee over to the buoy to reveal that the large shape behind it had disappeared entirely, definitely not something a clump of sea grass could have pulled off.
Jeff had been talking about a particular float that had been holding a pair of large tripletail earlier in the week, and he reminded us it was just ahead after we’d run by a couple more traps.
“Here it comes,” Jeff said, his voice revealing that I wasn’t the only one excited at the prospect of putting a live shrimp in front of a big triple.
When we glided towards the float, however, there wasn’t even a clump of weed to trigger my brain into delusions of tripletail grandeur.
“Sometimes they don’t hang right by the float,” Jeff explained, scanning the water around the buoy. Almost at the same time, his eyes and mine spied what we were looking for, a tripletail’s flanks gleaming brown-gold on the surface a dozen feet downcurrent of the buoy.
“That’s him!” we again shouted, and I was trembling as I hooked a shrimp though the tail and prepared to make a cast.
When I looked again, the fish had disappeared, but Jeff wasn’t too worried.
“Cast a little behind the float,” he said, eyes peeled for the fish’s reappearance. “I don’t think they go too far.”
I did as told, but my shrimp made it through the first cast untouched. On my second toss, I followed Jeff’s advice to cast a little closer to the buoy, and just moments after the rig plopped down, the fish re-appeared. Like the first we’d seen, the tripletail seemed fascinated by the float, and after I gave it a tug the fish swam up and gently mouthed the orange and white popping cork.
My heart was pounding as the fish pulled the float under, and, unsure what to do, a rambling string of curses and fervent urgings for the tripletail to release the float and eat the shrimp emanated from my mouth.
The fish either had sympathy for the muttering fool on the Banshee’s front deck or decided that Styrofoam isn’t the greatest lunch, as it let the cork go. The float bobbing to the surface must have drawn the tripletail’s attention to the shrimp below, as it disappeared almost as soon as it broke the surface. Setting the hook, my mouth and the rod took on a simultaneous bow, as I grinned and the tripletail dug hard for the crab trap line.
“Don’t let him get in the buoy line,” Jeff urged, as I attempted to use the 7’ spinner to muscle the fish away from its floating home base.
Tripletail have a tendency (that one would never guess at, given their crappie-esque dimensions) to jump when hooked, and the fish alternated bulldogging deep drives for the crab trap with bursts to the surface, but it never made a leap. I kept the pressure on hard and had the fish close to the boat fairly quickly, where Jeff was waiting, ready with a landing net. The sight of the net must have been even more distasteful than the float to the fish, as it made several more valiant attempts to power its way back to the trap, but the next time it shot to the surface, Jeff was ready. He eased the net hoop under the fish and swung my first NC tripletail over the gunwale.
While it had fought hard, tripletail are powerful fish, and this one had saved some energy for the boat and spent the better part of a minute thrashing wildly in the net bag.
When it finally calmed down, Jeff unhooked the fish and hung it from a lip-grip scale.
“Just over four pounds,” he revealed, grinning as he passed the fish to me for a photo opportunity. “Don’t let him flop overboard.”
Unable to get over my excitement at landing the tripletail, I nervously clutched the prize, hoping my death grip on its belly would prevent it from escaping.
The triple stayed calm for the photo, and when Jeff asked if I’d be keeping it for dinner, my answer was an ecstatic yes.
With our first target in the boat, we kept searching, trying to add a tripletail for Gary to the fish box. We didn’t see any more in a half-hour’s search, though, so Jeff decided to switch the game plan.
“Let’s go catch you guys some reds in the backwaters,” he said after checking a few more traps while we motored south back towards Fort Fisher.
That’s not an invitation Gary or I will ever turn down, so we sat down while Jeff throttled the Banshee up for a run down towards Bald Head Island. The tide had fallen out a good bit since our trip over the rock wall, so Jeff headed south, soon hanging a left into Cheater Creek (known for unscrupulous clammers who once used the creek to access prohibited shellfishing grounds in the river).
After rounding a few oyster points in the marshy creek, the water opened up a bit, and Jeff pulled up to another grass and oyster point, easing the boat off plane and gliding to a position parallel to the structure.
“There’s some deeper water off this point with some shell bottom, and the reds have been hanging out and feeding there,” Jeff explained while easing the 6’ Power Pole beside the Banshee’s poling platform into the bottom.
“Gary, we’re going to put a mullet on your jighead; for some reason these fish don’t like to eat grubs. Cast a little bit off the bank there or you’ll snag up.”
Gary complied after Jeff showed him how he likes to hook a mullet onto the 3/8 oz. jighead, and I followed suit with another rod Jeff handed me.
From a scenic perspective, our location couldn’t have been better, as the panoramic view included not only our peaceful marsh surroundings, but the Bald Head and Caswell Beach lighthouses, and the Southport waterfront as well.
A cast or two in, something picked up my mullet and began to move off, and I set the hook to something undoubtedly substantial.
“That’s him, right?” Jeff queried as the fish ran for the bank, and the red saved me the trouble of answering, boiling just off the grass edge with an unmistakable flash of copper.
The fish used the falling tide to its advantage, turning its flanks into the current and now streaking from the marshy shoreline to the drop off. Wolfe’s medium spinning outfit begrudgingly surrendered some line to the red before I was able to lift the rod and turn its head, making a little progress.
Each charge away from the boat had a bit less zeal than the last, and the battle was definitely moving in my direction. When the fish finally materialized near the boat, Jeff was poised with the net and boated the red after it made one more desperate bid for freedom.
Not only had Jeff accomplished the tripletail mission in short order, he’d now made good on his promise to put us on some reds. He unhooked the 22” fish and handed it off to me for a photo.
We broke out the camera so Gary could take a picture of Jeff and I with the fish, but as he began clicking away on the Nikon, the rod he’d set in one of the poling platform holders took a set and the reel began wailing a protest tune as it surrendered line.
Gary set down the camera and grabbed the rod, and it looked like he was fast to something interesting. Sure enough, another red drum’s tail broke the surface off the oyster point.
“Well, I guess I’ll take a picture of the two of you guys with fish,” Jeff said hopping down from the bow casting deck to grab his net again. Gary’s fish put up a near-twin battle to mine, using the current and its powerful tail in conjunction to peel line from the drag and put the battle’s outcome in doubt a time or two before he finally worked the fish to Jeff’s waiting net.
I’d been swishing my fish back and forth in the water to keep it lively while Gary battled his red, and pulled it back out of the water to join Gary on the bow for a few shots of the pair of drum.
The photo op over, we released the fish and went back to casting.
It only took two more casts for me to hook up again, and I landed another mid-slot red on a mullet pinned to a jighead. Gary soon followed suit with a slightly smaller fish, and both swam off healthily.
The reds stayed hungry, and for the next hour I don’t believe either one of us went more than a half-dozen casts without hooking up. We gave another dozen or so fish a brief tour of the landing net and boat before releasing them, and it soon became apparent that the fast action was testing our mullet supply.
“I always bring some mud minnows with me for a backup,” he explained, producing a small cooler teeming with the wriggling minnows. “You just can’t keep them in the livewell with the shrimp because they’ll tear them to pieces.”
I’d hooked a few more fish when Gary reared back on his rod, and something on the other end of the line reared back harder, doubling the rod and peeling line off the reel at a much more frantic pace than anything we’d yet hooked.
The fish wrapped up its run with another boil, giving us all a look at what was definitely a larger fish. The red must have taken a break for a moment, as Gary was able to work it more than halfway to the boat before it came back to life, this time hemmed in by the boat on one side and an oyster bar that had been revealed by the falling tide on another.
Like most animals, I don’t think the fish enjoyed the feeling of being trapped, and it responded by darting between the boat and the bank, taking Gary on a lap of the Banshee while searching for open water.
The fish’s antics tired it somewhat, and Gary held it to a half-lap the second time it tried to race around the boat, coming to a conclusion in Jeff’s waiting net.
“That’s a tournament fish,” Jeff said, setting the red on deck. “Look how fat he is. I don’t actually even know if he’ll be legal. We’re going to find out, though.”
On the scale, the red weighed well over 7 lbs., and it turned out to be tournament legal, coming in just over 26”.
This time, I was the one surprised while taking pictures. While I stood on the back deck, snapping away at Gary, Jeff, and the porky redfish, I heard my reel begin screaming from the platform rod holder behind me. I grabbed the outfit and looked up just in time to see the splash as whatever was on my line touched down from a wild leap.
“Ladyfish,” Jeff explained. “Sometimes we wear them out right here, especially when the tide’s a little lower.”
As I worked the fish to the boat, it took another thrashing leap, giving me a look at its mirrored sides at the same time it spit my jighead back at me. While it would’ve been nice to have the lady for a photo, the unintentional release let me get back to snapping photos, allowing the tournament red to quickly swim off and head back to terrorizing mullet and shrimp on the oyster point.
We continued casting on the point as the light faded, releasing a few more 18-22” reds and jumping off another ladyfish before deciding to call it a day with a disarmingly gorgeous sunset illuminating the clouds over Southport.
As we packed up, Jeff mentioned something that hadn’t occurred to me yet.
“How many boats have you seen down here?” he asked firing up the Suzuki to run back through the Bald Head Bays to the boat ramp.
“Not one,” I replied after thinking on it for a moment. It’s rare indeed that one can enjoy a red hot inshore bite anywhere in NC without having some competition, or at the very least some company. Our only company since we’d been on the red hunt had come from egrets and green and great blue herons, far preferable to flats skiffs and bay boats.
At least part of the reason for the lack of anglers here comes from the fact that the area is extremely difficult to navigate, with twisting dead-end creeks and shallow sand and oyster bars abounding inches below the surface and waiting to claim outboard lower units or, at least, force anglers to wait on a higher tide to free their vessels.
Jeff, a lifelong Cape Fear fisherman, knows the bays in and out, having spent over 30 years making his living on the nearby waters, and that knowledge not only produces fish, it gets you to spots few others can go.
“I love it down here,” he explained on the ride through the serpentine marsh creeks and bays back to the ramp. “I’ve probably run 80% of my trips this year down here. It just gets you away from everybody.”
In addition to chasing nearly everything that swims in the Cape Fear area, Capt. Jeff Wolfe specializes in skinny water sight-casting for red drum, something we talked about but had the wrong tide for.
Anyone interested in hooking a tripletail, sight-casting for reds, or just fishing, catching, and getting away from the busy crowds of Wrightsville and Carolina Beaches would do well to give him a call to talk about a trip at (910) 619-9580 or visit his website at www.seahawkinshorefishingcharters.com for more information.