By David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Trophy fish are definitely determined by the eyes of the beholders. However, when those eyes belong to a dedicated angler, it takes a big fish to be deemed a trophy.
In freshwater, the holy grail in bass fishing is a 10-pound largemouth, although those have become more common in recent years.
In saltwater, the king mackerel fishermen strive for that elusive 60-pounder, while inshore anglers hope to reel in an 8-pound speckled trout.
For the lesser known species of tripletail, the quest for glory is reached when the scale registers 30 pounds.
One group of anglers achieved that tripletail (aka blackfish) milestone this summer, and most of that group belonged to Chris Smith of Mobile.
Smith, a diehard fisherman since his father started taking him when he was a youngster, has reared three sons in the same mold.
"I've been inshore and offshore fishing out of Dauphin Island since I was a kid," Smith said. "My dad used to take me blackfishing when we were very young. He used to love to catch speckled trout around the island and go blackfishing.
"When I grew up and got my own boat, we kingfished for a while, and we caught a lot of red snapper."
Then his three sons, Conner, 17, Noble, 19, and Brady, 21, started venturing out on their own while dear old dad was busy with the family business.
"All of my boys have become pretty good fishermen, maybe better than me now," Chris said. "I definitely don't want to challenge them to a fish-off."
The boys had been on a good tripletail bite until their bay boat broke down, so it was back to dad again.
"A couple of friends and I had just a little while to fish and ran out and caught two blackfish," Chris said. "I had just taken delivery of my new 39 Contender, and the boys wanted to go back out to catch a couple more. Against my better judgement, I let them go out."
But this story doesn't end in a banged up new boat, it ends with a big fish flopping on the deck.
"They called me a little later and said, 'Daddy, we've caught a big one,'" Chris said. "They sent me a picture. I told them they needed to get that fish back and get it weighed. It was definitely bigger than anything I'd ever caught. They took him to Jemison's Bait Shop and their certified scales. It weighed 30.8 pounds. When it hit 30.8, they were jumping up and down."
The oddity is it wasn't one of the Smiths who caught the fish. They had brought along a buddy, David Garstecki Jr., and he was the one who put the whopper in the boat.
"That's what we do it for," Chris said. "We love to see the kids get out there and enjoy doing it, carrying on the tradition."
Of course, the way the boys caught the fish was far different from the way Chris landed blackfish with his dad.
"We would go out in a 17-foot Negus (boat) with a couple of Calcutta poles with 80-pound mono line and a big hook about 4 feet under a cork. The poles had to be 16-17 feet long. It was the old, traditional way to catch blackfish, but it was the most back-breaking thing I've ever done in a boat. There's still a couple of guys around Dauphin Island who fish with Calcuttas, but it's almost gone."
The Smiths now use an Ambassadeur 7000 reel spooled with 60-pound braid, 30-pound fluorocarbon leader with a Bobber Stopper and just enough lead to make sure the bait hangs straight down. They use a straight shank, 6/0 J hook with some backbone.
"That hook does a great job on blackfish because it doesn't get hooked on barnacles on the pilings or buoys," Chris said. "Throw a treble hook out and you're as good as hung. I try to get big shrimp if I can. We'll sometimes catch pogeys in the cast net, and finger mullet work, too."
The big fish came off a buoy. They're also catching blackfish on channel marker pilings and any type of flotsam in Mobile Bay.
Most tripletail fishermen will cover a lot of water, looking for the fish hanging in the shadows of structure, but the big fish didn't follow that pattern.
"They never saw the fish, but threw beside a buoy in the lower end of Mobile Bay," Chris said. "The cork had floated about 10 feet away from the buoy. I would have already reeled it in had it been me, but the fish hit 10 feet away from the buoy. They had him on the downcurrent side, so a lot of things went right. It was still a good 10-minute battle, and they broke my good trout net getting him in."
The boys became so good at catching tripletails that Chris had to give them a lesson about conservation. Alabama's daily creel limit is three fish per person with an 18-inch minimum size. Smith suggested his boys even be more restrictive with their catch.
"Conner called and said they had four blackfish," Chris said. "I told them not to keep anymore. I told him you need to keep a couple and let the rest go. I gave him about 10 reasons why you don't need to be cleaning 10 blackfish. Keep a couple and let the rest go. That's the sporting thing to do."
Although 2017 has been a good year for blackfish, a dedicated group of anglers are concerned too much pressure is being put on the fishery, both recreationally and commercially.
Dauphin Island Sea Lab decided to start gathering tripletail information in 2016 at the urging of the concerned anglers.
Dr. Meagan Schrandt, a former student of Dr. Sean Powers at the University of South Alabama now at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, is leading the research team that includes Powers and Dr. John Dindo. A tagging project was started last summer. Local guides were recruited to dart-tag blackfish of any size in Alabama coastal waters.
"We opted for a year of solely researcher-based tagging to ensure good tag application and to collect additional data that either cannot be gathered or is very difficult to gather from traditional angler-based volunteer tagging," Schrandt said. "For example, we can also collect information on effort, tag retention, differences in tag application among taggers, etc. We are continuing the researcher-based tagging and we will also start some angler-based tagging."
In terms of possible trends in population and harvest, Schrandt said not enough information has been gathered to provide an answer. Schrandt and Kevin Anson of the Alabama Marine Resources Division said tripletail are not typically intercepted during traditional fish surveys, which means very little information on the species is available.
"There has not been a stock assessment for tripletail, and there cannot be until certain types of data are collected," she said. "Some local anglers who have been fishing for tripletail for years, however, came to us with their concerns of perceiving greater effort, less fish and fish of smaller size."
The preliminary data from 2016 indicated that 40 fish that range from 10 to 29 inches were tagged. There were seven recaptures, but only four could provide the researchers with GPS coordinates. Most of the recaptures happened last October in Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound.
One fish had been released seven days earlier and had moved 2.8 kilometers from a piling to a buoy. Another fish was re-caught 24 days later and had traveled 21.36 kilometers from one crab-trap float to another. The latest recapture information was for a fish that had been out 79 days and traveled from Mobile Bay to Gulfport, Miss. It apparently had been eating very well because it was more than 5 pounds heavier.
Fishing with the Smith family, David Garstecki Jr. reeled in this 30.8-pound tripletail in Mobile Bay.
Photo courtesy of Chris Smith
"I have a great time talking with the anglers," Schrandt said. "I am the one who calls them back when a tripletail tag is turned in, and everyone has been very supportive and very interested in the results. They love to hear about the work and want more information. They also offer to help in any way they can and provide extra information. We even get videos of catch and release.
"We are hoping that this work can help fill in some of the data gaps. This information can then later be used to help make more informed decisions in regards to tripletail management."