Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine
According to local tackle shop manager Dave McKinlay, tripletail resemble a plastic bag floating in the water. They spring to life when bait is near.

Fresh Catch: Atlantic tripletail

Have three times the fun by learning to catch, clean and cook this floating fish.

Story by Bailey Gilliam

Atlantic tripletail, also known by names like flasher or steamboat, is probably the only fish in the ocean you’ll ever eat that appears to be “belly up” before caught. Tripletail fish float at the surface of the water and appear dead in order to surprise their prey. Because of their dead appearance, they aren’t a popular choice among uneducated anglers. However, these fish are immensely full of flavor, and catching one is more difficult than you might think. If you’re up for the challenge, keep reading to learn some tips from locals on scooping up this delicious and in-season fish.

Local captain Jake Parker and his sidekick Tuna show off a nice tripletail.

It’s what’s on the inside that counts

While it’s not the prettiest, it’s still a rewarding catch. Tripletail are deep-bodied perch-like fish with rounded dorsal and anal fins extending almost to the tail. At first glance they appear to have three tails, hence the name tripletail. Their color varies widely from shades of yellow-brown to dark brown or black with ill-defined spots and mottling. They also grow to a substantial size of up to 50 pounds, and the white, fine-textured fillets are excellent eating.

Now I see it

Tripletail live in tropical and subtropical seas worldwide. Their range is widespread through the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. You can find them floating on or near the surface around buoys, pier pilings, floating debris or drifting along with currents imitating other buoyant objects. They also lurk underwater around shipwrecks. 

“The tripletail is a fish that stays next to structures like a buoy or a piece of driftwood,” said Dave McKinlay, tackle shop manager at The Boathouse. “They lay on their sides like they are dead and then spring to life when the bait is around. They kind of resemble a plastic bag floating in the water.” 

If you catch my drift

Though tripletail may appear to be an easy catch since it has been compared to trash floating in the water, it takes quite a bit of skill and finesse to land one. 

“It’s a great species to combine your hunting skills with your angling skills,” said Grant Kaple, general manager of The Boathouse. 

All types of tackle can be used, but a 30- or 40-pound leader or shock tippet is desirable because once hooked, tripletail will almost invariably head back to their barnacle-covered refuge. While live shrimp seem to be the preferred bait of many anglers, tripletail will hit dead baits, jigs, plugs or shrimp pattern flies and popping bugs. They may look like lazy, slow fish floating on the surface, but they can move quickly when they strike and can exhibit surprisingly powerful lunges and occasional jumps when hooked. 

“They are very easily spooked, so you use a very light line, and you must be able to cast from a distance,” McKinlay said. “Captains with the tower-type boats do really well at spotting from a distance. They usually use longer rods for the extra distance.”

What’s cooking?

Tripletail is a beautiful fish on the inside. The meat is white, sweet and flaky. It can be cooked in a variety of ways including sautéed, broiled, grilled, baked or poached. It is a very forgiving fish if overcooked. Even the simplest of preparations yield delicious results with this fish. For wine, pair tripletail with dry, austere and crisp Chenin blanc or pinot grigio. Check out the wine selection at Hazel Dean’s. 

How to store it 

Fresh, cleaned tripletail will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days after wrapping in aluminum foil or wax paper and placed in an airtight container. This fish also can be frozen. 

Order up

You don’t have to fish to enjoy this fish. Let the experts do the catching, cleaning and cooking, and check for a tripletail special at one of these local restaurants.

  • The Black Marlin: Try the local tripletail sandwich made with pepper jack cheese, crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato and spicy avocado ranch. 
  • Michael Anthony’s: For an Italian twist on this local catch, try the tripletail livornese, a traditional Italian seafood dish smothered in a flavorful, light tomato sauce. 
  • Skull Creek Dockside: You can’t go wrong with blackened local tripletail with tarragon cream, roasted fingerling sweet potatoes, garlic and herb confit tomatoes and sauteed local shiitakes. 
  • Skull Creek Boathouse: Chef Logan’s tripletail is one to watch for. This tripletail is grilled to perfection, topped with a roasted tomato butter sauce and served with sauteed spinach and goat cheese mashed potatoes. 
  • WiseGuys: Try the tripletail fish feature at WiseGuys for parmesan-crusted tripletail over sweet corn and truffle ragout, locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms, confit tomatoes and corn silk dashi.

Fun facts

  • Tripletail are opportunistic, carnivorous fish that eat shrimp, crab and baitfish.
  • The tripletail has the ability to change its color from a mix of white and black to either black or white.
  • Tripletail grow most rapidly in their first year. It is believed to be an adaptation to quickly outgrow and protect themselves from predators.
  • Tripletail gills are razor-sharp.
  • Tripletail is also known for having firm and tasty meat; some anglers claim the taste is close to that of red snapper or grouper.
  • One of the defense mechanisms of the triple trail is to lie on its sides to mimic floating weeds or any materials near them.

Lemon butter tripletail 

Ingredients

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

2-3 tripletail fillets 

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Panko 

Directions [1] Heat the oven to 425. Use a nonstick baking dish or lightly oil a pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together melted butter, minced garlic, lemon juice and lemon zest in a small bowl and set aside. Season the tripletail with salt and pepper on both sides. [2] Heat a large pan with a bit of oil and quickly sear the tripletail on both sides and place it into the baking dish. Cover the fish with panko. Drizzle with the lemon-butter mixture. [3] Bake until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 8-10 minutes. Serve hot with your favorite sides. 


Blackened tripletail sandwich

Ingredients

4 6-ounce tripletail fillets 

Lawry’s season-all 

2 tablespoons butter

4 whole-wheat brioche buns

Red cabbage, arugula and sriracha mayonnaise, for topping 

Directions [1] Cover tripletail fillets generously with Lawry’s season-all. [2] Melt butter in a skillet. Add fillets and cook until fish flakes easily with a fork. [3] Toast buns in the oven. Spread sriracha mayonnaise on the bottom bun. Add some red cabbage and arugula. Place tripletail on top and top with the other bun.


Citrus baked tripletail

Ingredients

1/2 cup softened butter plus more for baking dish

2 pounds tripletail cut into 4 pieces 

1 teaspoon salt

Juice from 1/2 a lemon

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons onion powder

1/2 cup key lime juice 

1/4 cup fresh orange juice 

12 key lime slices 

8 orange slices

Directions [1] Heat oven to 325. Lightly butter a 9×13-inch glass baking dish and set aside. [2] Season the fillets with salt, pepper, garlic and onion. Place fish into prepared dish. Spread about 2 tablespoons of softened butter over the top of each fillet. [3] Pour in the lemon, lime and orange juices and then cover each fillet with 3 slices of lime and 2 slices of orange. Bake until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork, about 20-25 minutes.