Favorite fish of Florida's fringes: tripletail and striped bass, two offbeat gamefish.
America's fish has Florida history
Many Florida fishermen do not realize that Florida has long been home to a reproducing population of striped bass in the St. Johns and Ocklawaha River systems. When the glaciers melted after the last ice age, Florida began to warm up, but the cooler temperate climate back then, and the higher elevation above sea level (the peninsula was another 300 feet above sea level), meant that there was more cold falling water, riffles and more likely, spawning in cooler streams. As air temperature warmed and sea level rose, coastal Florida striper habitat became more limited. Based on historical fishing records it appears that the last holdout for striped bass spawning grounds on the Florida east coast was the Ocklawaha River. All of today's stripers caught in the St. Johns River are hatchery reared fish.
So what happened to the Ocklawaha spawning population? Its demise was likely caused by a dam and other barriers on the lower reaches of the Ocklawaha River and a plan to cross Florida with a barge canal. The canal was squelched in the 1970s after much construction had already taken place, including the construction of the Rodman Dam and Reservoir. This changed water flows, eliminated riffle habitat that did exist, and most notably, produced a barrier to striper migration. There may have been some holdout stripers spawning after the dam construction, but today there is no evidence that stripers spawn naturally anywhere along the Florida east coast.
The Rodman Reservoir, located near the confluence of the Ocklawaha and St. Johns Rivers is today well-known for its large-mouth bass population. Largemouth bass are not closely related to striped bass. The common snook is actually more closely related to striped bass than largemouth bass. They both belong to their own families, Centro-pomidae for the snook with five species in Florida; Moronidae for the striped bass with three other species including the white bass. The sunshine bass is a hatchery produced cross between the striper and white bass. The largemouth bass is in a large North American family, Centrarchidae, with 31 species that includes all the sunfishes (freshwater pan-fish), such as bluegill, redears (shellcrackers) and spotted sunfish (stumpknockers).
Anyone who has played a striper on the line has got to admit that it is just as much fun, or more so, than a big largemouth bass. So why not bring back the striped bass spawning population to the Ocklawaha River? Why not figure out a way to get these great gamefish past the Rodman Dam?
The local economic benefit of having the only native spawning striper fishery in Florida could be sensational.
Tripletail, the enigma
If you are not familiar with the tripletail, Lobotes surinamensis, you really need to get acquainted with this fish. They fed my family when I needed groceries. They are remarkable fish that have been virtually ignored by most serious fish scientists. Most scientific accounts talk about this fish associating with sargassum weed floating offshore and occurring in the ocean off Cape Cod. However, they are actually a common to abundant inshore tropical and subtropical species found around the world. The sightings north of Cape Hatteras are associated with their seasonal drift north with the Gulf Stream and its warm core eddies.
In Florida, adult and juvenile tripletails are often encountered inshore in the southern half of the Indian River Lagoon and other areas around the state, almost always in association with a vertical structure, like channel markers, natural or manmade.
According to knowledgeable guides, tripletails apparently spawn on the shoals off Cape Canaveral, as ripe individuals have been caught in groups there. The fertilized eggs develop as they float in the open ocean. Once the larvae metamorphose into juveniles they typically show a yellow background body color with dark spots with elongated marks scattered across the yellow background color. This is actually a camouflage pattern used by this ambush predator to obtain unwary prey and also to avoid predation as a small juvenile. They most often take a posture where they float on their side at the surface under a mat of sargassum weed. In a tropical estuary, they are most often observed around or under yellowing mangrove leaves as they drift about with the tides.
Juvenile tripletails are a perfect mangrove leaf mimic. Years ago I fooled more than one visiting colleague who thought I only kept dead mangrove leaves, not fish, in my laboratory aquarium. While in the sidefloating position the juvenile tripletail can ambush any small invertebrates and fish that decide to seek cover under the floating mangrove leaves, or a sargassum weed line.
Of course, at larger sizes tripletail can no longer mimic leaves and typically take on a gray body color with some dark markings. They are still ambush predators feeding on small fish. Tripletails slowly move around pilings, often head up or down, blending in with the structure.
They must be very successful with this behavior as they can reach well over 50 pounds, even in channels of shallow estuaries like the Indian River Lagoon. If caught on hook and line they can put up a fight worth the effort and are excellent table fare. That big gray fish floating behind the channel marker is not a mirage. If you see the tripletail eat something you recognize, drop me a note on it as we know very little about this animal. And next time you are out fishing the flats, take a close look at the yellow mangrove leaves floating. You might be pleasantly surprised to see a young, disguised tripletail.