GRAY TRIGGERFISH                                                                 
(Balistes capriscus)
                                                         Order - Tetraordontiformes
                                                                        Family - Balistidae
                                                                        Genus - Balistes
                                                                        Species - capriscus

Common Names
English language common names include gray triggerfish, grey triggerfish, filefish, leatherjacket, pig-faced, trigger-fish, triggerfish,
common triggerfish, and turbot. Other language common names include balista (Rumanian), baliste (French), baliste cabri (French),
ballesta (Spanish), cachua (Spanish), cangulo (Portuguese), escopeta (Spanish), khanzyr (Arabic), maracuguara (Portuguese), mola
(Italian), mongarakawahagi (Japanese), ndor (Wolof), peixe-mola (Portuguese), pejepuerco blanco (Spanish), peje puerco (Spanish),
penolera (Spanish), pesce palo (Italian), pez ballesta (Spanish), porco (Portuguese), puerco (Spanish), roncon (Spanish), sabaco
(Spanish), schweinedruckerfisch (German), trekkervis (Dutch), tryckarfisk (Swedish), and varraco (Spanish).

Geographical Distribution
The gray triggerfish occurs in the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia (Canada), southeast to Bermuda, and south to Argentina,
as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. It is common in
the coastal waters of Florida. The gray triggerfish also
found in the eastern Atlantic Ocean from England and
Ireland, south to Angola, and in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the Destin area, the Trigger Fish  is normally found
offshore on artificial reefs, rock outcroppings and natural
bottom in depths between about 50 to 300 feet.  It does not
grow that large, ranging normally from around12 inches up
to around 20 inches and a few pounds. Females of the
species grow larger and live longer than males, reaching l
engths of more than 22 inches.

                                                                                                        World distribution map for the gray triggerfish  

Preferring hard bottoms, reefs, and ledges, the gray triggerfish is abundant in nearshore and offshore locations. They compete in the
same habitat preferred by Red Snapper and Gag Grouper. (Triggerfish are said to be an indicator that Gag Groupers are also
present).  While they normally inhabit the bottom, they will rise up in the water column to get to your bait on the way down.  The adults
drift along the bottom either alone or in small groups, while the juveniles drift at the surface with sargassum.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                courtesy NOAA  

· Distinctive Features
The body of the gray triggerfish is laterally compressed, with tough leathery skin and two dorsal fins. Their skin is very tough, almost
armored,  and is difficult to pierce even with a knife. For this reason, you should not attempt to gaff a trigger and some people
consider them hard to clean.

The triggerfish gets its common name from the
spines on the dorsal fins. The first dorsal fin has
three spines that can be locked into an erect
position for use as predator-defense and as an
anchoring device. The first spine is very strong
and is connected in function with the second spine.
When threatened, the triggerfish will dive into a
tight crevice, wedging itself tightly and anchoring
into place by erecting and locking the first spine.

Once first spine is locked in place, it will not move,
no matter how much you push or pull on it.  To get
it to lower, you must push down on the "trigger",
the small spine (second dorsal fin) located right
behind the locked first dorsal fin. This unlocks the
large dorsal spine which allows it to drop flush with
the skin easily.

The second dorsal fin is located directly opposite
of an almost identical anal fin. The dorsal fins as
the primary means of locomotion, are flapped back
and forth in unison, propelling the fish through the
water. The caudal fin lobes are elongate in large
adults. Click the link below to get an ideal of how
they use these fins to swim.

Swimming & Feeding trigger fish

Eyes of the gray triggerfish are located distant from
the mouth. The scales on the front half of body are
large and plate-like while the scales on the posterior
are smooth. There are one or more enlarged scales
located behind the gill opening. Small opercula are
located directly above the pectoral fins. The
pectoral fin is short and rounded and the dorsal
fins are separate.

· Coloration

Juvenile gray triggerfish are yellowish with small violet dots. At lengths less than 2 inches, large, irregular dark patches form on the
body and the fins are tinted with yellow, blue, and olive or the second dorsal, anal, and caudal fin membranes are translucent. Saddle
markings interspersed with light spots also appear on the dorsal and anal fins.

The primary body color of adult gray triggerfish is light gray to olive-gray to yellowish-brown. This fish appears dull gray while
swimming in open waters, however it has the ability to change its coloration slightly to match other surroundings. There are three faint
broad dark blotches on upper body and often white dots and lines on the lower body and fins. Blue spots and lines are located on the
upper body and dorsal fin. There is a pale narrow band on the chin and the upper rim of the eye is blue. The dorsal and anal fins
appear marbled in color. Gray triggerfish fade in color as they age.

· Dentition
The mouth is small with strong jaws that contain
strong opposing set of incisor-like specialized teeth
used to chisel holes of hard-shelled prey items and
crush small mussels, sea urchins, barnacles, and
other crustaceans. They have very strong bony
jaws which make it difficult to set a hook

· Size, Age & Growth
This triggerfish can weigh up to 13 pounds  and
grow to a maximum length of approximately 30
inches. Sexual maturity is reached at 2 years of
age, measuring 12 inches in length at first spawning.
The maximum age of triggerfish is believed to be
approximately 13 years.

· Food Habits

As a diurnal predator (feeds during the day, sleeps
at night), the gray triggerfish feeds primarily on benthic (bottom living) invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs, sea urchins, sand dollars,
sea stars, sea cucumbers, and bivalve mollusks.   They are usually  aggressive feeders, relentless in their attacks upon anything they
perceive as food.  They will take live and cut bait. At times they are considered a nuisance as they will destroy baits set for other
"more desirable" fish such as snapper and grouper. When present in large numbers no other fish has a chance to reach your bait
before a trigger seizes it and chomps it to shreds. They will sometimes group up in a chum slick and will kill any larger bait you put out.

· Reproduction
During July through September after water temperatures reach 70°F, gray triggerfish build their nests on the bottom substrate.
Between 50,000 and 100,00 eggs, depending upon the size of the female, are laid in a hollow nest scooped out of the sand.
Polygamous mating between males and females is largely random with no long-term pair bonding. The adult triggerfish guard the nest
from potential predators, including divers, if they approach the nest too closely. Wrasses and red snappers have been observed
taking eggs from the nests of gray triggerfish. The eggs that survive predation hatch within 48-55 hours. After hatching, the juveniles
leave the nest and head to the surface of the water. At the surface, they often associate with sargassum communities. Sargassum is a
floating seaweed usually found in clear blue water. Entire communities are closely associated with this sargassum, with the young
triggerfish among the eight vertebrate species found there. The amount of sargassum varies greatly from year to year. High survival
rates of young triggerfish are often correlated with high sargassum production. As the autumn months approach, the juvenile
triggerfish leave the sargassum habitat for bottom reef habitats at lengths of 5-7 inches.

· Predators
Tuna, dolphinfish, marlin, sailfish and sharks prey
upon juvenile gray triggerfish while amberjack,
grouper, and sharks are known to prey upon the

Importance to Humans
This triggerfish is a commercially and recreationally
important fish. Flesh of the gray triggerfish is
considered to be of excellent quality. It is consumed
fresh, smoked, and dried/salted. It is also highly
prized as a show fish in public aquarium facilities.
Human consumption of the gray triggerfish has
been linked to cases of ciguatera poisoning.  

Source: Florida Museum of Natural History

TRIGGER FISH:    TACKLE, RIGS, BAIT & TECHNIQUES                                                        

ROD/REEL: Use a light to medium action spinning reel with a 6-8' rod.

HOOKS: You want to use small, sharp hooks.
Required to use circle hooks now. Normally, a
1/0 or 2/0 circle hook will be fine.

You want to use a heavy sinker to get your bait
down quickly. You do not want the fish to start
biting until you are ready. A heavy weight takes
it to the bottom quicker and makes it more
difficult for fish to steal it on the way down.
Plus it helps to keep tension on the line while
you are reeling it in.

BAIT: Triggerfish are very aggressive eaters and will take just about any live or cut bait.  Squid is the most popular here. They are
very adept at stealing your bait. They do not hit
the bait and run with it like other reef fish, but run in
or hover there and nip at it with their teeth. Their
small mouths and fang-like teeth can quickly nip a
bait into pieces leaving an empty hook. You can
tell if triggerfish are present since they remove
small, neat chunks from your bait. If you feel several
nibbles and find that your bait has been cut in
pieces with surgical precision, chances are good
a triggerfish (or several) has moved in
. It takes a
certain amount of skill, patience and no small
quantity of luck to actually get a hook set into a
triggerfish The key is to size it to their small mouth
and to use a tough bait that is hard to nibble off.
Always be sure not to bury the hook tip and barb
in the bait, but leave it outside of the bait.

BAIT SIZE: Use small thumb nail size cubes (approximately 1") of squid or cut bait with the skin on. Size the bait to the size of the
hook you are using.

BAIT TYPE: Use cut bait with tough skins. Bonita (LIttle Tunny) 1" chunks with the skin on are good.  Remember, the hook must go
through the skin.

1" squares of cut squid

Pink colored fish bites in squid flavor are also good.


Since triggerfish inhabit the same reef habitat as red snapper and grouper, you have several different types of fish competing for your
bait. Also,
Ruby Red Lips (Tomtates) and other bait fish will be after your small bait too.

Normally you want to start with a larger bait/hook rig targeting the grouper or large red snapper. Grouper tend to stay on the bottom in
holes while the larger red snapper are normally higher in the water column or away from the wreck. This bait will also tend to excite
the other fish present. A chum bag might help too.

After a few drops and you find you have lost your bait or find small bite marks in it, you are probably getting your bait nipped at by
triggers. To target Triggers, replace your large hooks and bait with smaller ones as recommended above, and add a heavy sinker
(say 8 oz). They are not really leader/tackle shy, so as long as you have small hooks and bait, you should be ok.

Drop your newly baited small hook and bait to the bottom as quickly as possible. Use enough sinker to reach the bottom fast.  Once
you hit bottom, immediately start reeling the bait back in slow and steady. This keeps tension on your line and allows you to feel the
fish the moment he starts to nip at it. Since we are using circle hooks, it is important not to "set"  the hook or jerk the rod when you
feel the bite. When you feel the bit,
start reeling real fast. If the fish has the hook point
in his mouth, then so long as you keep the line tight
by reeling quickly you will probably hook the fish.
The inside of the triggers mouth is fairly easy to
hook, so a small sharp hook works very well. If you
yank the rod or attempt to set the hook by any
method other than fast reeling you will be much
slower in moving the hook which allows the fish
time to spit it out. You will also rapidly move that
heavy sinker which, if it doesn’t knock the hook
out of the fishes mouth on the way up, will almost
certainly do so on the way back down.

OK, it is very difficult not to yank the rod when a
fish bites but you need to learn not to do that on
fast biting fish such as snapper and particularly on
triggerfish. You will occasionally land one using a
traditional hook set, but a savvy angler that uses
the reel and not the rod to set the hook, will
consistently do much better. Small sharp hooks and
a rapid retrieve will beat out brute force every time.

Another technique to use after you have been fishing the bottom awhile and have not had any luck, is to try starting to fish higher up
in the water column and fish the line as it goes down. Like snapper, the larger triggers tend to be higher than the smaller ones. This
works like this:

Instead of lowering your rig all the way to the bottom, stop it higher up in the water column, say a few seconds after it disappears from
sight on the way down. Then slowly lift your rod tip up and down slowly about 3-4 times. You might call it a slow jig. You want to keep
tension on the line at all times, don't let any slack in the line. If you feel the slightest nipple, start reeling. If you have no bite, release
the line and count to one thousand three again and stop it at a lower depth. Repeat the rod tip slow jig.

Continue this until your bait is on the bottom. When your sinker hits the bottom, reel in for 2-3 seconds and start the process over, but
on the way up. If you get it about half way up and still have no fish on, you need to just bring it on in to the boat as they have probably
already stolen your bait.

If the fish continue to steal your bait, you need to either go to smaller hooks to catch them or move on.

Before circle hooks were required, people would also use either a heavy duty sabiki rigs or small strong extra-sharp single hook with
pieces of squid on them. If they knew they were on triggers, or after they had been fishing the bottom awhile, they would drop the
squid tipped hooks about half way down the water column, stop the line, and immediately set the hook, before the bite was felt.   

I have caught triggers using a small vertical (butterfly) jig throughout the water column.
CLEANING TRIGGER FISH                                                                                

There several ways to clean a trigger fish. Click on the following link for one method.


A serrated fillet knife is nice to have as it is easier to cut through the tough skin with one. A regular fillet knife just can't penetrate the
triggers armored skin whereas a serrated knife literally zips right through! Once you remove the two slabs of meat, use a regular fillet
knife to remove the skin from the fillets. That armored skin that made it so difficult to remove the meat from the body, now makes it
very easy to remove the skin from the meat. With a little practice, you can fillet these fish faster than any other species.

Another method is to just cut through the skin (not the meat) around the entire fillet then grab the skin with a pair of pliers and pull.
The skin will come off in one piece, exposing all the white meat which will be completely intact and still on the bone.

The ribs on a trigger are fairly small and it is easy to cut through the rib bones. Then it is a straight fillet all the way down the

And, yet another method as shown on YouTube  (click below)

For some interesting videos on triggerfish, click on the following links -

Triggerfish video 1
Triggerfish Eating
(Second dorsal fin)

State Waters:  The state of Florida regulates fishing in the Gulf of Mexico waters out to 9 nautical miles from the Florida Gulf
coastline. (Info only: Alabama state waters only go out to 3 nm)

As of Jan 1, 2010:   Minimum 14” fork length for Gray Triggerfish in the Gulf of Mexico (12" in the Atlantic)

Does not have an established bag limit in state waters but more than 100 pounds or two fish per harvester per day (whichever is
greater), is considered commercial quantities.

Must remain in whole condition until landed ashore (heads, fins & tails intact).

The trigger fish is considered a reef fish and Reef Fish Gear Rules apply:
These regulations require the use of a venting tool and dehooking device when recreationally or commercially fishing for reef fish in
the Gulf of Mexico.
All persons aboard a vessel harvesting reef fish must possess and use non-stainless steel circle hooks when using natural baits.
The full Florida rules and regulations can be found at:
Florida Saltwater Rules & Regulations (JAN 2010)

Federal Waters: The US Government, throught NOAA and its Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, regulates fishing in the
Gulf of Mexico waters from 9 nautical miles off the  coast of Florida out to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

The rules are the same as state waters, with the exception that only a total of 20 fish in the "Reef Fish" category can be kept.

The full Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council rules can be found at:
2009 - 2010 Recreational Fishing Regulations for Gulf of Mexico Federal Waters