aka Leatherjacket, Leatherneck
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
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. 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
picture on the way
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
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.
HOW TO FILLET TRIGGER
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 backbone.
And, yet another method as shown on YouTube (click below)
For some interesting videos on triggerfish, click on the following links -
Triggerfish video 1
The Gray Trigger Fish (Balistes capriscus) is normally found offshore in the Gulf of Mexico 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 lengths of more than 22 inches. Spawning occurs off shore
during the spring and summer, when fish are 3 years old or about 12 inches long. It is not a strong swimmer
and propels itself through the water by waving its large dorsal and anal fins as opposed to its tail. They are
an unusual fish to watch swim. Click on the following site for a You tube video of a Triggerfish swimming and
Triggerfish swimming and Eating
The fish gets its name from the locking dorsal spine, presumably as a defense against predators. If you lift
the fishes large dorsal spine forward, it will lock into place and project outward as a large sharp spike.
Locking Dorsal Spine ----------------------------------
Once 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 located right behind the big one. This unlocks the large
dorsal spine which allows it to drop flush with the skin easily.
Triggerfish are usually aggressive feeders, relentless in their attacks upon anything they perceive as food.
They have small mouth which is equipped with an
opposing set of large incisor teeth that are used to
dislodge and crush small mussels, sea urchins,
barnacles, and other mollusks/crustaceans. They
will take live and cut bait. Many anglers curse their
arrival because of their tendency to 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.
They have very strong bony jaws which make it
difficult to set a hook. And, 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.
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.