I’ve heard a lot of anglers over the past few years site triggerfish as an example of a “new” species in Long Island waters that’s thrived in recent years courtesy of climate change. While it’s possible we are seeing more triggers than in years past due to warming waters, the gray triggerfish is no stranger to the Long Island coast. Occasionally confused with the queen triggerfish, a true southern species that is far more colorful, our local triggers are more likely reclaiming old territory than staging an invasion.
To be sure, I’m not overly concerned with how or why they’re getting here as long as they keep coming back, for triggerfish are a feisty lot, excellent fighters on a pound- for-pound basis, and quite tasty. Generally weighing 1 to 3 pounds, they school tightly around structure, which makes them fairly easy to target. When in a feeding mood, they’ll chow down on worms, clams, squid or even a spearing, sand eel or live killie. Over the past few years, triggers have been most noteworthy as a fluke and seabass by-catch. Today, however, there appear to be enough for a somewhat directed fishery.
TRIGGERS LOVE STRUCTURE
Essential to mixing it up with triggers is finding suitable bottom structure. For this, let me suggest your favorite blackfish or seabass bottom. You can start by prospecting the deeper pockets around the inlet jetties, looking specifically for places where you’ve pulled ‘tog in the spring and fall, or for areas where boulders or protrusions from the jetty deflect the current. You need six or seven feet of water, however, as the triggers seem to like to hold tight a bit out of the sun’s reach.
Next on the hit list should be any type of submerged wooden structure you know about that is located on hard or sandy bottom (for some reason, triggers seem to avoid mud flats most of the time). Small, sunken wood boats are ideal for this, as are submerged pilings and chunks of debris from previous storms. Moriches Bay, for instance, still has a few piles of wood debris above the sand back off Westhampton. If you’re privy to the location of such obstructions, give them a shot. Wooden docks and piers, such as those located at Robert Moses State Park and Jones Inlet, also offer a shot at triggers most summers. Quite a few triggers are also taken from the fisherman’s access at Old Ponquogue Bridge. Ledges and sea walls can also hold these tasty brawlers, and the banks of Shinnecock Canal have seen steady catches during July, August and September for several years running.
If you’ve ever fished offshore for tuna, you’ve probably come across schools of triggerfish holding under small bits of debris the way that dolphin fish are fond of doing. Sometimes, a large school will be competing for space in the shadow of something as small as a two-by-four piece of lumber. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that triggers in our South Shore bays are sometimes found holding in the shadows of buoy markers. Generally, this occurs up close to the inlets in five to nine feet of water. I’ve seen it happen more than once around buoys 36 and 34 in Moriches Bay and I know it sometimes happens in the State Channel between Captree and Gilgo Beach.
TOUGH HOOKS A MUST
Okay, I think you get the picture. Triggerfish like structure, shade, sandy or rocky bottoms and fairly deep water. Now, how do you catch ‘em?
To begin, gear up a bit on the heavy side. Your favorite conventional bay blackfish setup and 12 to 20-pound test, abrasion resistant line, is a good start. Triggers have bony mouths with large buckteeth and require a bit of backbone in the rod to really set the hook. Also, since you’ll be fishing around structure and the trigger tends to make a mad first dash, you’ll need the power to turn its head. Light tackle and spinning gear simply will not get the job done with this battler on a regular basis.
In terms of rigging up, either a tandem bottom rig or hi-low rig with the top hook set about 16-inches above the bottom will get the job done. Sinker weight will vary based on current strength but for bay fishing, two to three ounces should suffice. The most important point to consider, however, is your hook selection. Because the trigger has such a powerful set of dentures, it can actually cut through a fine-wire bronze hook before you get it to the surface – even when you’re fishing in only five or six feet of water. In fact, the first four or five triggers I hooked when I initially began looking for them cut my hooks clean in half! Forget about using porgy hooks, fluke hooks or even long-shanked Chestertowns and opt for a size 1 or 2 Octopus, or size 4 or 6 Pacific bass hook. These will give you a fighting chance.
For the most part, triggerfish are tempted in the same manner as blackfish and seabass. Anchor up (double-anchoring is a good idea to fix your location on a specific point of structure,), lower a ribbon of clam or a 3-inch segment of worm to the bottom, and keep your line still until you feel the bite. With clam baits, usually the trigger starts with a light tap or two before taking a hardy grasp of the hook. With worms, the bite is sometimes softer, but more singular – in other words, no love taps. In either case, upon feeling the weight of the fish, strike fairly hard and get your rod up over your head to turn the fish away from the structure and get it moving in the right direction. Now just hold on tight for the trigger will make a mad dash for the bottom, slow and pump for a minute, then make for the bottom again. If you beat these initial surges, your chances are pretty good that steady, constant pressure will get the fish to the surface in a minute or two – so long as the hook doesn’t get chomped in half.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
When triggers are plentiful, there are no special tricks needed to get the bite started. Just get your bait down to the bottom and start fishing. If, however, the fish are playing coy or numbers are slim, lowering a chum pot full of ground clam to bottom will usually provide a kick start to the action. After five minutes or so, slowly raise the pot up off the bottom two or three feet. Let another five minutes or so pass and raise the pot again so that it comes barely into view. Now that you can see the pot, if you stay quiet and still, you might actually see a triggerfish or two come right up to nip off tiny pieces of clam hanging from the mesh. To see a three or four-pound trigger do this is really quite some thrill. To actually bait one near the pot as you watch it is even more fun!
Another trick that works well is to flip an unweighted two-inch strip of squid on 12-pound to 15-pound line around the base of a buoy in an area known to harbor triggers. Usually, this works best around slack tide. Simply get your offering up tight to the chain and let it settle to the bottom. If the line comes tight or twitches, set the hook and hold on tight.
While structure oriented, triggers do seem to be a bit more adventurous than blackfish. Thus, if the piece you are fishing is chock-full of small seabass or sand porgies, you can sometimes connect with the triggers by fishing five or six yards away from the thick stuff. This buffer zone will eliminate the pests from tapping your baits and allow a trigger or two a clean shot at your hooks. Keep in mind, too, that triggers, like blackfish, feed best at the start and end of the tide when current strength is soft to moderate.
Before I let you go, a couple of points need to be brought out about this species. First off, respect those teeth. I had one grab my middle finger a decade ago. That fish was half-filleted and I thought it was long dead. It literally jumped more than half-a-foot across the table to grab me and it held on for over four minutes. Let me tell you, I feel very lucky to have gotten my digit back in full as the pressure that fish exerted was tremendous – and I have the scars to prove it. I’ve since talked to several other people who have suffered severe triggerfish bites. I’ve even heard of scuba divers who claim that triggers placed inside their grab bags have bit them through the mesh. Trust me on this one, this is one mean fish when it’s out of the water and caution is advised. Don’t let youngsters anywhere near them.
Next, be prepared to do a lot of work when cleaning these fish. They have an extremely tough hide – in fact, many anglers use sheetrock knives to break the skin when filleting triggers. A regular fillet knife will get the job done if it’s kept sharp and you start the cleaning process via the anal vent.
Lastly, you should know that triggers are actually more numerous in the ocean than they are in the bays. Inshore wrecks and reefs, the same ones that produce seabass and blackfish, often hold plenty of triggers from August through late September.