Summer Triggerfish

When the surf gets too hot for bass and blues, fluke aren’t the only option for New Jersey and Long Island surfcasters.

triggerfish on jig

Over the past few seasons, Northeast fishermen have seen southern fish species take up residence in our home waters during the summer months. Now, when the surf gets too hot for bass and blues, fluke aren’t the only option for New Jersey and Long Island surfcasters.

I love the morning-into-afternoon fluke bite that occurs on an almost-daily basis from July through September. By traveling light and walking the beach, I have experienced incredible fluke fishing, but there are days when the flatfish just don’t bite or have moved offshore. This summer, when the fluke bite shuts off, I’ll be focusing my efforts on another species—the gray triggerfish.
I have noticed a considerable increase in triggerfish catches, both as bycatch from fluke fishermen and by fishermen targeting them directly. These fish have become a regular summertime occurrence among New Jersey and New York surf fishermen.

Triggerfish hang around inshore structure like jetties, docks, and bridge pilings and give surfcasters a shot at some hard-fighting (and sometimes frustrating) fish. Triggers also provide some great-tasting table fare for summer cookouts.

These exotic fish feed on small clams and crustaceans that hang around hard structure. The technique is similar to targeting blackfish, and is a great alternative to tog fishing until the season reopens in August. One key difference between triggers and tog is that triggerfish like a little more movement or action in the bait before they strike.

triggerfish
photo by CHRIS PAPARO

Triggerfish can sometimes be seen hanging around submerged rocks, circling pilings, and cruising along sod banks, presenting sight-casting opportunities. However, a sight-fished trigger must be enticed to hit your bait. While they live in some of the same areas as blackfish, these fish are much more aggressive and will chase and strike an artificial bait like a Gulp Swimming Mullet.

This summer, when the fluke bite shuts off, set your sights on the hard-fighting, great-eating triggerfish.

Small but Strong

Triggerfish don’t grow to large sizes—most of them caught will be between 1 and 3 pounds. The New Jersey state record, caught in 2016, weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces; the New York record, caught off Montauk in 1999, weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces. Despite their smaller size, triggerfish fight like much larger fish, using their broad sides to doggedly dig for the bottom. They, like tog, tend to run for structure when hooked, and breakoffs will happen regularly if you don’t muscle the fish to the surface right after the hookset.

triggerfish rig
A small, strong hook on a high-low rig tied with short dropper loops works well for triggerfish

Trigger Rig

Triggerfish have small mouths with powerful teeth. A small, strong hook on a high-low rig tied with short dropper loops works well. Use a small bank sinker so that you can move the bait around the structure to locate the fish. Bait up with small pieces of clam or squid, and set the hook hard when you feel the machine-gun taps of a nibbling triggerfish.

5 on “Summer Triggerfish

  1. Donald Nelson

    The only problem with these fish is their skin which is incredibly tough. Almost had to resort to using a sawzall to filet one my son caught in a lobster trap.

  2. Brian

    Awesome tasting fish! I can’t find the regulations for them as far as bag/size limits. Anyone have any info on that? As far as cleaning, a 6″ stiff fillet knife works well. Start at the anal cavity and “saw” an angle from the anal cavity entrance to the top of the head (the hump part just above the gill plate). You’re just trying to cut through the skin NOT saw through the fish to the backbone. In other words, the sharp part of the blade will be point towards your face as you saw. Then begin sawing again along the dorsal and ventral side like you are creating an incision to begin filleting any other fish from top down and bottom up. Now fillet the dorsal side to the backbone and then the bottom side to the backbone which should separate the filet on top and bottom. Now cut a small hole in the middle of the fillet to insert your fingers so you can tear or pull the fillet toward the head while you finish the fillet by separating the meat from the bone with your knife as you pull the flesh forward. Works really well! I’ve seen some use a utility knife to make the incisions on the dorsal and bottom sides and cut the line from the anal cavity to the top of the head and use the fillet knife for the rest.

    1. Michael

      There is no size limit or bag limit in most northern areas in Long Island Sound.

  3. Matt

    In the late 80’s my late father would plan a trigger trip to Shinnecock inlet every August for 3 or 4 years in a row. We used to fill the cooler and have to drag it what felt like mikes through the sand back to the car. Doubleheaders were a common occurrence. It’s been 30 yrs so I forget the bait we used. Craziest thing I ever saw was a spear fisherman cane flying up on the rocks white as a ghost, the thigh of his wetsuit torn and his leg bleeding yelling “ I just got hit by a shark”. Don’t stay down there too long with a bloody bag of spear catch hanging from your hip ladies and gents. A different trip we watched a large dorsal fin following a boat cleaning catch and throwing scraps back from the ocean side. I was probably there 4 or 5 times in my life and saw the spear fisherman have his catch stolen and his thigh grazed and the fin. Crazy.

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