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Picture of the cover to the September 2006 magazine

Matagorda Mystery

Studies promise to uncover more facts about the bizarre tripletail, which often floats on its side near the surface.

By Larry Bozka

Bill Balboa thought he was about to pull a plastic garbage bag out of West Matagorda Bay. What he got instead was a startling splash of water in the face and an immediate compulsion to learn more about the mysterious fish that caused the commotion.

Tripletail.

Even the name is strange.

In the world of the weird, Lebotes surinamensis is a leader. Physical characteristics alone merit the description. Imagine a 20-pound black crappie that lays on its side like a suspended flounder, just inches beneath the surface, and you begin to get the idea.

The tripletail’s “extra” tails are actually its anal and extended dorsal fins. Throughout its life the fish sports a dappled patchwork of natural camouflage that serves it well as it floats about on the edges of production platforms, sargassum beds, pilings and virtually any other source of shade. Careless menhaden, blue crabs and other forage species that venture too close are quickly annihilated.

Along with their reputation as outstanding table fare, that aggressive trait has made the tripletail an increasingly popular target for a growing number of fishermen.

The vast percentage of Texas-taken tripletail are caught during the summer from West Matagorda Bay and surrounding waters.

“We don’t know why,” admits Balboa, Matagorda Bay Ecosystem Leader for TPWD’s Palacios Coastal Fisheries Field Station. The 45-year-old biologist is furthering studies initially conducted by James Franks of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Mississippi in the hope of getting answers to that question and many others.

“From life history to harvest data, the tripletail story is bizarre,” Balboa says. “There isn’t a whole lot of information available.

“What we do know,” he explains, “is that from April through September the fish spawn offshore in over 200 feet of water. But if they’re supposed to be spawning then,” he asks, “why do they primarily appear during the summertime, specifically in the Matagorda Bay complex?”

West Matagorda Bay boasts the long-standing state record tripletail, a 33.5-pound, 34-inch-long fish caught in June of 1984. However, Balboa and crew haven’t captured a specimen anywhere near that large in their gill net samplings. “Most,” he says, “are only 10 to 20 inches long.”

Tripletail grow remarkably fast, often up to 14 inches in the first year. Males mature at 12 inches, females at 17 inches. “As such,” Balboa explains, “within a year, and two years at the most, they’re capable of reproducing.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission enacted new regulations that will begin to protect the species effective September 1. A three-fish-per-day, 17-inch-minimum limit was approved, and promises to relieve pressure on the mysterious species and safeguard its populations as more research is conducted.

“As for trends, much of what we have is anecdotal evidence,” Balboa admits. “We’re currently conducting tagging studies on tripletail, and with enough funding we hope to do genetic research as well. If the tripletail being taken off of Mississippi and Florida turn out to be the same stock that we have out of Texas,” he says, “that opens a whole ’nuther can of management issues.”

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