This guide will give you an introduction on how to fly fish for triggerfish. It is aimed at the angler that already has some fly fishing experience and provides you with an in-depth look at how to successfully target these fish.
To many saltwater fly anglers out there, the triggerfish is the most frustrating and difficult of all species to target. Yes, the permit is the holy grail and can be fussy, but the triggerfish will leave you contemplating why you took up fly fishing in the first place.
I have fished for these devilish fish for a considerable amount of time. I’ve guided clients on them and have first-hand experience and knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.
I hope that you enjoy this angler’s guide as much as I am writing it.
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What is Triggerfish Fishing?
There are approximately 40 species of triggerfish in the world. Most of these fish congregate around shallow reefs. The two most popular species of triggerfish to target on fly is the Yellow Margin Triggerfish (pseudobalistes flavimarginatus) and the Titan or Moustache Triggerfish (balistoides viridescens).
Both these species occur on the shallow reefs of the Indo Pacific oceans and can attain lengths over 50cm (20 inches). They are a challenging quarry demanding good casting accuracy and stealth. Once hooked, they give a good account of themselves.
But, perhaps the biggest motivation to target triggerfish, is their strange appearance, odd personalities, and incredible beauty. Once you’ve held one in your hand, felt its skin, and inspected it from up close, you’ll understand the hype.
Best Triggerfish Flies
When it comes to flies, triggerfish can be notoriously fussy. But, having said that, sometimes a fish will have your name written on it and will eat anything thrown at it. Having a good stock of triggerfish flies of different weights is a must. Here are some of my favorite triggerfish patterns.
Instead of giving you tips on using each individual fly, at the end of this section, I will discuss the best techniques to use all of the mentioned flies. Although the flies differ, in many cases the fishing methods used are the same.
The Alphlexo needs no introduction as an excellent general fish catching pattern. Triggerfish love Alphlexo crabs. These flies must be tied on wide gape hooks (my favorite is the Gamakatsu SL12s size 2).
The Alphlexo was developed in Seychelles by Alphonse Fishing Company guides James Christmas and Alec Gerbec. It was a modification of the Flexo or Orvis crab and was designed specifically for the indo-pacific permit.
Carry a light and heavy version of white, tan, and brown variants. Once on the water, always match the color of the fly to that of the bottom. If you find triggers feeding on the white sand, use a white or tan crab. If they’re feeding on turtle grass, make use of a brown or olive crab.
Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD)
The WMD was developed by Alec Gerbec as well. This incredibly odd-looking fly speaks to the strange characters which are triggerfish. The fly’s profile and action are similar to a natural shrimp with the addition of a rubber tail. The tail is what gives this fly its appeal.
The WMD is well known to provoke a tremendous reaction from triggerfish. It is not uncommon for these fish to hit the fly while it’s sinking. Therefore, it’s vitally important to stay in contact with the fly.
Carry a range of colors including tan, orange, olive, and brown. The best sizes are 2 and 4.
The Turneffe Crab was developed on Turneffe atoll in Belize. Like many of the other flies in the list, it was developed as a permit fly. However, this fly is an incredible triggerfish fly. It uses basic materials and is easy to tie.
The foam and deer hair in the fly make it land slightly softer than many of the other flies. For this reason, it is a good choice if you’re fishing very skinny water or to skittish triggerfish.
The Kraken is a crab and shrimp imitation in one. It is a buggy looking fly that screams “eat me.” Carry this fly in a range of colors, from rusty orange to tan, to pink and white. The best sizes are 4 and 2.
The Avalon Shrimp needs no introduction. It was developed by Mauro Ginevri in the early 2000s and since then it’s been the most successful permit pattern in Cuba.
I have had incredible success using the Avalon Shrimp on triggerfish. On my first trip to the Red Sea, a slight adaption of the Avalon proved to be my most successful fly. On St. Francois atoll, a large and well-presented Avalon trigged a take.
For triggerfish, I recommend sizes 2 and 4s. Carry a couple of different weights in your box. Ask your custom fly tier to use smaller tungsten beads on the keel.
Best Gear for Triggerfish Fly Fishing
To beat the odds and land one of these prized catches, the following gear will be needed. This is a good starting point. Always listen to the advice of the local guides at the lodges that you visit. Triggerfish all over the world act and feed slightly differently.
A 9-foot saltwater specific 9-weight rod or 10-weight rod is perfect for triggerfish. I prefer using a 9-weight as it enables you to present the fly slightly softer than a 10. The rod will need to cope with quite heavily weighted flies.
In most cases, the cast will have to be made between 45 and 60 feet. Accuracy is of paramount importance as there is a fine line between the fish seeing the fly and the fly landing too close and spooking the fish.
Some of the best rods available for triggerfish are:
A saltwater reel balancing the rod well is preferred. Although triggerfish may pull quite hard, having 200 yards of backing isn’t completely necessary. In most cases, you’ll be fishing 16 to 25lb tippet, so the drag will be set to protect these.
It is important that the reel can take saltwater abuse, as the ingress of salt and sand is inevitable. Also, remember to maintain the reel to ensure many years of service.
Great reels for triggerfish include:
If you’re picking up a reel, line, backing and leader separately, make sure to check out our guide on how to properly set up a fly reel and spool it perfectly every time.
As mentioned above, the tippet used for triggerfish is in the range of 16 to 25-lb. The perfect backing for this application is 30 or 50lb braid. I prefer using casting braid as the multi strands are strong and resistant to the effects of extensive saltwater use.
Some of my favorite braid for this application are:
The specific saltwater fly line together with the action of the rod will enable you to cast heavy triggerfish flies. For most beginners, I recommend an aggressive forward taper line. This will allow you to get the fly out faster, resulting in fewer false casts.
Match the fly line rated weight with that of the rod. Also, make sure that you don’t overfill the reel with backing, as this will damage your fly line.
I recommend the following lines for triggerfish:
Leader and Tippet
When it comes to leader length, there’s always a tradeoff between castability and spooking the fish. A short leader is easier to cast, but the fly line could spook the fish.
For a leader, you can take one of two routes. The first is using a 25lb 9 or 12-foot leader to the front of which you attach the tippet. The other option is going for a full length of straight tippet either 9 or 12-foot long.
Carry 16, 20, and 25lb fluorocarbon tippet material with you when targeting triggerfish. If the fish continue to spook easily, downscale the tippet. I would not recommend going lighter than 16lb.
Triggerfish Fly Fishing Conditions
The following list places where triggerfish can most often be found and where they can be targeted successfully.
By far one of the most exciting and rewarding areas to target triggerfish is in the surf. The current and quick succession of waves means that the fish have less time to inspect the fly. In this scenario, the fish needs to make up his mind quickly resulting in more takes.
The downside of the surf zone is that for many anglers it’s very hard to walk, manage line, and spot fish at the same time. Especially when it’s their first time on the flats.
Coral flats are similar to normal sand flats, except that the substrate is composed out of coral. These areas can be very rewarding to fish; however, the fish can be very spooky. The best time to fish these areas is during low tide when the fish can be seen tailing the flats.
Best Time to Fly Fish for Triggerfish
In my opinion, the tide is the single most important factor to determine when the best time is to fly fish for triggerfish.
The best time to fish for triggerfish depends greatly on the tide. To spot and target these fish successfully, most of the fishing will occur when the tide is relatively low. The time will vary, but the window is usually 1h30 before dead low and 1h after dead low.
This may vary in accordance with the tidal cycle. In the event of spring tide, the window will be shorter as a greater amount of water needs to flow within the 6 hours between low and high tides. During neap tides, the window will be longer, however, the water will not be as shallow as during spring tides.
One of the biggest reasons why the triggerfishing is so good in the red sea is that the tidal difference between high and low is so small. Even in the spring tide phase, the difference can be as little as 10 inches.
This occurrence means that you, as an angler, are fishing to triggerfish for the entire day compared to maybe an hour or two in other destinations.
Triggerfish Fly Fishing Tips & Tricks
When you’re targeting triggerfish on the fly, you need all the help you can get. I’ve spent countless hours on foot, stalking these fish. Here are some tricks that may prove to be helpful when you’re on the water.
Choose the Best Time for the Cast
Unlike many other fish, choosing when to make the cast can be the difference between success and failure. You see, if a triggerfish tails, he is busy eating something off the bottom. Now, a triggerfish’s mouth is positioned right in front of its face. That means, when it’s tailing, his eyes are also facing downward.
This is the best time to make the shot. As soon as the fish stops tailing and you see him sitting in the water, hold off until it feeds again.
This specific topic seems to differ between every fish. On one flat you’ll find a fish that’s perfectly happy with you placing the fly 1 yard away from it. The next fish will swim away at the speed of lightning when the same cast is made.
When a triggerfish is tailing, as discussed above, its eyesight is focused downward. If the cast is made too far from it, it might not even see the fly. Placed too close by, the fish might spook from the sound.
I have found that the best cast is made around 1 yard away from the fish, but slightly to the side and overreached. This will allow you to strip the fly past the fish, who then reacts to the fly.
The First Strip
Once the cast has been made, and the fish is still feeding, make one long strip. This initial strip, in most cases, will tell you if you have a shot or not. The fish will either turn around and head for the horizon or you will see an immediate reaction towards the fly.
Allow the Fish to Eat the Fly
Once the fish heads over to the fly, do not strip it away. The fish will pin the fly down, tailing on it in the same way that it was feeding earlier. Give the fish a second to work the fly.
Once the fish is eating the fly, make a long slow strip. This will do one of two things. It will pull allow the fly to jump forward naturally, usually resulting in the fish to pop over and eat it again. What you really want to happen during the long slow strip is for you to feel the hook setting onto the fish. If you feel any tension, set with a quick firm strip.
If the Fish Goes Into a Hole
Some triggerfish head straight for a hole in the reef as soon as they are hooked. There’s no way of preventing this and should it occur, release some of the tension on the fly line as this may cause the tippet to snap.
To land this fish it will have to be removed from the hole by hand. Your fishing guide will assist with this. However, if you’re fishing alone, pay special attention to the length of the tippet you are fishing with.
Follow the tippet halfway down the hole. Do not follow it further as the tippet ultimately leads to the fly which is in the triggerfish’s mouth. The only resulting thing shorter than your bitten off finger will be your fishing trip.
Locate the fish’s tail and get a firm grip on it. With your other hand, follow the back of the fish until you get to the dorsal fin of the fish. The chances are that it’s using this hard fin to wedge itself into the hole.
Fold the dorsal fin down while pulling on the tail. This will free the fish up.
Be Careful of the Mouth
If all works out well and you end up landing the fish, be careful when removing the fly from its mouth. They are very accurate with those human-like teeth. Many fingers have been severely damaged having been bitten by triggerfish.
Keep your hands and fingers behind the eyes when handling the fish. Any area in front of the eyes is in the danger zone. Rather use a pair of forceps or pliers to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth.
A Note on Hook Choice
The chosen hook should be very strong to try and prevent the strong jaws of triggerfish to bite through it. Triggerfish will bite through inferior quality hooks. Make sure the hooks are strong, have an unobstructed gape, and an extremely sharp point.
Best Destinations for Triggerfish Fishing
Yellow margin and titan triggerfish frequent the indo-pacific oceans of the world. These incredibly beautiful places are a must-visit for the serious fly angler. Here are some of my favorite triggerfishing destinations in the world.
Astove – Seychelles
Astove Atoll is one of the most beautiful places on mother earth and definitely one of the best places in the Seychelles for fly fishing. It has an incredible inner lagoon that drains and fills through a single channel. The triggerfishing, however, is mostly done in the surf zone of the island.
The triggerfish are willing and full of life. These areas are also a good spot to target giant trevally, bohar snapper, and grouper.
The island has an airstrip making access relatively easy. Alphonse Fishing Company runs this top-class lodge and offers activities for the rest of the family members as well.
Nubian Flats – Sudan
The Nubian Flats in the Red Sea is arguably the best place on the plant to catch triggerfish. I’ve been on a trip there where the group of fly anglers landed 43 triggerfish in one day. That is totally unheard of.
Wild Sea Expedition and African Waters run a joint operation from Sudan. Considering the hostility of the region, I would recommend going with one of these outfitters.
Kanton Island is a remote island in the South Pacific Ocean. It has seen little human impact, and the result is incredible fishing. Although all the pictures of fly fishing on this atoll show huge giant trevally and bohar snapper, triggerfish occur here in abundance.
This is a wild destination for the true adventurer. If you’re interested in fishing here, get in contact with Rock Expeditions.
Christmas Island – Republic of Kiritimati
Although Christmas Island is well known for its bonefish and giant trevally, its best-kept secret is the triggerfish. Both species (titan and yellow margin) frequent these waters and may be targeted with great success.
The place to stay on Christmas Island is Christmas Island Outfitters. They offer everything you need at an incredible price point.
Lakshadweep – India
Lakshadweep is a relatively new destination on the fly fishing radar. The group of islands is 270 miles southwest from the coast of India. This typical flat fishing destination offers great trigger fishing with both yellow margin and titan triggerfish occurring in abundance.
If you are interested in traveling here, I recommend going with the reputable operator Sportsquest Holidays. They have experience organizing trips to this remote destination.
That’s How to Fly Fish for Triggerfish
I hope that you found this article on how to fly fish for triggerfish insightful. At the end of the day, after spending countless hours looking at triggerfish, I have come to this thought.
Prepare as well as you can and try and do everything as technically correct as you can. We cannot prevent fish from spooking or being hard to catch, but control what you can. I promise you this, there’s a triggerfish with your name on. Keep at it, and soon, it will pay dividends.
As I always say to guests out on the water, read the body language of the fish. If you pay special attention to the way the fish react you will learn a great deal.
Please leave any comments or questions at the bottom of the page. I would love to hear about your experiences.
Until next time.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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