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Trigger Happy

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The tasty triggerfish is found around reefs in the gulf

By: Gray Finch, August 2007

The one fish that always seems to draw a curious and confused look from a novice saltwater fisherman is the triggerfish. It looks nothing like any of the other species, so the first question is, “what is it? and the second is, “is it good to eat?”

The gray triggerfish is easy to identify and is appropriately named. This solid gray fish can be found as far north as Canada and stretches south towards Argentina. It is one of the most common fish in the ocean and can usually be found around any hard structure. Gray triggers usually measure around one foot in length, but the world record fish grew to a weight of 13 pounds, 9 ounces.

Three dorsal fins offer clues to its name. When triggerfish are in danger, or on alert, their three dorsal spines will lock into a vertical position. This is thought to be a defensive system that works to either lodge the triggerfish into heir coral retreats or makes them impossible for predators to swallow. The only way to release the rigid set of spines is by pulling down on the third spine, using it like a trigger.

The unique mouth is narrow and fitted with strong jaws with chisel-like teeth that can crush shellfish and barnacles. They are even more adept at delicately stealing bait from your hook. The mouth of a triggerfish also commands some respect. Even though the mouth opening is relatively small for a fish its size, the trigger’s teeth are easily able to bite the tip off a finger or a chunk out of a hand. Smart deckhands tend to keep the mouth away from their hands and body when removing hooks.

Triggerfish are considered wreck fish and are typically found hovering over deep water reefs that are around 80 feet and greater.

Fishing for triggers is commonly done with bottom-fishing bait rods equipped with single- or double-hook rigs. Cut squid or small chunks of tough fish are usually the best choices for bait, simply because they stay on the hook while getting pecked by a hungry school of triggers.  The bite is very subtle and requires a fisherman with sensitive hands and a strong hook-set. Hauling up two grown triggers from 100 feet of Gulf water is quite a chore. When triggerfish are lifted over the rail, they are a welcomed sight on any bottom-fishing expedition.

With harsh limits and seasons being placed on red snapper, the triggerfish has quickly found a place of honor on bottom-fishing charters. They are plentiful and are considered excellent eating for any method of cooking. Their leathery protective skin makes them hard to clean, but the prized white meat of the trigger is well worth the effort. Experienced deckhands have no problems dealing with cleaning a tasty trigger.