Tricky Triggerfish: Designed for Defense

Early Morning Discovery:

Get those lines down! The Triggers are waiting!“, was the cry we heard from the Captain of the Party boat, the Destiny, two hours out in the Gulf of Mexico from Destine, Florida in the early October morning.

I was in for a treat. I was about to hook into my very first Triggerfish. These amazing creatures have unique design and behavior that demonstrate the careful way in which a God made them. They have amazing defensive strategies.

Finally up and in the basket. Take a closer look and see how these fish differ from the ones you have caught over the years.

My fish was only 2″ smaller than the one that won the 2020 DestinFishing Rodeo daily contest when we got back to the dock.

Above you can see The Daily Winner that was Bigger than My Fish.

The Destin Fishing Rodeo is an annual event in Florida to bring in fishermen to extend the tourist season into October. There are daily and overall prizes in several different categories of kinds of fish and age divisions. When you come in for the weigh in, expect a large crowd of onlookers. You will also meet the current reigning Miss Destin Beauty Queen who poses with those who catch the big ones.

Fancy Fins

One of the most fascinating behaviors of the Triggerfish is the way it uses its fins. Triggerfish have two spines on the front of their dorsal fin that are designed to help the fish escape predators. When a shark, Amberjack, Grouper, Sailfish, Marlin or other large fish comes in to attack, the Triggerfish flees into a crack or crevice in the rocky bottom. They then slide into the opening and spring their trigger fins to lock themselves in. The spines interlock when sprung and this makes it almost impossible to remove. When you get one on the line, be sure to maintain pressure so they don’t drop down and use this same trick on you. The name “Triggerfish” comes from this behavior.

Put On Your Armor!

When God created the Triggerfish He gave them a suit of armor. The outer skin of the triggerfish is so strong that when you try to clean them with a knife, you cannot cut through their outer skin. While watching the deckhands that cleaned my fish I saw that they had to cut through the thinner skin around the upper dorsal fins or enter through the vent at the bottom of the fish. They then peeled back the skin while ripping it away from the flesh beneath. The guy that cleaned mine kept the two large pieces of skin to take home, cover with salt, then scrape away any remaining flesh to create leather to use to make knife sheaths. While thinking about how much protection God gave these fish, I was reminded of the Armor God has given to His children to ward off the attacks of Satan. (You can learn more about this in the Bible, Ephesians 6: starting at verse 11.)

How to Out Trick The Bait Stealers:

One thing we had to learn quickly was that the Triggerfish are masters at bait stealing. The deckhands told us that, if we had no bites within 30-45 seconds, we needed to reel in and rebait. So, how does one out trick a tricky Triggerfish? Use circle hooks and the fish will often hook themselves. These special hooks are designed to curve into the lips of the fish as soon as they bite down on the bait. Don’t jerk the line, just reel up as fast as you can. You can also bait your hook with pieces of squid which stay on the line better than the other cut fish bait.

Be Ready for a Battle!

Of the five kinds of bottom fish I caught during my three days of fishing in the Gulf, the Triggerfish were the hardest to bring in. They put up quite a battle. The oval shape of the body of this fish creates a lot of surface tension and resistance when traveling through the water as the fish swims sideways while trying to escape.

Make Sure It’s a “Keeper”!:

Only one of the six Triggerfish I caught was a keeper. Triggerfish, at the time of my trip had to be at least 15 inches long to be “keepers”. The one that I was able to keep was 20 inches long. Depending on the area and season restrictions you may not be able to keep any of these fish. Fortunately for us, they had reopened the season in October due to the lower number of fish harvested this year because of the Covid crisis. Be sure to check the current fishing regulations if you go out to fish in the Gulf of Mexico. If you go on a registered Party Boat the Captain and Crew will help you know which ones you can harvest.

Tricky Teeth:

Triggerfish have an amazing set of “choppers”. Their front teeth are very well developed and are used as chisels to bore holes through hard-shelled prey.

Above is a picture of a Triggerfish skull that shows you what these teeth look like. Since the mouths of these fish are so small, the teeth extrude out through the lips. Even though Triggerfish can chisel through thick shells they have other tricks that make acquiring food quicker.

Be Like a Helicopter:

Two food items Triggerfish like to eat are sand- dollars and sea urchins. To get to the meat inside these creatures requires a strategy. The Triggerfish uses its fins to hover in the water vertically above the sandy bottom of the sea floor. They then squirt out a stream of water through their mouths to blow away the sand exposing the sand-dollars hiding in the sand. Next, they grab their prey in their teeth and swim up and drop it until in lands on its back. The bottom side of the sand-dollar is much softer than the top making access much easier. Once flipped, the fish will descend rapidly and ram the inverted sand-dollar with its hard front teeth cracking the shell. They then quickly gobble up the soft creature inside and repeat the process again and again.

I’ve Got My Eyes on You:

As you have seen in the pictures in this blog, the Triggerfish has eyes high up on the sides of its body. These are placed in just the right place for the Triggerfish to locate and target its prey as well as keep an eye out fir predators.

Just One of Many Bottom Dwelling Fish:

In the above picture you can see only one Triggerfish in the Cooler. If you compare how many snapper fish there are in relation to the Triggerfish you get a pretty good idea that it is pretty special to catch a Triggerfish.

Triggerfish are usually caught when people are trying to catch grouper, Amberjack, snapper, and other game fish since they all live in the same areas. Don’t be disappointed, however. The triggerfish is one of the tastiest of them all!

Fish Family Matters:

While researching these fish I discovered some amazing things about the roles of the parent fish as well as the behaviors of their young. The male Triggerfish actually build and prepare the nesting sites before the females arrive during the nesting season. The males actually prepare more than one nest because one male may mate with several females. The males create depressions in the sandy bottom and guard their territories aggressively. They have even been known to attack scuba divers if they invade their territory, though they pose very little danger to humans. The females will deposit hundreds of thousand eggs and the males then supply the milt to fertilize them. The mothers will stay close by the nests until the eggs hatch. They frequently use their fins to oxygenate the eggs to help the embryos develop. After the eggs hatch the young will rise to the top of the water column where they feed amongst the sargassum (a type of brown seaweed that floats in masses on the surface of the ocean). Within the sargassum the baby fish find all kinds of tiny crustaceans and other food items. When the youngsters mature they drop back down to the bottom of the ocean to live out the rest of their lives.
Triggerfish have been known to grow as large as 30 inches and weigh up to 13 lbs., however these large triggerfish have had to survive for about 16 years to reach that size. As you can guess, most are much smaller, more in the 14 to 17 inch range.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed learning about Triggerfish. Maybe you can go out and catch some yourself.


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