Fly Fishing for Triggers By Nick Denbow

Written by Rob Mukai on Apr. 20, 2020

Tags: Xcalak Xcalak Guides Saltwater Fly Fishing Nick Denbow Mahahual Pro Tips DIY Saltwater Fly Fishing Trigger Fish

Nick Denbow with an Oceanic Triggerfish


This blog post stemmed from a conversation I had with friend of the Inn, Nick Denbow. He has been guiding here in the Costa Maya for 18 years. I have had a hell of a time trying to catch triggerfish here. We get a lot of oceanic triggerfish on the flats. My problem was I could usually hook them, but they would mostly come unbuttoned. Nick has probably guided more triggerfish than anyone in the Mexican Caribbean. I don’t know of anyone in Mexico that even guides for them. What follows is Nick Denbow’s Doctorate Course in catching triggerfish in the our area. Lightly edited for clarity.

A hooked triggerfish underwater


If you are only targeting triggers, use a fly with not much tail or feelers out back and a relatively light one, not too heavy. Use something like a Bonefish Bitters or a turneffe crab or a gotcha. Don’t use anything fancy because it’s going to get torn up. If you know these are Triggers that have not seen a fly either ever, or in a long while then make it a bright coloured one like orange, chartreuse or green and tie it on 16-20lb tippet. If you think or know they’ve seen an angler and been shown a fly, then go for more neutral colours like tan or cream and tie it on 12-16lb.

Another trigger landed

Step 1

They may be cruising or tailing but no matter what they are doing, Try to cast 1 yard to the side they are facing and a couple of feet beyond. Strip the fly straight away in short sharp strip in front of the fish. If it’s the right fish and he likes it, he will clearly dash over and get behind the fly. If it’s the wrong fish (one that’s been cast at a load or caught before, it will, at this stage Fuck Off). Once you get the follow, you now stop or slow the retrieve to almost nothing just keeping the slack out of the line.

Hooked in the lip

Step 2

You’ve got the follow and you’ve stopped/slowed the retrieve. The fish will now try to eat the fly by tipping up on it in a vertical position. As that tail gets to the top, you strip. If the fish is on, great!, go to step 3. If the fish is not on hopefully you will see him go back horizontal, chase the fly and tip again. This time wait until the tail gets to the top like last time plus half a second more. You might end up doing this 4-5 times on one retrieve! If you run out of fly line but the fish is still following then do not take it out. I’ve guided so many with only the leader through the guides. That close, I can see when he’s got it in his lips and we get the set. If the fish loses the fly in the grass or rocks at any stage and abandons the follow, stay still and let him move away from you before you recast. They will spook from rod flash and fly line in the air.

Hooked in the teeth

Step 2 explained

Triggers take the fly into their lips. If they decide it is food then they will then pass it behind their teeth. We don’t want it going into the mouth behind those teeth. They will bite it off. I’ve had them crunch good fly hooks into a ball and I’ve had them cut hook shanks like a pair of electrician’s side cutters. Much better to get them in the lip outside those teeth.

Watch out for the teeth

Step 3

You’ve come tight on this trigger. Well done. They will very rarely take off running straight away. Get the rod up and bent and now pump that rod back 2 or 3 times. We do this to drive it into the rubber lips or, in case the hook point is between a couple of teeth, to get a better hook hold. Expect them to run, if they don’t, do not try and pick them up early thinking they are done. As a guide, I’m nervous of those teeth and will always try to scare one into running to get him tired before trying to lift him out. Some fight really well and have great stamina others just sit there and spit water at you. All have teeth!

Step 4

Never let it go slack during the fight in case you’ve got one of those hook holds between the teeth. If the hook point is just sat between the teeth, you can land him and the fly will just fall out as soon as there’s slack in the line. They are structure conscious and will go to ground in caves. Look around you to see what the hazards are. If I’ve got a stick up rock nearby I will go and stand by it thinking he’s going to stay away from me therefore staying away from the rock. When he’s getting more tired work out if you are going to lift him up or if the beach is close then you can beach him.

White blotches mean they are stressed

Step 5

Some will have a strong stress reaction and will change colour through their chromatophores, you can wait a minute or so to see if you will get a better photo. In my experience they survive well 2 minutes out of water no problem. I’ve never heard of one intentionally trying to bite an angler when being unhooked but I use forceps every time.

That’s it. Now go catch a trigger!

You can find Nick on his website