Top 25 Gulf of Mexico Game Fish Species
This post will list the top 25 Gulf of Mexico game fish species. The Gulf of Mexico is home to a wide variety of game fish species. Anglers can catch these fish inshore, nearshore, and offshore using a variety of tactics. The many bays and inlets will be referred to as part of the Gulf for the purposes of this article. The game fish species that are most widely available to Gulf Coast anglers will be listed. Billfish will be omitted, as will some species available only in South Florida. Fishing tips to achieve success will be included as well.
Special thanks to Darlene for the great pics, follow Darlene on Instagram for more!
Inshore Gulf of Mexico game fish species
The shallow, fertile inshore water all along the Gulf Coast offer ideal habitat for many game fish. Grass and other vegetation hold crustaceans and bait fish, which in turn attracts game fish. Shrimp and crabs will hide in the countless oyster bars. Man-made structure such as docks, bridges, seawalls, and jetties are productive spots as well. Natural ledges, reefs, and wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico are fish magnets.
1) Spotted sea trout (speckled trout)
Spotted sea trout, also known as speckled trout, are probably the most popular Gulf of Mexico game fish, perhaps challenged only by redfish. They are a beautiful fish that hits hard, puts up a decent battle, and are terrific to eat. They are mostly caught on the shallow flats between two and ten feet deep, though they will be found in the passes and surf as well.
Spotted sea trout will readily hit both live bait and artificial lures. A live shrimp fished under a popping cork has produced a lot of speckled trout over the years. Anglers targeting larger trout use bait fish such as grunts, pinfish, croakers, mullet, and sardines. The jig and grub is the top artificial lure, though plugs and spoons are productive as well.
Anglers can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “Inshore Saltwater Fishing” for $5 by clicking on the title link. It is 23,000 words long and covers tackle, tactics, and species.
2) Redfish (red drum)
Redfish, their proper name is red drum, may rival trout in popularity along the Gulf of Mexico. Venice, Louisiana is considered by many to be the premier destination in the world to catch trophy redfish. These fish are often sight fished in very shallow water, which adds to the excitement.
Read this article on how to clean and cook fish
Redfish love crustaceans, which is indicated by the shape of their mouth. Live shrimp and crabs are top baits as are any lures that imitate them. Large, mature redfish school up in late summer and move out into the Gulf to spawn. These giant redfish are called “bull reds” and grow quite large!
Anglers catch redfish on the flats, in the passes, out on the beach, and in the open Gulf. They are often found around oyster bars, where the crustaceans live. Grass flats attract them as well. In cooler months, redfish will be found in deeper water around sttructure. Docks are prime spots.
Flounder are another very popular species found in the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They are good fighters and one of the best eating fish that swims. Flounder lie on the bottom, often buried in the sand, ambushing prey as it goes by. Flounder often relate to structure such as bars, docks, rocks, jetties, and wrecks.
Capt Jim has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. Anglers who are interested in purchasing the equipment that he uses and writes about in his articles and reports can do so on the PRODUCTS page.
Flounder feed mostly on minnows, but love a live shrimp as well. Strips of fresh cut bait fish or squid will also work. Anglers catch plenty of flounder bouncing jigs along the bottom and often tip the jig with a piece of shrimp. Flounder are more numerous in the northern parts of the Gulf.
4) Black drum
Black drum are quite popular all along the Gulf Coast as well. These cousins to the red drum are found in similar areas, often in very shallow water. However, unlike redfish, black drum are much more difficult to catch on artificial lures. Live shrimp and crabs as well as a half of a big blue crab are top baits.
Black drum grow very large, over 100 pounds. Most fish caught in the shallow backwaters are smaller. In fact, most anglers who want a black drum or two for dinner prefer smaller fish. The meat is white and firm while it can get wormy on the larger fish.
Sheepshead are similar looking to black drum, though they are in the porgy family. They do not grow as large, with 5 pounds being a nice fish. However, they show up in the cooler months in huge numbers to provide anglers with a nice battle and excellent fillets!
Like drum, sheepshead rarely take lures. Shrimp and fiddler crabs are top baits. Sheepshead will almost always be found very close to some type of structure. Bridges and docks are top spots. Jetties and seawalls will hold fish, too. Nearshore reefs and wrecks will also load up with sheepshead when they spawn. Small circle hooks work best.
Ladyfish often do not get respect from anglers, simply because they are not good to eat. However, they can save a slow day for anglers looking for action. Ladyfish readily take lures and are quite aggressive. They are found on the deeper flats, in the passes, and out on the beaches. They make excellent cut bait.
7) Spanish mackerel
Spanish mackerel are a terrific inshore game fish species! They are found all along the Gulf on Mexico coastline, often in very large schools. Spanish mackerel are mostly found in the gulf waters close to shore, feeding on schools of bait fish. Plenty of mackerel move into the bays and passes as well.
Mackerel are often seen feeding on the surface. This is great sport as any fast moving lure will draw a strike. Trolling works well when the fish are not as easy to locate. Anglers can anchor up and chum, especially over inshore reefs. Spanish mackerel are very good to eat when iced immediately and prepared fresh.
8) King Mackerel
King mackerel are larger versions of their Spanish mackerel cousins. They grow very large and are seldom caught in the inshore bays. They may be found from right on the beach to the deepest offshore structure. Most king mackerel are caught by anglers trolling lures or live bait fish, though they will come up in the chum and take cut bait as well. They are very good fresh and are fantastic smoked!
Bluefish are another species that some anglers consider to be a nuisance. They are prized in the northeast for their fighting ability. Gulf Coast bluefish are smaller, averaging a couple of pounds. However, they fight as hard as any fish their size. Bluefish are aggressive and take lures well. Most are caught by anglers fishing for other species. They are average eating when prepared fresh, though on the stronger side.
Cobia are a terrific game fish that are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico. They grow quite large, over 100 pounds, and are terrific eating. They are mostly found in the open Gulf, though smaller fish will move into the bays. They are inquisitive and once located are fairly easy to hook. Anglers sight fish for them as they cruise near the surface. Live shrimp, eels, bait fish, and jigs will catch them.
The Gulf of Mexico is full of sharks! There are too many species to list, but blacktip, bonnethead, and spinner sharks are the most plentiful. They provide terrific light tackle action and will out battle most game fish. Sharks are mainly caught on fresh cut bait but will definitely hit live baits fish and even lures. They are good the eat, but anglers should be very careful handling them. Also, make sure the shark is properly identified and is legal to keep.
12) False albacore (Bonito)
False albacore are a terrific Gulf of Mexico game fish species! They are small members of the tuna family and make a long run when initially hooked. The best sport is on medium spin or fly tackle. False albacore are often encountered feeding on the surface and can be sight fished. They will also be caught around offshore structure and respond well to chum.
13) Mangrove snapper
Mangrove snapper are the most widely distributed Gulf of Mexico snapper species. They are pretty much found everywhere! They also are plentiful both inshore and offshore. Mangrove snapper are born in the bays, and at some point more offshore to spawn. They are almost always caught near structure of some sort.
Snapper will hit a lure but the vast majority are caught on live or cut bait. Shrimp work great inshore while anglers targeting them offshore usually use live bait fish or cut fresh or frozen bait. Squid will produce them as well. Mangrove snapper respond well to chum. They are among the finest eating fish that swims!
Some anglers may not consider whiting a ‘game fish”, but they sure are popular! Whiting are a staple among anglers surf fishing. They do not grow large but are abundant, fun to catch, and fine eating. A simple two hook rig with pieces of shrimp will get the job done.
15) Key West grunts
Key West grunts have saved the day for many anglers bottom fishing in the Gulf of Mexico when other species would not bite. A “grunt hunt” can be great fun as these fish pull hard and taste great. Grits and grunts is a Southern staple! They are found on structure, often fairly close to shore. Just about any cut bait will fool them.
16) Black sea bass
Black sea bass are another popular and very tasty bottom fish found throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Like mangrove snapper, smaller fish are found inshore and larger fish are caught offshore. They are pretty uncomplicated, bottom fishing with squid or cut bait on ledges and near structure will catch them up.
17) Jack crevalle
Jack crevalle are one of the toughest inshore Gulf of Mexico game fish species. They grow large and are caught both inshore and offshore. They are often times encountered feeding on the surface in large schools. This makes them competitive and they will hit almost anything that resembles a wounded bait fish. While great fun to catch, they are not good to eat.
Pompano are small, but are a highly desired Gulf Coast species. They put up a remarkable fight for their size. However, the attraction is the fillets, pompano are perhaps the best eating fish that swims! They are a popular target of anglers surf fishing. Live shrimp and sand fleas work best . Anglers bouncing jigs on the bottom catch them in the passes and on the flats as well.
Offshore Gulf of Mexico game fish species.
Anglers offshore fishing in the Gulf of Mexico will have the opportunity to catch many different species, both bottom and pelagic. Pelagic species are those that migrate and spend the majority of their time in the upper part of the water column. Structure usually plays a role, even with fish caught closer to the surface.
19) Red grouper
The Gulf of Mexico is perfect habitat for grouper, especially red grouper. Areas of hard coral bottom along with natural ledges hold these popular bottom fish. Oil rigs hold plenty of fish, too. Anglers anchor or drift while offering live or cut bait on the bottom. Once a productive area is located, anglers can usually catch a decent amount of fish. Obviously, red grouper are fantastic eating as well.
20) Gag grouper
Gag grouper are similar to red grouper, with a few differences. They will often be caught shallower than red grouper. This is particularly true on the “big bend” portion of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. They are also quite aggressive and will take lures. Anglers troll large plugs for them in cooler months. Gag grouper also often prefer a live bait over a frozen one. They fight hard and are terrific to eat.
21) Red snapper
Red snapper are incredibly popular throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico! Anglers bottom fish in deep water near reefs, wrecks, ledges, and oil rigs with live or cut bait. They are fairly aggressive and easy to catch once located. The season to keep them is short and anglers make the most out of the days that they can get them. They are very good to eat.
There is not a stronger, tougher fish than amberjack. They did not earn their nick name “reef donkey” without merit. They are found on wrecks, reefs, and oil rigs and generally prefer larger pieces of structure. They will hit just about any live bait fish as well as jigs. They are decent eating and are very aggressive. Some anglers fishing for snapper consider them a nuisance.
Tuna are extremely popular throughout the Gulf of Mexico, particularly from the Panhandle of Florida area west, where the water is deeper closer to shore. There are several tuna species; blackfin, yellowfiin, bluefin, and skipjack. Yellowfin are the choice of anglers due to their size and eating quality. They are found around oil rigs and near bait, usually relating to structure. They are often caught trolling, but vertical jigging and live lining will produce tuna, too.
24) Dolphin (mahi-mahi)
Dolphin, otherwise known as mahi-mahi, are a very popular offshore species found throughout the gulf. They are mostly caught by anglers trolling, but can be cast to when chummed up behind the boat. They are a gorgeous fish that leaps high out of the water and are fantastic to eat.
Wahoo are a bit of a specialty species that are targeted at certain times of the year, depending on location. Most are caught by anglers targeting them and trolling very fast, 10-12 knots. They are the largest member of the mackerel family are are very good to eat.
In conclusion, this article on the top 25 Gulf of Mexico game fish species will help anglers identify and catch more fish!