Top 21 Florida Saltwater Game Fish, tips to catch
This post lists the top 21 Florida saltwater game fish, featuring some terrific female anglers! Locations, seasons, tips, and techniques that will help anglers catch them are also included. Florida is blessed with a wide variety of species. There are many different lures, baits, and techniques that are used successfully.
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 can do so HERE on the PRODUCTS page.
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.
Top Florida pelagic game fish
Several of the top 21 Florida game fish are found in open water. Bill fish, dolphin, tuna, and mackerel are examples of these types of fish. They roam the open ocean, following bait fish and drifting with the Gulf Stream currents. While this sounds random, and is, there are features which will hold fish. Current rips, temperature changes, color changes, and drastic changes in bottom contour are all features which can concentrate these fish.
No other fish represents South Florida fishing better than the sailfish. Many tournaments center around this fantastic game fish! They average fifty pounds, but fish to a hundred pounds are encountered. Anglers troll with lures and baits and cast or free line live baits. The kite fishing technique was invented here for catching sailfish. The deep, clear water of the Gulf Stream is a prime factor. Winter is the prime time. Many anglers like to fish when the seas are up on a strong north east wind.
There has been a huge increase in the success of anglers targeting swordfish in the last few years. Previously, the only time these fish were caught was at night. However, daytime techniques have developed. Anglers fish very deep during the day. This has dramatically increased the popularity of this type of fishing. It is still difficult, but the success rate has dramatically improved. As with sailfish, winter is the best time to target them.
South Florida is really the only spot in the United States where anglers can target swordfish with any degree of reliability. However, it is far from a sure thing. Anglers put in a lot of hours to catch a fish of a lifetime. It is also expensive; large baits and specialized gear are required.
Dolphin fish, also known as mahi-mahi, are one of the most popular offshore Florida game fish. They are beautiful, fast, grow to fifty pounds, and are terrific eating. Most anglers troll for them with feathers, lures, and rigged ballyhoo. However, once a school is located, they can be lured to the boat with chum and cast to with lighter tackle. Dolphin are caught year round. However, April, May, and June are generally the best times. Fall can be good as well.
Dolphin are most often caught off of the east coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. They prefer the deep blue water there. The Gulf of Mexico does hold some fish, though not as large or as numerous. Also, anglers generally have to travel farther to find them. Most anglers troll with feathers or spoons in search of dolphin. Running while looking for weed lines or floating debris is another proven tactic.
Wahoo are the largest member of the mackerel family and are one of the fastest fish in the sea. They are VERY fast! Most wahoo are caught by anglers trolling with lures. They often exceed ten knots when doing so. The occasionally take live baits meant for king mackerel and other species. Wahoo will relate to current breaks, water temperature breaks, and bottom contour changes. Full moons in summer are the prime times to target wahoo, though they can be caught all year long.
Once again, South Florida is the prime area for anglers targeting wahoo. However, they are found in open waters throughout the entire state. Deeper water is found closer to shore in the panhandle area, making that an option for Gulf anglers seeking a wahoo.
5) Blackfin tuna
Black fin tuna are a very hard-fighting and popular game fish in Florida. These smaller cousins to the yellowfin tuna are caught year-round, though spring and early summer are the best times to target them. Blackfin tuna often relate to structure such as reefs, wrecks, and hard bottom ledges. Ten pounds is a decent fish. They are caught trolling and by chunking with cut fish.
Blackfin tuna are available to most Florida offshore anglers. Reefs and offshore structure in water over 100′ deep will attract them. The “humps” in the Florida Keys are famed blackfin tuna spots. Another very productive technique to to fish near commercial shrimp boats. These boats dump they by-catch, effectively chumming the area. This attracts blackfin tuna along with false albacore, sharks, and other species.
6) Yellowfin tuna
Yellowfin Tuna are a terrific pelagic game fish! They are caught in good numbers in South Florida from April through August. They are similar in habits to blackfin tuna. However, they grow much larger, to several hundred pounds. Most yellowfin tuna are caught by anglers trolling. They can be chummed into range and fooled with cut bait. There are few things on the planed that are better eating that a fresh yellowfin tuna steak!
Yellowfin tuna are not as common in the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida as are blackfin tuna. They just prefer the deeper, cooler water of the Atlantic Ocean. Yellowfins migrate north from the Keys and anglers can follow the migration up the coast. They do move north up the mid Atlantic, pleasing anglers all along the east coast.
7) False albacore
False albacore, also known as “bonita” and “fat alberts”, are a very fun, hard-fighting fish. They resemble tuna, however they are not considered good to eat. False albacore are often found quite close to shore. They are a terrific game fish on light tackle. False albacore also are favored by experienced anglers for bait. They are a year-round species, with spring and fall being best.
These diminutive tuna provide fantastic sport for light tackle anglers! Fly fishing for them is great fun as well. False albacore are often found close to shore, making them a favorite of anglers with smaller boats and skiffs. Much of the fishing is visual as they are seen feeding ferociously on the surface. Spanish mackerel and sharks are often mixed in with them. This combination of sight fishing along with the terrific fight make for the popularity of false albacore fishing.
8) King mackerel
King mackerel are a very popular pelagic species in Florida. They do take a bit of a back seat in South Florida, as they are so many other species available. They are good to eat, but most anglers have them behind dolphin, tuna, and other fish. However, they are great fun to catch on medium tackle. Kings make a long, blistering initial run. Large specimens are called ‘smokers” for this reason. King mackerel tournaments are plentiful throughout the state. This increases their popularity. Spring and fall are best, and they are found deeper in the summer and winter.
King mackerel are very popular all along the Gulf Coast of Florida. They are found over structure and hard bottom, often times within ten miles from shore. In many cases, they are the largest game fish available. Spring and fall are prime times as the migrate alongside the hordes of threadfin herring and sardines. Trolling, either with lures or live bait, produces the vast majority of king mackerel. However, anglers do catch them anchored up on the reefs and free lining live baits or chunks.
9) Spanish mackerel
These smaller cousins to the other mackerels are excellent game fish in their own right. They put up a great battle on light tackle. Spanish mackerel average around 3 pounds and grow to over 10 pounds. Fast moving shiny lures such as spoons will entice them. Small live bait fish are productive as well. Chumming over the inshore reefs will draw them to the boat. Schools can be seen feeding on the surface close to shore. Inlets will hold fish as well. They are very good to eat when put on ice immediately and prepared that day.
One great thing about Spanish mackerel is that anglers may encounter them anywhere. While mackerel school up thick in the inshore Gulf and Atlantic waters, they are also found inshore. Passes and inlets will attract Spanish mackerel. Grass flats in deeper water, 8′ to 10′ deep, will also hold fish. Anglers catch them by casting flash lures such as spoons and plugs as well as by free lining live baits.
Fishing for Spanish mackerel with artificial lures
Artificial lures work quite well for Spanish mackerel. They are quite aggressive and will often hit a lure that is moving very fast. For this reason, trolling is an outstanding way to locate and catch Spanish mackerel. Small spoons and plugs are the top baits to use when trolling. Those baits, along with jigs are a good choice for anglers who like to cast. Spanish mackerel will certainly take live bait, including any small bait fish and a live shrimp.
The most exciting way to catch Spanish mackerel is when they are foraging on the surface. This is known as “breaking fish”and just like with the jacks, I hookup is almost a certainty. Spanish mackerel will often times feed on the surface, staying in one location for long enough for an angler to get in position and make a good cast. Mackerel are toothy critters and anglers will loosen tackle when fishing for them.
South Florida bottom fish species
Bottom fishing is very productive for South Florida anglers. Grouper and snapper are the primary targets, though amberjack and other species will also be taken. While these fish are great fun to catch, many anglers do it for their fantastic food value. Grouper and snapper are terrific eating! Bottom fishing is very basic, as anglers drop a baited hook with some weight down to bottom structure. However, it is not nearly that simple. Presentation, anchoring, baits, and tackle all need to be spot-on.
Grouper and snapper are available to South Florida anglers all year long. However, they do migrate in and out from shore, depending on conditions. Generally speaking, when it is hot, they will move offshore. As it cools off, these species will move to the reefs and ledges closer to shore. Water clarity and forage availability are also factors.
Grouper are a very popular bottom fish in South Florida. They are found on all types of bottom structure. Grouper are caught on natural ledges, wrecks, and reefs. They feed on bait fish and crustaceans. There are over a dozen different grouper species. Black grouper, red grouper, and gag grouper are the three most abundant and popular South Florida grouper species. Grouper are fantastic table fare!
Gag and red grouper are caught in relatively shallow water. Many of the other grouper species are found in much deeper water. Anglers can anchor in shallow water. That is not practical in deeper water, so most anglers drift over likely spots. Live bait fish and cut bait work well. Heavy tackle is used to winch the fish up out of the heavy cover.
Bottom fishing rules and regulations change constantly. Anglers can check the current Florida Fishing regulations on the FWC website. Grouper are taken all year long. They tend to move shallow in cooler weather and offshore in the warmer months.
South Florida is blessed with outstanding snapper fishing. Like grouper, there are quite a few different snapper species. The top snapper species include yellowtail snapper, gray (or mangrove) snapper, lane snapper, hogfish, mutton snapper, and red snapper. Mangrove snapper can be found both inshore and offshore. Yellowtail, hogfish, and mutton snapper can be caught in fairly shallow water. Red snapper are caught in fairly deep water. All snapper species are terrific on the table!
Snapper are caught by anglers using live or cut bait. Most are caught on bottom structure, though some snapper, yellowtail and mangrove in particular, can be chummed up to the surface. The same bottom structures that hold grouper will attract snapper as well. They can be a bit fussy and at times lighter tackle is required to fool them.
Hogfish, also known as hog snapper, are an unusual looking fish. They are also incredibly good eating. For years, anglers thought they would not eat and were only taken by anglers spearfishing. However, techniques evolved and anglers not catch them on rods and reels. Slowly lowering a shrimp on a light jig head will fool them.
Amberjack, known by locals as “reef donkeys” and “AJs”, are one of the hardest fighting Florida game fish. They are mostly associated with larger wrecks, but can be found over ledges as well. Live and cut bait lowered to the bottom will catch them. Some anglers use butterfly jigs to catch them as well. They are very good eating. They are available year round.
Reefs and wrecks in both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico will hold amberjack. Unlike snapper and grouper, larger structure tends to be better when targeting amberjack. They are at times unwelcome guests when bottom fishing. They are aggressive and it can be difficult getting a bait past them. However, there are worse problems that an angler can face! Heavy tackle is generally required to keep them out of the structure.
Cobia are a kind of nomadic game fish. They are found all along both coasts in the southeast. Cobia are normally found over wrecks and reefs, but can be anywhere, even inshore on the flats. They are terrific eating with firm, white meat. These fish grow to over 100 pounds. Cobia are often targets of opportunity as they have a habit of just showing up on the surface. They are also seen on the surface around navigational markers.
Cobia are found in the cooler months in the southern portion of the state. As the water temperature rises, they move north and can be caught all season long. The Destin area is famous for having excellent sight fishing for trophy cobia, often quite close to shore. Anglers need to make sure a fish is of legal size (33″ to the fork at present) before gaffing one. A large landing net might be a better option.
Sharks provide anglers with some excellent fishing action! They can often be targeted using relatively light tackle. Many different species of sharks are available in Florida. They are found in water from 2′ deep to hundreds of feet deep. Most are taken by anglers fishing with fresh cut or live bait, though they will fall for a lure on occasion. Sharks will even take a fly. They grow large and are fantastic sport.
Top Florida inshore game fish
The state of Florida offers visitors a wide variety of angling opportunities. One of the most enjoyable aspects of fishing in Florida is the number of species that are available year-round. This article will list the top 8 Florida inshore game fish.
Tarpon did not get their nickname “the Silver King”, without merit. They are found along the entire coast of Florida on both sides of the state as they migrate north from the Keys. Tarpon are most often targeted by anglers sight casting, whether it be in the Florida Keys, or to milling fish in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
Tarpon grow very large, averaging 75 pounds and growing to well over 200 pounds. They are caught by anglers in the Florida Keys starting in March. The further north in the state one goes, the later the fishing season. Most anglers consider June and July to be prime times throughout the state.
As mentioned above, most tarpon are caught by anglers sight fishing. This results in an incredibly exciting fishing opportunity! It is rare to be able to cast to fish that weigh over 100 pounds using spinning tackle or fly tackle. Most spin anglers use live baits such as mullet, bait fish, large shrimps, and crabs. Many anglers consider tarpon fishing the ultimate challenge! It is hard to disagree with that assessment.
Snook are number two on the list of the top 8 Florida inshore game fish. They grow very large, take artificial lures and live bait, fight hard, and leap high out of the water. Snook are very similar in habits to freshwater largemouth bass. They are structure oriented and are normally caught around docks, seawalls, mangrove shorelines, oyster bars, bridges and other structures. Snook are found in the southern two thirds of the state.
Snook have a distinct seasonal migration. This is true on both coasts of Florida. They spend their winters in the creeks, rivers, and residential canals. They can tolerate absolute freshwater. As it warms up, they migrate into the bays to feed. By summer, snook are schooled up in the passes and inlets as well as out on the beaches. This is part of their spawning ritual. After summer, the process reverses itself.
Snook will readily take artificial lures such as plugs and jigs. It is very exciting watching a large snook blowup on a top water plug! Subsurface plugs are very effective as well. Soft plastic baits whether fished on a jig head or on a special hook take plenty of fish, too. Weedless spoons will fool snook on the shallow grass flats.
Many snook are taken by anglers using live bait, and in many cases the trophy fish. Top live baits include mullet, pogies, pilchards, pin fish, grunts, threadfin herring, and live shrimp. Chumming with live pilchards is a deadly technique. Anglers catch many many baits and then toss live unhooked baits out to attract the snook.
Redfish are an extremely popular inshore game fish. I have them number three on my list of the top 8 Florida inshore game fish. Redfish are found throughout the state. Most of the state of Florida has excellent redfish habitat. Reds prefer large shallow bodies of water with a mixture of grass and sand bottom with oyster bars and mangrove shorelines.
Anglers in the Northeast part of Florida do well catching reds in the title creeks. Moving south, mosquito Lagoon and Banana River offer anglers the chance for trophy redfish. The Everglades, Charlotte Harbor, and Tampa Bay are huge estuaries with countless acres of prime redfish habitat. The entire coastline of Florida from north of Tampa to Alabama offers excellent fishing for redfish.
Redfish are often found in shallow water
Redfish are found most often on shallow grass flats. They have an inferior mouth, which means it is on the underside of the fish behind the nose. This makes them perfect for routing in the grass, sand, and mud for crustaceans. While shrimp and crabs are their primary diet, reds will most certainly feed on bait fish as well.
Redfish are often times found in large schools, particularly in the fall. The water can actually turn red when a school of large redfish moves through in clear water. These fish can be fussy on the shallow flats in a stealthy approach is required. Weedless spoons, soft plastics on a light jig head, and live bait are all productive.
18) Speckled trout
Speckled trout are again found throughout the entire state. They might be the most popular fish in Florida and in the South. The only reason I have them number four on my list of the top 8 Florida inshore game fish is that they are not known for their terrific fight when hooked. Speckled trout are beautiful fish, aggressive, plentiful, and fantastic eating.
Live shrimp are a top bait for anglers targeting speckled trout. Many a speckled trout has fallen prey to a live shrimp dangled beneath a noisy popping cork. This is an old method that continues to produce to this day. Shrimp can also be free lined in deeper water. Trout are found most often on the open grass flats, but will drop down into deeper holes and channels if the water dips below 60°. Live pin fish, grunts, pilchards, and finger mullet are also productive live baits.
The number one artificial lure for anglers targeting speckled trout is the jig and grub combo. This is a very effective lore that is versatile and cost-effective. One quarter ounce jig heads are the most popular as most of the trout are caught in waters between 3 feet deep and 10 feet deep. A soft plastic body of some sort, be it a shrimp, paddle tail, shad tail, or jerk worm is then adorned onto the jig.
Other artificial lures will certainly produce speckled trout as well. Top water plugs fished on a high tide first thing in the morning or in the evening will catch some trophy trout. Suspending plugs are deadly on trout as they hang seemingly helpless in the middle of the water column. Gold spoons can also work well for trout in open water.
19) Jack crevalle
Jack crevalle are number five on my list of the top 8 Florida inshore game fish. The only downside to jacks as far as the fight is concerned is that they seldom jump. Otherwise, they are right up there with the top game fish in the world. Jacks have broadsides and deeply forked tales and pull incredibly hard. They school up in large numbers which often times as to their competitiveness and aggressiveness.
Often times, jacks will be seen foraging on the surface. This is great fun and very exciting! As long as the bait or lure remotely resembles the forage that the jacks are feeding on, a bite is almost a guarantee. Plugs, jigs, spoons, and soft plastic baits are all productive lures when targeting jack crevalle.
Live bait will produce jacks as well. However, it is so much fun catching them on artificial lures that most anglers targeting jacks do so using lures or even a fly rod. Jacks are found along the coastlines and in the passes, inlets, and bays in the warmer months. In the cooler months, they often times move into the same canals in creeks as snook. Anglers can catch them blind casting while trolling plugs is a great way to locate fish.
Pompano do not grow very large, but put up a terrific fight for their size. They are also considered one of the finest eating fish on the planet. Due to the fact that they don’t grow very large, I have them ranked as number seven on my list of the top 8 Florida inshore game fish.
Pompano are found in the surf, passes and inlets, and inshore bays throughout the state. Many are caught by anglers fishing off of Florida beaches using shrimp or sand fleas as bait. Anglers and boats catch them on shrimp as well. However, most anglers and boats targeting pompano use small jigs. Pompano have small mouse and feet on the bottom. A jig bouncing along closely mimics the crustaceans that they feed on.
Bluefish are no stranger to northern anglers. Here in Florida, we get a smaller version as a average between one and 5 pounds. However, they have the same tenacity and aggressive tendencies as their northern cousins. Bluefish are usually found in schools. They are also quite aggressive, and will often times displace other fish in the area. It is not uncommon to experience multiple hookups when encountering a school of bluefish.
Most bluefish are caught by anglers using artificial lures. The motion, speed, and flash of a lure will excite and attract bluefish. Plugs, jigs, and spoons are all very effective. Live bait such as shrimp and small bait fish will produce on the flats. Anglers surf fishing and fishing from peers and bridges do well using fresh fish as cut bait. Bluefish have very sharp teeth and anglers fishing for them will experience lost lures and hooks. Bluefish are #8 on my list of top 8 Florida inshore game fish.