Fishing for the Top 25 Florida game fish
This article focuses on fishing for the top 25 Florida game fish species, featuring some of the best female anglers! Florida is known as the sports fishing capital of the world and offers anglers the opportunity to catch a wide variety of freshwater and saltwater game fish.
The list of the top 25 Florida game fish is in no particular order. For the most part, it will list the fish species that are most abundant and available to more anglers. This in no way diminishes or is a reflection of the attributes at the game fish towards the bottom of the list. Enjoy the pictures of the lady anglers in action! Anglers should check the FWC website for current fishing regulations. There are links to more extensive articles for most species.
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.
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.
Top inshore saltwater Florida game fish
Tarpon, also known as the Silver King, are an incredible game fish. They grow to well over 200 pounds and can be caught using a variety of live and artificial baits as well as on fly. Tarpon can be caught in deeper water but from a game fish standpoint, it is much more challenging and exciting to target them in shallow water.
Tarpon can be caught in the state of Florida all year long. In the wintertime, they are found in the southernmost part of the state, the Florida Keys in particular. As it warms up, tarpon migrate up both coasts and can be caught throughout the summer.
Sight fishing for tarpon is very exciting. There are very few fishing opportunities in the world were anglers can sight cast to fish that approach 200 pounds with spinning or fly tackle. The tarpon’s habits of milling about in schools in shallow water and surfacing in schools in deeper water provide this opportunity.
Many anglers consider tarpon fishing the ultimate challenge. About one in 10 tarpon that takes a bait or lure is actually landed. Tarpon have very hard and bony mouths in their practice of leaping multiple times and shaking their head violently results in most of the fish tossing the hook. However, “jumping” a tarpon can be just as memorable as landing one!
Fishing for juvenile tarpon
Juvenile tarpon are great fun as well. They put on all of the acrobatic activities without the need to battle one for a long time. The same inshore tackle used for other species works well. In fact, many juvenile tarpon are caught by anglers fishing for other species. These smaller tarpon are almost always found in the backwater areas.
Snook are the premier saltwater inshore game fish in Florida. They are very similar in habits to largemouth bass. Snook are ambush predators with very large mouths that can inhale large prey easily. They are a tropical species that is temperature sensitive and inhabit the southern half of the state.
Snook have a very distinct migration pattern. In the cooler months, they are found in rivers, creeks, and residential canals where they escape the harsh conditions of the open flats. As the weather warms, they move out of these areas and scatter out over the inshore bays and flats. By May, most fish are out in the passes and inlets and along the beaches as they spawn. As the weather cools, the pattern reverses itself.
Snook can be caught using a wide variety of artificial lures and live baits. Many of the best lures were originally designed for largemouth bass. Top water and shallow diving plugs, jigs with a soft plastic trailer, weedless spoons, and spinnerbaits are just a few of the lures that will catch snook. Live baits are also productive including shrimp and bait fish.
Snook can be very challenging. That translates to “frustrating” at times. They can be notoriously finiky. However, when they turn on to feed, the action can be fantastic. One of the most reliable times to catch snook is in the summer when they school up in the passes and linlets. Deep water, current flow, structure, and bait will attract and hold fish. Live bait fished on heavy tackle works best in this situation.
While many anglers seek trophy snook, there is great action to be had on the “schoolie” sized fish. These are more apt to hit artificial lures and can be pursued by anglers using fairly light tackle. This is very similar to bass fishing as anglers work shorelines with plugs or jigs. Of curse, live bait such as shrimp and bait fish will produce as well.
Docks are prime snook-holding structure throughout the state. Florida is fairly developed and snook have adapted to living with humans. Docks are often found in deeper water. They offer shade, structure, safety, and forage. Docks with current flow are good. In the winter, docks in the back ends of coves can hold schools of snook. Night fishing around lighted docks can be very productive.
Redfish are another very popular saltwater inshore game fish, perhaps second only to the mighty snook. Reds are more widely distributed, being found throughout the entire state. Reds are found in a variety of environments, but are most notably sought after by anglers fishing shallow water.
Redfish have an inferior mouth which means that it is basically on the bottom of the head pointing downward. This gives anglers a great indication of how it feeds. Reds love crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs and their hard nose and under slung mouth are designed for rooting them out in the bottom. Oyster bars and flats are prime habitat for redfish.
They are also found in the passes and along the beaches. Redfish school up in large numbers in the late summer. Many of these are oversize fish, also known as bull redfish. They are well over the maximum size limit of 27 inches. Jacksonville in particular is well known for holding schools of these over-sized redfish.
Anglers can catch redfish on both live bait and artificial lures. The op live bait is a nice, big shrimp. Redfish love crustaceans! Shrimp are available at bait shops year round. Crabs are popular in some areas, particularly in northeast Florida.
The top two artificial lures used for redfish are weedless spoons and soft plastic baits. A 1/2 ounce gold Johnson Silver Minnow spoon is a proven lure. Spoons cast well and run in shallow water, they are terrific search baits. Soft plastic baits can be fished quite shallow and weedless on special hoohs. Anglers also fish them on a light jig head.
4) Jack crevalle
Jack crevalle are the bar room brawlers of the inshore waters. They are mean and nasty with broad sides and forked tails and put up a tremendous fight. Some anglers do not rate them as highly because they are not great eating. However, from a game fish point of view, they do everything except jump. They are found throughout the entire state of Florida.
Jacks are an aggressive, schooling fish. Seldom is one found all alone. They can often times be seen foraging actively on the surface. Jacks will hit artificial lures and flies with reckless abandon. They can certainly be caught by anglers using live bait as well. They are found in the inshore waters, creeks and canals, passes and inlets, and out on the beaches.
Jack crevalle can be temperature sensitive. Prolonged cold snaps can actually kill them. For this reason, when cool weather descends on Florida, jacks often times move up into rivers, creeks, and residential canals. This is a great time to target them as a are confined in a relatively small space and easier to locate. It can also be a time of year when weather conditions make it difficult to fish the open flats. This makes fishing for jacks in the winter a great alternative.
Jacks can be found near inlets and out on the beaches in the warmer months. Their location depends primarily on the bait. The old adage, “find the bait, find the fish”, certainly applies to jacks. They won’t always be seen on the surface and will hold on deep structure.
Jacks will take just about any artificial lure or fly when they are feeding aggressively. Even when not seen on the surface, fast moving erratic lures and presentations are the best for hunting down jacks. Lures allow anglers to cover more water than they can with bait. Many jacks are hooked by anglers working shorelines for snook and redfish.
5) Spanish mackerel
Spanish mackerel are a terrific, and often times underrated game fish. They are fast, aggressive, beautiful, hit lures, baits, and flies, and taste great when eaten fresh. What more can an angler look for in a game fish? Spanish mackerel are another schooling fish that are usually found in bunches. Mackerel are found in the inshore bays, passes and inlets, and out on the beaches throughout the state.
Spring and fall are generally the best time to target Spanish mackerel. They prefer water temperatures but between the high 60s in mid 70s. They often migrate along with the schools of bait fish. While mackerel feed primarily on bait fish, they can be caught by anglers using shrimp as well. Any artificial lure such as a spoon, plug, or jig that mimics a bait fish will produce Spanish mackerel.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Spanish mackerel fishing is that it is oftentimes a visual experience. Mackerel can often be found working just off the Florida beaches as they feed voraciously on the surface. Small bait fish such as pilchards and glass minnows along with herring are the normal forage. Anglers targeting Spanish mackerel will bump up the monofilament leader to 40 pounds or 50 pounds or use a short piece of wire to help reduce cutoffs.
Anglers can also catch Spanish mackerel drifting the inshore bays, passes, and inlets. Drifting with a live shrimp or bait fish will produce as will casting artificial lures such as jigs, spoons, and plugs. These areas concentrate bait and have stronger current flow.
Trolling is a great way to locate them when they are not feeding on the surface. This can be done both inshore over the flats and outside in the open ocean or Gulf. The key in open water is finding large schools of bait. Inshore artificial reefs are also Spanish mackerel hot spots.
Plenty of Spanish mackerel are caught by anglers casting lures and drifting bait on the grass flats. Generally speaking, submerged grass beds in slightly deeper water will attract mackerel. Flats close to the passes are usually best.
6) Speckled trout
Speckled trout are not the greatest fighting fish in the sea, however they are an extremely popular game fish throughout the entire state of Florida. Their official name is spotted sea trout. This species is beautiful, plentiful, can be caught using just about every angling method, and is fantastic eating.
Speckled trout are most often caught in the inshore waters over submerge grass beds. Speckled trout and grass just go together. The submerged grass beds hold shrimp and other crustaceans along with bait fish. Trout will school up in decent numbers, usually of fish of the same size, over these flats.
Anglers drifting the flats while casting artificial lures and live bait. A 3 inch to 4 inch grub on a 1/4 ounce jig head is the top artificial bait for speckled trout.There are a ton of soft plastic baits that are effective lures for spotted sea trout. The Gulp! line of lures is extremely effective as it combines the action of the lure with scent.
Undoubtedly, a live shrimp, usually fished under a noisy cork, is the top live bait. Larger trout will take a live pin fish, grunts, or mullet. Trout will be at times found out on the beaches and in the passes and inlets.
Bluefish are very familiar to anglers who have spent any time saltwater fishing in the Northeast United States. They are extremely aggressive and will actually regurgitate when full just so they can feed some more. Florida bluefish are generally not as large, but have the same disposition. They are found throughout the state and 5 pounds is a good fish.
Most Florida bluefish are caught by anglers targeting other species. They are found in the same types of spots as are Spanish mackerel. Deep grass flats, passes and inlets, and the inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean are were most bluefish will be found. Like mackerel, they can often be seen feeding on the surface.
Florida bluefish are an aggressive, schooling fish. They prefer a fast-moving, erratic artificial lures. Jigs, spoons, and plugs are the top baits. Anglers will sometimes add a short piece of wire leader to help reduce cutoffs from the toothy bluefish. Smaller blues are good eating when put on ice immediately and prepare that evening.
The sameequipment used by anglers for normal inshore fishing will work fine for anglers fishing for bluefish in Florida. With a 2-3 pound average, light spinning tackle is the best choice. Obviously, they are also great fun for anglers who prefer a fly rod.
Permit are the most prized game fish species on the flats in the Florida Keys. There extremely spooky and difficult to catch and water barely deep enough to cover their backs. They normally travel around in singles or very small numbers. Anglers cast live baits such as shrimp or crabs towards fish. A permit on the fly is considered to be a terrific accomplishment.
Fortunately, permit are also found offshore. They will hover in large schools over wrecks and artificial reefs. They are much easier to catch in this deeper water. A small live crab is considered to be the top bait, but they will sometimes hit shrimp and other small artificial lures.
Bonefish are a fantastic saltwater game fish. The “ghost of the flats” as they are called are found in the United States in the Florida Keys as they live in tropical waters. Bonefish are most often caught in very shallow water as they move with the tide in search of shrimp and crustaceans. As with redfish, bones have an inferior mouth which makes them well-suited for routing out forage on the bottom.
One of the most satisfying and challenging aspects of targeting bonefish is that much of it is visual. Bone fishing is as much hunting as it is fishing as anglers prowl the flats while stalking their prey. Once a fish or school of fish is seen, the lure, bait, or fly is cast out in front of the fish in hopes of a take.
Many anglers target bonefish on fly rods, and this is great sport. Bonefish are extremely fast and once hooked will dump the spool, whether it be spin or fly. Small flies that imitate crabs and shrimp work best. Anglers casting artificial lures use small buck tail jigs. Live shrimp and crabs are also productive.
Top Florida freshwater game fish
10) Largemouth bass
Largemouth bass are arguably the most popular game fish in the United States. Florida takes second to no other state when it comes to size and numbers of largemouth bass. In fact, most of the larger bass stocked in Texas, California, and other states are Florida strain largemouth bass. They grow larger than any other largemouth bass in the world.
Florida is flat was very little elevation. This result in countless shallow lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams. This is perfect habitat for largemouth bass. They prefer shallow, weedy bodies of water with structure such as docks and fallen timber. Largemouth bass prefer waters with a sluggish current. Also, the warmth of Florida offers a longer growing season than any other state. For all of these reasons, Florida offers anglers excellent largemouth bass fishing.
While bass fishing can be productive all year, most anglers target trophy bass in the cooler months when the large females are on the beds. Depending on the part of the state that one is fishing, this can range from December to February. This also coincides with the dry season, resulting in lower water levels in lakes and rivers. This tends to concentrate bass and make them easier to locate and catch.
Anglers reading this might be surprised to see bluegill so high on the list of Florida game fish. However, they meet all the criteria when matched with the proper tackle. Inch for inch, they fight as hard as any other species. Bluegill are found in just about every freshwater body throughout the entire state.
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Just as with largemouth bass, warm, shallow, weedy bodies of water are the perfect habitat for bluegill. With the 12 month growing season and the abundance of food, bluegill fishing throughout the state of Florida is terrific. Anglers casting lures and using live worms and crickets on ultralight tackle enjoy great action. Light fly rods are great fun as well.
Crappie are an extremely popular freshwater game fish. They are also known in Florida as “speckled perch” or “specks”. While they might not put up the greatest battle, they are fun on ultralight spinning tackle. Crappie are also fantastic eating and this is certainly part of their appeal in popularity. They are also the largest of the pan fish family. Crappie are found throughout the state in lakes, ponds, and slow moving rivers.
Crappie primarily feed on minnows. Therefore the best baits to catch them on our live minnows and artificial lures that imitate small minnows. Curly tail jigs, tiny plugs, and small spinner baits are the top artificial lures used to catch crappie in Florida.
Catfish are gaining in popularity and being recognized and appreciated more as a game fish throughout the country, and Florida is no exception. Lakes and rivers in Florida, particularly the northern portion, offer anglers the opportunity to catch flathead catfish, channel catfish, and blue catfish. Flathead catfish and blue catfish grow quite large, approaching 100 pounds. Channel catfish are smaller, yet much more widely distributed.
Catfish have obtained an unfair reputation over the years for being scavengers. In reality, most catfish prefer to forage on live prey. They are opportunistic feeders that will feed on bait fish, crawfish, worms, and just about anything that can provide a source of protein. Of course, cut baits and stink baits produce catfish as well. Most anglers targeting catfish use medium conventional outfits and fish right on the bottom.
Top near shore Florida game fish
14) King mackerel
King mackerel are one of the fastest fish that swims. They are found in the inshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico off of both Florida coasts. They come in close to shore at times, often within a mile or so of the beach. This is a great advantage to anglers fishing in smaller boats as they have the ability to catch a large fish so close to shore.
King mackerel, or king fish, grow to over 50 pounds. They are very aggressive and are caught on live and artificial baits. Most king fish are in fact caught by anglers trolling. Large, live baits are slow trolled to catch trophy king mackerel. Anglers seeking more numbers of school sized fish do well using spoons and plugs. King fish are most often found over reefs and hard bottom areas in 30 feet of water to 60 feet of water.
15) False albacore
False albacore are a fantastic game fish that can be found just off the beaches along both coast of Florida. They are also known as “Little tunny” and “bonito”. False albacore are a pelagic species that is found found in schools. They are incredibly fast and usually make a long initial run that will test an angler’s drag. False albacore are generally not considered very good to eat.
Most anglers target false albacore are looking for “breaking fish”. These are schools of fish that are foraging aggressively on the surface. This action can be seen quite a distance on a calm day. False albacore will actually turn the water white as they terrorize schools of helpless bait fish. Birds are usually seen working overhead as well.
The key when sight casting to false albacore is to determine the direction their moving and set up an intersection point. While live bait can be used, especially to chum them up, most anglers prefer artificial lures or flies. Small spoons, jigs, and plugs along with flies that imitate small bait fish work best. False albacore often times feed on glass minnows and can be fussy when it comes to the size of the offering.
Cobia are another popular Florida game fish. They can be found just about anywhere in the state. Anglers can catch cobia in 2 foot of water on the flats as well as over a wreck in hundreds of feet of water in the Atlantic Ocean. However, most cobia are caught in the inshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico in water between 20 feet and 50 feet deep. They are delicious eating and grow to over 100 pounds.
Cobia are famous for their odd habit of swimming right at or just below the surface. This makes it possible for anglers sitting high up in the bridge to spot them and sight cast to the fish. This is great sport and is done quite often up in the Panhandle of Florida. Cobia also have an affinity for wrecks, artificial reefs, and ledges and will often hold over the structures.
Once located, cobia are not particularly difficult to catch. Top baits include live pin fish, mullet, large live shrimp and other live bait fish. Top artificial lures include jigs with a long plastic trailer as well as plugs and spoons.
Sharks are great fun in the shallow inshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. They have saved the day for many a charter boat captain when action on the other species was slow. There are quite a few different species of sharks available and anglers desiring to keep a short need to know the current Florida fishing regulations.
Sharks are generally fairly easy to catch. Many anglers actually consider them a nuisance when targeting grouper and snapper on the offshore wrecks. Basically, anchoring up tide of a likely area and putting some chum in the water will draw sharks to the stern in short order. A chunk of cut bait on a large hook with a wire leader is all that’s required. Anglers need to match the size of the tackle to the size of the shark being targeted.
Florida bottom fish
Grouper are king when it comes to bottom fishing in Florida. Anglers come from all over the country to sample this hard fighting and fantastic eating fish. There are multiple species of grouper, with gag grouper, red grouper, black grouper, scamp, and Goliath grouper being the most commonly caught. Most grouper average 5 to 10 pounds, with Goliath grouper growing very large, well over 300 pounds.
Grouper are a structure oriented fish that are found on the bottom around ledges, wrecks, reefs, and hard bottom areas. Very seldom will grouper be found over sand bottom. Most grouper fishing is done in water between 50 feet deep and 200 feet deep. However, gag grouper can be caught much shallower than that, even in the inshore bays.
The vast majority of grouper are landed by anglers using live or cut bait fish right on the bottom. Any live bait fish such as a pin fish, grunts, sardine, mullet, or herring will produce grouper. Top frozen baits are Spanish sardines and squid. In the wintertime, particularly on the West Coast, anglers do well trolling for grouper on hard bottom areas using large deep diving plugs.
Snapper are a close second to grouper when it comes to popularity for anglers bottom fishing in Florida. There are quite a few varieties of snapper with red snapper, mangrove snapper, yellowtail snapper, and mutton snapper being the most popular. All species of snapper are fantastic eating.
Snapper are found in a variety of sizes. Small mangrove snapper between 6 inches and 10 inches are common in the inshore waters around structure and on the flats. As they move offshore, specimens to 10 pounds are landed. Yellowtail snapper average around a foot with “flags” to 5 pounds being landed offshore. Mutton snapper and red snapper are larger, growing over 20 pounds.
Most snapper are caught by anglers using some type of natural bait, whether it be live or frozen. Every angler has a favorite bait for their favorite snapper species. Cut squid, frozen sardines, small live bait fish, live shrimp, scaled sardines, threadfin herring, and more will all produce snappers.
Amberjack, also known as “AJ’s” and “reef donkeys” are a large, hard fighting game fish that is found on the deeper wrecks. They are generally found in water that is fairly deep and like pronounced structure such as wrecks and artificial reefs over natural ledges. Amberjack are often times found in schools. Many consider them very good to eat.
Amberjack are most often caught over wrecks by anglers using heavy tackle and vertically fishing with live bait fish. Amberjack grow large and pull very hard, thus the need for heavy tackle. Anglers also do well using heavy flutter spoons and the deep water.
Florida deep water game fish
Sailfish are a top game fish found in the offshore waters of Florida. The Gulf Stream turns in very close to the Florida coast from the Keys north to about Stuart. This is the prime area for anglers targeting sailfish in Florida. However, they can be found in the deeper waters off of the entire Florida coast.
Most to sailfish are caught by anglers off of the Florida coast by either trolling or live lining live bait fish, with goggle eyes being the top bait. South Florida anglers have developed a special technique using kites to catch sailfish along with other species. Anglers can sometimes sight cast to sailfish with live baits as well.
Dolphin fish, also known as “dorado” and “mahi-mahi”, are arguably the most popular open water Atlantic Ocean species. They are beautiful fish that are very fast, fight hard, and are fantastic eating. While dolphin occasionally come in close to shore, most are found in the deep blue waters in water deeper than 150 feet. They are found on both coast but are more prevalent in the Atlantic Ocean.
Many anglers troll for dolphin as they are found in open waters. They are famous for relating to weed lines, patches of weeds, and any other structure such as a board or even a bucket that might be found floating in the water. Dolphin have an unusual practice of following hooked fish to the boat. Therefore, once a fish is hooked it is allowed to stay in the water at the stern and give the other anglers a chance for multiple hookups.
Tuna are a highly prize and terrific game fish found in the offshore waters of Florida. While the Gulf of Mexico does produce some smaller yellowfin and blackfin tuna, the vast majority of tuna landed by Florida anglers are done so in the Keys and in the waters and the Atlantic Ocean off of the East Coast of Florida. Tuna simply prefer the deeper water of the Atlantic Ocean. Tuna put up a tremendous fight and are one of the fastest fish in the sea. They are also highly prized as table fare.
Tuna are caught in two basic ways, trolling and free lining. Anglers often use a double barrel approach and trolled to locate the fish, then once found they will stop and chum and bring them up to the back of the boat. This way they can enjoy the strike as well is fighting the fish on lighter tackle. Yellowfin tuna are the most highly desired with blackfin tuna right behind.
Wahoo are one of the fastest fish in the sea! They are also the largest member of the mackerel family. While they are found in the Gulf of Mexico well offshore, South Florida is the prime area to catch them. Wahoo are also fantastic eating!
Most anglers associate wahoo with high speed trolling, and rightfully so. Trolling skirts and plugs at speeds up to 12 knots will allow anglers to cover a lot of water as well as catch some trophy wahoo. Full moons in the cooler months are the prime time to fish for wahoo.
Swordfish are taken by anglers fishing very deep with squids and other baits. Both marlin fishing and swordfish are very specialized forms of angling that require great skill and a fair amount of money and special equipment.
In conclusion, this article on fishing for the top 25 Florida species lists the best species and how and where to catch them. What is your favorite Florida game fish?