The Gulf of Mexico is home to thousands of species of fish, ranging from bottom fish red snapper to fast moving Cobia to everything in between. Here is a regulatory list of species you can fish for off Florida’s Emerald Coast.
Deep-bodied amberjack; sometimes darker in coloration; front of soft dorsal and of anal fins high and elongated; body more flattened than banded rudderfish or greater amberjack; no scutes. Similar fish: other Seriola. Normally found: wide-ranging in OFFSHORE waters, not a common catch; young are associated with Sargassum. Size: usually less than 20 pounds.
Black Drum (Bay Fishing)
High arched back; 10 to 14 pairs of chin barbels; gray or black colored body in adults; young have 4 to 6 vertical bars; has cobblestone like teeth capable of crushing oysters; scales large. Similar fish: red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus; the vertical bars on juvenile black drum are somewhat similar to those on sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus; and spadefish, Chaetodipterus faber. Normally found: INSHORE fish common to bays and lagoons; bottom dweller often found around oyster beds; also OFFSHORE. Size: common to 30 pounds. Remarks: largest member of the drum family; spawns nearshore in winter and early spring; feeds on oysters, mussels, oysters, crabs, shrimp, and occasionally fish; longevity to 35 or more years.
Olive or gray body coloration with black blotches and brassy spots; gently rounded preopercle; (see gag, next page) Similar fish: gag, M. microlepis; yellowfin grouper, M. venenosa. Normally found: OFFSHORE species; adults associated with rocky bottoms, reefs, and drop off walls in water over 60 feet deep; young may occur INSHORE in shallow water. Size: common to 40 pounds, may attain weights exceeding 100 pounds; no Florida record because of identity confusion with gag, which are mistakenly called “black grouper.” Remarks: spawns between May and August; protogynous hermaphrodites, young predominately female, transforming into males as they grow larger; larger individuals generally in greater depths; feeds on fish and squid.
Pectoral fin moderately long, reaching point below beginning of 2nd dorsal fin; 2nd dorsal fin dusky; all finlets dusky, with white edges; dorsal finlets sometimes turn yellowish at base after death; a broad, brownish stripe along upper part of side; eye large; 19 to 25 gill rakers (usually 21 to 23) on 1st arch. Size: to 1 m (3.25 ft.) and 19 kg (42 lbs.). Normally found: near shore and offshore.
Dark bluish gray (young paler) above, whitish below; distinctive whitish stripe on flank; inside tip of pectoral fin conspicuously black; dorsal fin, anal fin, and lower lobe of caudal fin also black-tipped in young, fading with growth; 1st dorsal fin begins above axil of pectoral fin; snout long, almost v-shaped from below; no mid dorsal ridge; upper and lower teeth serrated, nearly symmetrical. Size: Up to 2.5 m (8.25 ft.). Normally found: principally pelagic, but often comes inshore in large schools, particularly in association with Spanish mackerel; frequently the most common shark (especially young) in clear-water cuts and along beaches in Florida and Bahamas. Similar species: in the Spinner Shark the 1st dorsal fin begins above a point behind the pectoral fin, and the snout is longer.
Blue Marlin (Sport Fishing)
Color cobalt blue on top shading to silvery white on bottom; upper jaw elongated in form of a spear; dorsal fin pointed at front end; pectoral fin and anal fin pointed; lateral line reticulated (interwoven like a net), difficult to see in large specimens; no dark spots on dorsal fin; body covered with imbedded scales ending in one or two sharp points. Similar fish: white marlin, T. albidus (white has rounded dorsal at front end, rounded tip of pectoral and anal fins, and spots on the dorsal fin). Normally found: OFFSHORE, a bluewater fish. Size: largest of the Atlantic marlins, common to 11 feet, known to exceed 2,000 pounds. Remarks: all of trophy size are females; males do not exceed 300 pounds; make trans-Atlantic migrations; spawning procedures unknown; feeds on squid and pelagic fishes, including blackfin tuna and frigate mackerel.
Color light olive to bluish green above, silvery gray to golden below; frequently black spot on operculum; readily distinguished from crevalle jack by lack of a dark blotch on the pectoral fin; tail tips blackish. Similar fish: bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix; other Caranx. Normally found: juveniles found OFFSHORE; adults NEARSHORE in schools, but something ranging INSHORE as well. Size: usually less than 1 pound (11 inches). Remarks: matures by 9 to 10 inches; spawns OFFSHORE from January through August; young form schools associated with floating objects, and have been observed living inside the bell of jellyfish; adults feed on fish, shrimp, and squid.
Color blue or greenish blue on back, sides silvery; mouth large; teeth prominent, sharp, and compressed; dorsal and anal fins nearly the same size; scales small; lateral line almost straight. Similar fish: blue runner, C. crysos. Normally found: young usually INSHORE spring and summer, moving OFFSHORE to join adults fall and winter; strong migration of northeast Atlantic stock to Florida east coast in winter. Size: most west coast catches under 3 pounds, much larger on east coast. Remarks: travels in large schools, following schools of baitfish; cannibalistic; all members of a given school about the same size; spawning occurs OFFSHORE in spring and summer.
Broadly widened head in the shape of a shovel; only slight indentation of anal fin; front of head not notched at midline; gray or grayish-brown in color. Similar fish: other hammerhead sharks. Normally found: INSHORE species found in bays and estuaries. Size: commonly 3 to 4 feet. Remarks: matures at about 3 feet in length and bears 6 to 12 young at a time; feeds chiefly on crabs and other crustaceans.
Long, slim fish with broad depressed head; lower jaw projects past upper jaw; dark lateral stripe extends through eye to tail; first dorsal fin comprised of 7 to 9 free spines; when young, has conspicuous alternating black and white horizontal stripes. Similar fish: remora, Eceneis naucrates. Normally found: both INSHORE and NEARSHORE inhabitating inlets, bays, and among mangroves; frequently seen around buoys, pilings, and wrecks. Size: common to 30 pounds. Remarks: spawns in spring and early summer; feeds on crabs, squid, and small fish.
Color bluish-green to greenish-gold back and silvery or yellowish belly; soft dorsal and anal fins almost identical in size; prominent black spot on operculum (gill cover); black spot at the base of each pectoral fin; no scales on throat. Similar fish: other Caranx. Normally found: common to both INSHORE waters and the open sea. Size: usually 3 to 5 pounds. Remarks: tolerates a wide range of salinities; schools corner a pod of baitfish at the surface and feed with commotion that can be seen for great distances; feeds mainly on small fish; peak spawning occurs OFFSHORE from March through September.
Bright greenish blue above, yellow on sides, with capability of flashing purple, chartreuse, and a wide range of other colors; body tapers sharply from head to tail; irregular blue or golden blotches scattered over sides; anterior profile of head on adult males is nearly vertical; head of females more sloping; the single dark dorsal fin extends from just behind the head to the tail; anal fin margin concave and extending to tail. Similar fish: pompano dolphin, C. equisetis; the pompano dolphin has squarish tooth patch on tongue (oval tooth patch on dolphin) and fewer dorsal rays (48 to 55 vs. 55 to 65 on dolphin). Normally found: OFFSHORE in warm waters. Size: common to 30 pounds. Remarks: one of the fastest-growing fish, thought to live no more than 5 years; swimming speed estimated at 50 knots; spawns in warm oceanic currents throughout much of the year; young found in sargassum weed; feeds on flying fish and squid.
Brownish gray in color with dark worm-like markings on sides; strong serrated spur at bottom margin of preopercle, less noticeable in large specimens; fins dark, with anal and caudal having white margin; often confused with black grouper; most noticeable differences are brassy spots on black grouper; tail of gag is slightly concave, black grouper’s tail is square; gag has white margin on anal and caudal fins, black does not; under 10 pounds, gag’s spur on preopercle is distinctive, where black is gently rounded. Similar fish: black grouper, M. bonaci. Normally found: adults OFFSHORE over rocks and reefs; juveniles occur in seagrass beds INSHORE. Size: common to 25 pounds. Remarks: forms spawning aggregations in water no shallower than 120 feet in Middle Grounds area, January through March; current research to identify similar aggregations off the Atlantic coast is ongoing; young gags are predominantly female, transforming into males as they grow larger; feeds on fish and squid.
Entirely olive-gray; dorsal and anal fins marbled; caudal fin lobes elongate in large adults; one or more enlarged scales behind gill opening; 26 to 29 dorsal fin rays; 23 to 26 anal fin rays. Young: large darker saddles on back (these saddles sometimes persist in adults); blue spots and short blue lines in dorsal fin and on upper half of body, becoming white below and in anal fin; upper rim of eye blue. Normally found: hardbottom, reefs, ledges.
Dark stripe (variably present) extends from nose to in front of dorsal fin and “lights up” when fish is in feeding mode; no scutes; soft dorsal base less than twice the length of the anal fin base. Similar fish: other Seriola. Normally found: OFFSHORE species associated with rocky reefs, debris, and wrecks, typically in 60-240 feet of water; sometimes caught NEARSHORE in south Florida; juveniles associate with floating objects and may occur in water less than 30 feet deep. Size: common to 40 pounds.
Gulf Flounder (Bay Fishing)
Body color brown, its shade depending on color of bottom, with numerous spots and blotches; 3 prominent eye-like spots forming a triangle; one spot on lateral line, one above, one below; numerous white spots scattered over body and fins (albigutta, white spotted); strong canine-like teeth; caudal fin in shape of wedge, its tip in the middle. Similar fish: southern flounder, P. lethostigma (no eye-like spots; color pattern is key to distinguishing the two species). Normally found: INSHORE on sandy or mud bottoms, often ranging into tidal creeks; occasionally caught on NEARSHORE rocky reefs. Size: common to 2 pounds, generally smaller than southern flounder. Remarks: hatches into usual fish form, but right eye migrates overt to left side early in life; a bottom dweller; thought to spawn offshore; feeds on crustaceans and small fishes.
Color of back iridescent bluish green, sides silvery; streamlined body with tapered head; no black pigment on front of the first dorsal fin; lateral line starts high and drops sharply below the second dorsal fin; young fish often have yellowish spots like those of Spanish mackerel. Similar fish: cero, S. regalis; Spanish mackerel, S. maculatus. Normally found: NEARSHORE and OFFSHORE; occasionally taken from piers running into deep water. Size: common to 20 pounds. Remarks: schooling fish that migrates from south Florida waters in winter to more northerly waters in spring; Gulf population thought to be separate from Atlantic population, with considerable mixing in winter from Cape Canaveral past Key West; spawns in mid summer OFFSHORE; feeds on small fish and squid.
Color silvery-pink to reddish with short, irregular pink and yellow lines on its sides; diffuse black spot, about as large as the eye; the dorsal fin centered above the lateral line; outer margin of caudal fin blackish. Similar fish: mutton snapper, L. analis (anal fin rounded in lane snapper, pointed in mutton). Normally found: juveniles INSHORE over grass beds or shallow reefs; adults OFFSHORE; most common in south Florida. Size: usually less than 1 pound. Remarks: spawns March to September, sexually mature at 6 inches; feeds on the bottom, taking crustaceans, mollusks, and fish.
Olive green or brownish back and silver sides; dark band (variably present) extends backward and upward from eye; juveniles have split or wavy bars on sides; proportionately larger eye and deeper body than greater amberjack. Similar fish: other Seriola. Normally found: NEARSHORE and OFFSHORE, apparently living deeper than other Seriola (commonly 180-410 feet deep). Size: usually under 10 pounds. Remarks: believed to spawn offshore; adults eat fish, and squid.
Diagonal, sometimes wavy, dark bars on bare areas on each side of back; 4 to 5 dark spots below pectoral fin; no dark stripes on belly; dorsal fins connected at base; pectoral fin short. Size: to 1 m (3.25 ft.) and 12 kg (26 lbs.), but usually much smaller. Normally found: common offshore, but also occurs regularly in bays and over reefs. Remarks: probably the most common tuna in the w. Atlantic; popular sport fish, it is also used as bait for marlin; occurs in large schools.
Gray, often with a bluish cast; many bronze to yellowish spots, dashes, and other small markings; mouth small, ending below front nostril. Size: to 38 cm (15 in.). Normally found: bay and banks; not on reefs in water less than 60 ft.
Small mouth with incisor-like teeth; distinctive black spot behind the gill cover; body bluish-silver with blue and orange yellow horizontal stripes, yellow fins. Normally found: seagrass beds, bridges, piers, marker pilings, and around natural and artificial reefs; spawn offshore. Size: usually less than 8 in. Remarks: popular live bait, notorious bait stealers
Color brownish red; lining of mouth scarlet orange; blotches on sides in unorganized pattern; second spine of dorsal fin longer than others; pectoral fins longer than pelvic fins; squared off tail; margin of soft dorsal black with white at midfin; black dots around the eyes. Similar fish: nassau grouper, E. striatus. Normally found: bottom dwelling fish associated with hard bottom; juveniles OFFSHORE along with adults greater than 6 years old; NEARSHORE reefs. Size: common to 15 pounds. Remarks: spawns in April and May; prefer water temperatures between 66 and 77 degrees F; undergoes sex change, young individuals female, becoming male as they age, lifespan of at least 25 years; feeds on squid, crustaceans, and fish.
The only American porgy with a rear nostril that is round (not slit-like); head and body silvery red, with many tiny blue spots. Size: to 91 cm (3 ft.). Normally found: deeper part of continental shelf, but young occur in water as shallow as 18 m (60 ft.).
Color pinkish red over entire body, whitish below; long triangular snout; anal fin sharply pointed; no dark lateral spot; red eye. Similar fish: silk snapper, L. vivanus. Normally found: OFFSHORE on the continental shelf, more plentiful off the Panhandle than in south or middle Florida. Size: to 20 pounds Remarks: juveniles occur over sandy or mud bottoms and are often taken in shrimp trawls; adults may live more than 20 years, and attain 35 pounds or more; sexual maturity attained at age 2; spawns June to October; feeds on crustaceans and fish.
Sailfish (Sport Fishing)
Color dark blue on top, brown-blue laterally, silvery white underbelly; upper jaw elongated in form of spear; first dorsal greatly enlarged in the form of a sail, with many black spots, its front squared off, highest at its mid point; pelvic fins very narrow, reaching almost to the anus; body covered with imbedded scales, blunt at end; lateral line curved over pectoral, then straight to base of tail. Similar fish: white marlin, T. albidus, young blue marlin, M. nigricans (spectacular sail-like dorsal of sailfish is most notable difference). Normally found: OFFSHORE species, in south Florida associated with waters near the Gulfstream; off the Panhandle near the 100 fathom line. Size: common to 7 feet. Remarks: rapid growing species, reaching 4 to 5 feet in a single year; swims at speeds up to 50 knots; feeds on the surface or at mid depths on smaller pelagic fishes and squid.
Sand Seatrout (Bay Fishing)
Body and dorsal fins with many dark brown bars and alternating orange and blue horizontal lines; head with many blue lines; preopercular spines very well developed; grouped in 2 radiating clusters with a deep notch between them; upper lobe of caudal fin prolonged in adults. Size: to 30 cm (1 ft.). Normally found: bays, coastal grassy areas, and shallow banks. Remarks: popular as a pan fish despite its small size.
Color light gray or brown; large adults with elongated caudal-fin rays; reddish-brown spots on sides that tend to be grouped into lines; some yellow around corners of mouth. Similar fish: yellowmouth grouper, M. interstitalis. Normally found: NEARSHORE reefs off the northeastern coast, and on OFFSHORE reefs in the Gulf. Size: generally smaller than gags or blacks. Remarks: spawns in late spring; feed on small fish, squid, and crustaceans; undergoes sex transformation from female to male as it becomes older.
Sheepshead (Bay Fishing)
Basic silvery color, with 5 or 6 distinct vertical black bars on sides, not always the same on both sides; prominent teeth, including incisors, molars, and rounded grinders; no barbels on lower jaw; strong and sharp spines on dorsal and anal fins. Similar fish: black drum, Pogonias cromis; Atlantic spadefish, Chaetodipterus faber (black drum have barbels on lower jaw, sheepshead do not; vertical barring on sides of black drum and spadefish disappear as fish mature; spadefish have small, brush-like teeth). Normally found: INSHORE around oyster bars, seawalls and in tidal creeks; moves NEARSHORE in late winter and early spring for spawning, gathering over rocks, artificial reefs, and around navigation markers. Size: INSHORE, 1 to 2 pounds; OFFSHORE, common to 8 pounds. Remarks: feeds on mollusks and crustaceans such as fiddler crabs and barnacles; famed nibblers, prompting the saying that “anglers must strike just before they bite.
Shortfin Mako (Sport Fishing)
Lunate tail with similarly sized lobes; lateral keel at the base of the tail; deep blue back and white underside; underside of sharply pointed snout white; origin of first dorsal entirely behind base of pectoral fins; second dorsal fin slightly in front of anal fin; slender, recurved teeth with smooth edges. Similar fish: white shark, Carcharodon carcharias; longfin mako, Isurus paucus. Normally found: OFFSHORE fish often seen near the surface. Size: commonly 6 to 8 feet (200 to 300 pounds). Remarks: active, strong swimming fish known for leaping out of the water when hooked; feeds on mackerel, tuna, sardines, and some much larger fish.
PROTECTED SPECIES ACT: *Must remain in whole condition until landed ashore (heads & tails intact) # Measured as total length. + Harvest prohibited by or with the use of any multiple hook in conjunction with live or dead natural bait.
Season: March, April, May, June
Color of back green, shading to silver on sides, golden yellow irregular spots above and below lateral line; front of dorsal fin black; lateral line curves gently to base of tail. Similar fish: cero, S. regalis; king mackerel, S. cavalla. Normally found: INSHORE, NEARSHORE, and OFFSHORE, especially over deep grass beds and reefs; absent from north Florida waters in winter. Size: average catch less than 2 pounds (20 inches). Remarks: schooling fish that migrates northward in spring, returning to southerly waters when water temperatures drop below about 70 degrees F; spawns OFFSHORE, spring through summer; feeds on small fish and squid.
Dark gray or green above, with sky-blue tinges shading to silvery and white below; numerous distinct round black spots on back, extending to the dorsal fins and tail; no barbels; no scales on the soft dorsal fin; one or two prominent canine teeth usually present at tip of upper jaw. Similar fish: other seatrout. Normally found: INSHORE and/or NEARSHORE over grass, sand, and sandy mud bottoms; move into slow-moving or still, deep waters in cold weather. Size: common to 4 pounds on west coast, larger on east coast. Remarks: matures during first or second year and spawns INSHORE from March through November, often in association with seagrass beds; lives mainly in estuaries and moves only short distances; adults feed mainly on shrimp and small fish; prefers water temperatures between 58 and 81 degrees F, may be killed if trapped in shallow water during cold weather; longevity 8 to 10 years.
Swordfish (Sport Fishing)
Color of back variable, black, grayish blue, brown, metallic purple, or bronze; sides dusky; underbelly dirty white; long flat, sword-like upper jaw; lacks scales, teeth, and pelvic fins; single keel on each side of body in front of tail; first dorsal fin high, rigid and short; large eyes. Similar fish: no close resemblance to other billfishes. Normally found: OFFHSORE species worldwide in temperate and tropic waters; known to frequent depths of 400 to 500 fathoms; also has been seen basking at the surface. Size: once averaged 200 pounds, but over-harvest has reduced size of commercially caught swordfish to average of 48 pounds. Remarks: large swordfish are all females, males seldom exceed 200 pounds; except when spawning, females believed to prefer water cooler than that favored by males; feeds on squid, octopus, and pelagic fishes of all kinds.
Seasons: All Year
Color of entire body reddish, with a series of short, irregular lines on its sides, diagonal blue lines formed by spots on the scales above the lateral line; sometimes with yellow streaks below the lateral line; large canine teeth absent; orientation of mouth and eye give it the appearance of looking upward; no dark lateral spot. Normally found: suspends at mid-depths over rocky reefs OFFSHORE. Size: usually less than 2 pounds. Remarks: spawns April to September, females maturing at 3 to 4 years of age; grows slowly; attains a weight of 6 pounds and length of 24 inches; feeds on small, swimming crustaceans and mollusks.
Wahoo (Sport Fishing)
Body slender; elongate jaws form a pointed beak; dark bluish above, with about 30 dark wavy bars; whitish below 1st dorsal fin long and low, with 21 to 27 spines; no gill rakers. Size: to 2.1 m (83 in.) and 83 kg (183 lbs.). Normally found: offshore Gulfstream; bluewater Remarks: an important game fish, renowned for its tremendous runs and shifts of direction; usually not in schools; caught by trolling bait and artificial lures on flatlines.
Uniformly dark brown, with no distinctive markings; dorsal fin with 10 spines; second spine very long (much longer than third); caudal fin squared-off; rear nostril larger than front nostril. Young: caudal fin yellow; dark saddle on caudal peduncle; some whitish spots on body. Size: to 1.8 m (6 ft.) and 263 kg (580 lbs.). Habitat: deep rocky ledges and sea mounts, in 90-300 m (300-1000 ft.); young are sometimes caught in inshore waters.
White Marlin (Sport Fishing)
Color of body dark blue to chocolate brown, shading to slivery white underbelly; noticeable spots on dorsal fin; upper jaw elongated in shape of a spear; body covered with imbedded scales with a single sharp point; tips of first dorsal, pectoral, and first anal fins rounded; lateral line curved above pectoral fin then going in straight line to base of tail. Similar fish: blue marlin, M. nigricans. Normally found: OFFSHORE, a bluewater fish. Size: common to 8 feet. Remarks: uses its bill to stun fast-moving fishes, then turns to consume them; spawning procedures unknown; ranges throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean; feeds on squid and pelagic fishes.
Yellowfin Tuna (Sport Fishing)
Pectoral fin moderately long, reaching point below beginning of 2nd dorsal fin; 2nd dorsal fin and all finlets yellow; no white rear edge on caudal fin; golden stripe on side; 2nd dorsal and anal fins become much longer with age (to about 1/5 of total length); eye small; 26 to 35 gill rakers. Size: to 2.1 m (82 in.) and 176 kg (367 lbs.) Normally found: offshore mostly bluewater; in or near the Gulfstream.