Go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) website (myFWC.gov) for information about buying freshwater and saltwater fishing licenses. Also tap the site for bag and size limits. Recreational and commercial saltwater fishing are particularly heavily regulated by the Commission and Federal authorities. In Northwest Florida, the state saltwater fishery management boundary stretches 9 nautical miles into the Gulf of Mexico from shore.
Below are characterizations of the saltwater fish along the Emerald Coast. The FWC was the source for much of the information below.
The distinction among saltwater inshore, nearshore and offshore fisheries is artificial. Many species, such as redfish, crevalle jack, gulf flounder and bull shark, for example, can be found in all three environments depending on the time of year. Finally, the list below is not inclusive. There are many species of saltwater fish from gobies, pinfish and croakers to whale sharks in the local Gulf.
SALTWATER INSHORE (including bays and lower reaches of rivers)
• Redfish (red drum, channel bass or, locally, “red”)
Best fish in the water because of its size (“bull” reds), impressive strength, extreme adaptability, and the places it hunts. Usually copper above and silver below. Look for large black spot(s) at base of the upper tailfin and along lower back above the lateral line. Delicious, especially blackened. Tightly regulated fishery. Be aware of the size and bag limit. Also caught nearshore and offshore in the Gulf. Redfish tolerate freshwater and can exceed 50 pounds. State record 52 pounds, 5 ounces.
• Black drum (kin with the redfish)
High arched back with four to five black stripes (younger fish) and silver body. Barbels along underside of a jaw made to crush shellfish. Catch one and you may hear it croak or drumming, a low-decibel call made with its swim bladder. Smaller drum are tasty. Be aware of size and bag limit. Also caught nearshore and offshore in the Gulf. Fish can reach 100 pounds, maybe more. State record 96 pounds.
Compressed sides with some 12 black and white alternating stripes. Gets name from its sheep-like teeth evolved for grazing and crushing. Likes to hang near structure such as piers or jetties. Average weight 2 or 3 pounds, can reach 20. Very tasty but difficult to hook and skin. More active during colder months. Be aware of size and bag limit. State record 15 pounds, 2 ounces.
• Spotted seatrout (speckled trout or, locally, “speck”)
“Typical” fish shape with blackish spots above from head to tail; sometimes iridescent blue-purple above. Prominent canine teeth in upper and lower jaws. Tasty. Likes seagrass habitats and pier pilings at night and tolerates brackish water. Average weight 2 or 3 pounds, though can grow much larger. Be aware of size and bag limit. State record 17 pounds, 7 ounces.
• Gulf flounder
Flat fish with eyes on one side of the head. Light to dark brown with brown or black spots. White underside. Ambush predator buries itself in mud or sand near pier or bridge pilings, jetties and other structure to hunt. Very tasty but not large, though exceptional fish can exceed 15 pounds. Be aware of size and bag limit. State record 20 pounds, 9 ounces.
Bull, bonnethead, blacktip, probably others.
SALTWATER NEARSHORE (including surf)
• Florida pompano (aka, tastiest fish in Florida, maybe the world)
Greenish gray on back shading to silvery sides with compressed body and small mouth. Lower body sometimes tinged with yellow. Strong and fast. Average keeper size 1 to 3 pounds. Be aware of size and bag limit. State record 8 pounds, 4 ounces.
• Whiting (gulf kingfish)
Often overlooked because catching a 2½-pounder would be a fish to brag about. This feisty silver fish with a gently arched back and barbell on the lower jaw is tasty. Prefers heavier surf. Catch as many as you want and have a fish fry.
• Bluefish (blue, snapper blue)
Large mouth with large teeth for cutting and aggressive. Think of the blue as the piranha of saltwater. Blue above fading to silver or white along sides. Decent eating, but prepare while catch is fresh. Meat is oily. Hunts around structure and open water off beach well within casting range. State record 22 pounds, 2 ounces.
• Spanish mackerel (locally, “Spanish”)
Torpedo-shaped profile, green to silver compressed body with stiff fins and symmetrical, sickle-shaped tail. Golden yellow spots above. Made for speed. Mouth full of small, very sharp teeth. Tasty, though meat is oily. Schooling fish. Catch one and you’ll probably catch a few more. Be aware of size and bag limit. State record 12 pounds.
• King mackerel (kingfish or, locally, “king”)
Spanish mackerel’s fearsome big brother. Also torpedo-shaped profile with symmetrical caudal fin. Color iridescent dark blues to silver on sides. Known for runs when hooked that set reel drags screaming. Large mouth with needle-sharp teeth. Smaller fish school. Larger fish exhibit lone wolf behavior. Tasty but oily. Be aware of size and bag limit. State record 90 pounds.
• Cravelle jack (locally, “jack”)
Hits lures or live bait like a freight train, then accelerates like a Formula One race car, and then digs in for a battle of perseverance and dogged strength. Use heavy gear on this bluish green to greenish gold, silver and yellow compressed-body uber fish that can reach 20 pounds very easily. Not eaten, so revive and release. State record 57 pounds.
• Ladyfish (skipjack or, locally, “skippy”)
Generally disliked by fishermen because it’s not edible, but hits all sorts of lures and baits. Tolerates high water temperature, so can be caught mid-summer along the Emerald Coast. Cousin of the tarpon, but smaller. State record 6 pounds, 4 ounces.
• Cobia (crab cruncher, lemon fish, ling)
This fish is present in local saltwaters for much of the year, but its annual east-to-west migration in April draws the most attention. The fishing boats you see cruising off the beach in the spring are spotting for cobia. Also caught from piers jutting into the Gulf. Viewed from above, it can be confused for a shark because of its shape and flattened head. Yellowy brown above and white below with mid-body dark lateral stripe from eye to tail. Be aware of size and bag limit. Very tasty. State record 130 pounds, 1 ounce caught near Destin, but average size is 30 pounds.
Mako, bull, tiger, blacktip, spinner, two or three species of hammerhead, sandbar, and white, yes, white. Most sharks are good eating, but catch and release because they’re taking a pounding commercially and during recreational fishing tournaments.
OFFSHORE – BOTTOM/REEF/WRECKS/LEDGES
• Red snapper
The bread-and-butter fish of the Emerald Coast charter boat and recreational fishing industries, and fished heavily by commercial operations. Tasty and tightly regulated, so be aware of bag and size limits. Pink to red above with a bit of whiteness along the bottom. Canine teeth. In the good old days fish 20 pounds or more caught regularly. Average weight these days probably a few pounds. State record 46 pounds, 8 ounces caught near Destin.
• Mangrove snapper (black or grey)
As tasty as the red snapper, but not quite as heavily regulated. Dark brown or grey with orange or orange-red spots in rows along sides. Also possesses prominent canine teeth. Often caught nearshore along jetties or pilings. Common to 8 pounds.
• Vermillion snapper (mingo)
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 also sports yellow streaks below the lateral line. Up to 6 pounds.
• Gag grouper
Brownish gray with dark, worm-like side markings. Fins dark, with anal and caudal having a white margin. Slightly concave tail. Tasty but heavily regulated. Be aware of bag and size limits. Grouper are born as females but can later become male. These fish are gulpers, sucking in prey by suddenly flaring their gills and opening their mouths. State record 80 pounds, 6 ounces caught near Destin.
• Black grouper
Olive or gray body with black blotches and brassy spots. Similar in appearance to gag and yellowfin groupers and equally as tasty and heavily regulated. Be aware of bag and size limits. State record 113 pounds, 6 ounces.
• Red grouper
Brownish red with colorful mouth lining of mouth scarlet-orange. Blotches on sides in unorganized pattern. Squared off tail and black dots around the eyes. Good eating. State record 42 pounds, 4 ounces.
• Greater Amberjack
Greater AJs have “typical” fish shape and often a dark bronze stripe that extends from nose to beginning of dorsal fin. Dark brown on top fading to silvery white. Strong. Fast. Aggressive. Be aware of size and bag limits. State record 142 pounds.
• Grey triggerfish
Ovoid shape and olive gray all over with dorsal and anal fins marbled. Upper rim of eye blue. Tasty, but tough to catch because of tendency to nibble. State record 12 pounds, 7 ounces.
OFFSHORE – PELAGIC
• Billfish (fish with elongated upper jaw coming to a point, blue marlin, swordfish (broadbill), white marlin, sailfish, and longbill spearfish)
Aside from swordfish, which are tasty, generally not eaten. The bigger billfish, blue marlin and swordfish, and medium-sized white marlin and sailfish, and smallish spearfish, are world-class gamefish. State record blue marlin 1,046 pounds; swordfish 612 pounds, 12 ounces; white 161 pounds; sail 126 pounds; and spearfish 61 pounds, 8 ounces.
• Dolphin (mahi-mahi, “chicken” (small) dolphin)
Stunningly beautiful, often flashing colors when hooked; blue green above, fading to yellow, speckled head to tail. Shaped like an elongated triangle with the head forming the base. Prefer warmer water. Males larger than females and have with prominent foreheads. Tasty. State record 81 pounds.
• Tuna (yellowfin and blackfin)
Both species football-shaped and pretty much nothing but muscle from head to tail.
° Yellowfin bluish on top, mid-sectioned by a yellow stripe, and silvery below. Second dorsal fin and anal fin prominently elongated in mature fish. School. Can weigh as much as 400 pounds, but 80 pounds common.
° Blackfin black on top with narrow vertical yellow or bronze streaks aft of the gills to tail. Maximum weight thought to be about 50 pounds. 20-pounders common.
Thought by some to be the fastest fish on the planet, bursts up to 60 miles per hour, though many give that moniker to the sailfish. Some also believe the ’hoo can grow to 200 pounds. Think of the fish as a king mackerel using performance-enhancing drugs. Sharp teeth and a mouth with a “beak” at the tip of upper jaw that opens upward. Body is torpedo-shaped and blue above fading to silver below. Vertical, tapering, wavy stripes from gills to peduncle. Delicious. State record 139 pounds.