Fish of the Florida Keys

Types of Fish

Yellowtail Snapper – Fishing Key West

Yellowtail snapper are a sought after food fish in the Florida Keys. They are common all around the Keys but are primarily fished for on the reef and deep wrecks. Although keepers are caught all over the bigger snapper are primarily caught in deeper water, 40-120 feet. When people fish for yellowtails they usually chum very heavily. It’s not uncommon to go thru chum box every hour or so. Essentially this causes the yellowtails to line up behind the boat; you then drift back small baits to them. Depending on the current and depth of the water, a small jig head or split shot will the help the bait get down. Baits for yellowtails are usually cut fish such as ballyhoo or bonito, shrimp or live pilchards. Yellowtails are often line shy and it pays to use as light line as possible often using a long fluorocarbon leader. Sometimes you will have to drift your bait far out behind the boat before you hit them, so be prepared with a reel that hold a good length of line.

On the deeper wrecks larger yellowtail will often eat whole small to medium sized ballyhoo, and the before mentioned baits.

Triple Tail – Fishing In Key West

Triple tail are common offshore fish and can often be found shadowing floating debris offshore. They are fun to catch and eat, but sometimes they get lock jaw. When that occurs, they won’t eat anything. They will eat live and dead bait, and they will often swim at the boat to check and see if it is a better piece of debris to live under.

Scorpion Fish – Key West Fish

Spotted Scorpion fish, not usually caught on purpose. They have poison spines so handle with care.

Sailfish – Deep Sea Fishing Key West

Sailfish are considered one of the most sought after game fish in the Florida Keys. They are occasionally caught year round in the waters around the keys but the best time to fish for them in winter months. Sailfish run in small groups and singles and tend to congregate just outside the reef line in the winter. They can be caught trolling but most people in the Keys fish for sailfish with live large pilchards or ballyhoo. They either drift or slow troll around the edge of the reef and over wrecks that located in water beyond where the reef drops off.

Best tackle in my opinion would be a spinning reel loaded with 20 pound line, then a few feet of 50 pound fluorocarbon leader, and then a 7/0 or 8/0 circle hook.

Sailfish are known for making great runs and numerous leaps in the air when hooked. They tend to hunt by sight and its is pretty important that your bait is swimming strongly and will react when it sees the sailfish coming. A really weak or dying bait tends not to work as well in any fishing, but even more in the case of sailfish.

Rainbow Runner- Fishing Charters Key West

Rainbow Runners are in the jack family and are often encountered offshore or past the edge of the reef. They are fun to catch on light tackle, and like other jacks an OK eating fish. They eat small live baits and pieces of cut bait drifted in the current.

Pinfish and Sea bream are common around the Florida Keys. They make ok live baits but probably not the best. Larger aggressive fish will eat them, pretty eagerly such as Tarpon, sharks, grouper, bluefish and jacks. They can usually be purchased at local bait shops for around a buck a piece, they are hardy and will live in pocket with an aerator no problem.

Pinfish – Key West Bait fish

But most people don’t buy them from bait shops, they are really easy to catch anywhere there is thick sea grass, especially on the bay side. All you do to catch pinfish is throw a block of chum in the water around the grass and wait a little bit. If none show up in 10 minutes move. You will see them running around all over in the chum slick. For the most part they are masters at avoiding cast nets, except maybe if you are out in Florida Bay where they get so thick it looks like you can walk on them. Most people just use a small hook and a small piece of bait; you just free line the bait into the chum slick and bam you got pinfish.

Permit – Fishing Trips Key West

Permit are often targeted on the flats and are known for the spookiness and difficulty to catch. They also school over wrecks where they are not as difficult to catch. They are known for the their fighting ability. They are part of the jack family and are relatively common on the flats, reef and as mentioned earlier wrecks of the keys. They are a pretty fish, and pretty good to eat too, even if it’s not politically correct to eat them in the Florida Keys. The Permit’s preferred food is crab and crustaceans

Nurse sharks are primarily considered junk fish, but if you are on vacation here and don’t usually catch them they can still be a blast. They are very weak fighters; they don’t really make runs like other sharks, they just try to stick to the bottom. The thing that is interesting about them, is that they get huge they seem to average around 5 feet long, but its common to hook huge ones pushing 8-10 feet long. If you are used to catching freshwater fish, the sheer size of fish will make them interesting to catch. Once you have caught a few though, the novelty sort of wears off. They are common to catch on the patch reef and shallower reef edges. They have a tendency to hit grouper baits and have been often a cause for disappointment while fishing for grouper. Nurse sharks are common all around the Florida Keys and probably are one of the most common sharks.

Nurse Shark – Charter Fishing In Key West

The Florida Bay is chock full of them, and they have the tendency to keep hitting baits even once they have been caught once. Actually, all sharks do this sometimes but nurse sharks are particularly persistent. They will keep coming back and hitting the same bait over and over again. They will readily eat live and dead bait, anything fished on the bottom. Sometimes to avoid them while shark fishing you can suspend the baits off the bottom, except one time I have a blue runner on a cork , and no lie a 6 foot nurse shark ate it and jumped fully out of the water. I wish I had gotten a picture of it because no one will probably believe me.

Mutton Snapper – Key West Fishing Trips

Mutton snappers are common everywhere in Florida Keys reef. They live around the patch reefs when smaller and tend be in deeper water when they get larger. They are excellent to eat and excellent fighters. They are common up to 15 pounds but are caught larger then that. The big ones will often hit large live baits fished on the bottom, but in shallower water they will take baits off the surface. They like to eat ballyhoo, pilchards, small pinfish, shrimp and cut bait.

Mangrove – Fishing Key West Florida

Mangrove snappers or grey snapper are common everywhere in the Florida Keys. They average less then 4 pounds and are great eating and fighting fish. They eat smaller live baits such as pilchards and pinfish, shrimp and also cut bait. They can be found around mangroves, on the reef and even in the grass in Florida Bay. Best tackle for them would be 12 – 20 pound test spinning gear. I usually use small jigs to catch them.

Lemon – Fishing In Key West Florida

Lemon Sharks are common all around the Keys. They grow very large and are one of weakest fighting sharks in terms of sport fishing. They eat just about anything but chunks of dead fish seem to work best.

King Mackerel – Key West Boat Charters

Florida and the Florida Keys are home to several types of Mackerel year round. Mackerel are long slender fish with a mouth full of sharp teeth, that run in schools. Schools range in size and will consist primarily of fish around the same size. They are around all year but they are really around in big numbers in the winter months. Mackerel usually try to bite the tail of their prey when they attack, so when using a larger bait it can by very helpful to add a stinger treble hook to the rear of the bait. Mackerel have razor teeth and a bit of wire will be required in front of your baits in order to reduce cut offs. Sometimes for the Spanish and cero mackerel, some 50# fluorocarbon with a circle hook will work well and increase strikes.

A lot of people think that Mackerel, in general, are not that good to eat, but personally, if you eat them fresh I think they taste fine. They don’t freeze as well as other fish and have a stronger oilier taste. Many people like them smoked.

The king mackerel is the largest of the Mackerel family found in the waters around the Florida Keys. They range in size from 4 to around 20 pounds but sometimes ones a lot larger are caught. Good tackle to fish for Kingfish with would be medium to light rod spooled with around 20# test. Kingfish can be caught in a variety of ways: some of the more popular ways are trolling spoons on planers or downriggers. They can also be caught on live bait. Pilchards are probably the best bait for the small fish, but ballyhoo will work too. People who fish for large King Mackerel often slow troll larger baits like blue runners or speedos.

Jewfish – Fish In Key West

Jewfish are a protected species. It’s actually illegal to take them out of the water to even remove the hook, which doesn’t really make sense. These grouper were overfished and close to extinction when they were protected, and since they have bounced back. Maybe bounced back too well according to some. These groupers grow large: up to 600 pounds. They are common all around the Keys in the 100 pound range, and there are some over 200 pounds on many large structures in the Gulf and Atlantic. They are fun to catch for catch and release but can be a real nuisance when fishing for other fish. It is common for jewfish to hone in on a hooked fish and eat it, even if the hooked fish is very large, and the jewfish will follow a hooked fish to the surface. They are extremely common in the Gulf, but they appear on the reef in the Atlantic also.

They will eat live and dead bait, and you will not be able to land a larger one on regular fishing tackle.

Hogfish – Fishing Charter Key West

Hog Snapper or hogfish is not a snapper but actually a wrasse, and they are considered a great eating fish. They have 3 dorsal fins that looks like streamers. They eat crustaceans and hang around rocks and coral heads on the reef. The best way to fish for them in my experience is to use a small crab on a jig. They eat shrimp but often were they live there are small grunts or snappers which will attack the shrimp before the hogfish gets to it.

Grunt – Key West Charters

Grunts, they are numerous species of grunts in the Keys. Most are small and can be found in schools around any structure or reef. They can be caught by the dozen on most patch reefs and people new to fishing here will find them entertaining. They make decent baits for grouper and other large fish and actually are pretty good to eat if you catch large ones or don’t mind cleaning little fish.

Barracuda – Key West Charter Fishing

The great barracuda is common to the Florida Keys and can be caught on a variety of baits and artificials. They live in the waters around the Keys, from the Everglades and Florida Bay to far out into the Atlantic. Anywhere there is a food supply they will be there.

They can be great fun to catch on light tackle, especially in shallow water; barracuda will make blistering runs and jumps and put up a great a fight. Once these fish are hooked it’s all action, and you’ll need to be on the ball if you want to in order to retrieve your catch. Probably the best gear to hook them on is a lighter action spinning rod with 12 pound test and about a foot or so of wire leader, and 7/0-8/0 circle hook. They will attack live bait extremely aggressively when feeding, and they wolf the bait down, so it unnecessary to let them carry the bait for very long before setting the hook. For all their aggressiveness and easy to catch reputation, the large barracudas are pretty smart and have great eyesight, so they will often just follow baits without striking. A bait fleeing rapidly from them seems to trigger their attack response so usually when fishing for barracudas with lures the retrieve has to be very fast.

Barracuda can be sight casted on the flats and are often caught when bonefish and permit are not being co-operative.

They are often considered a junk species because they are relatively easy to catch and are rarely eaten due to fears of ciguatera poisoning. Many large ones know all about fishing boats and will actually park themselves behind or under a fishing boat, and wait for someone to reel in a fish, like a yellowtail snapper. They’ll rush the fish and either cut it in half or take the whole fish. This sometimes can be frustrating when trying to catch snapper for dinner. Usually if you can hook the barracuda even for a minute it will spook them and make them go away. You can use this behavior to catch them also, by putting out a large bait like a grunt, they think it’s just another easy meal.

Ocean Triggerfish – Charter Fishing Key West

Ocean Triggerfish are common all over the reef in water over 40 feet deep. They will sometimes group up in a chum slick and will kill any larger bait you put out. They are great to eat but sort of difficult to clean because their skin is so thick. They have small mouths that are full of crushing teeth. They nibble a lot and will steal baits pretty quickly if you aren’t paying attention. The best way to catch the trigger fish is use a small mustad hook, or a small treble with a piece of cut fish on it. Either weight it down with a couple of split shots or free line it back. You have to pay attention, because when they eat they don’t run with the bait, they just sit still. So, when you feel a little tapping just give the reel half a turn, and when it feels solid start reeling. Triggerfish fight good and are fun to catch on light tackle, but they have rough skin and rough teeth, so you need to have at least 20 pound test leader.

Gag Grouper – Key West Florida Fishing

This is a baby gag grouper, the species gets large but is more common in the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico then Atlantic. Its more commonly caught in the lower keys then the upper keys.

Filefish – Charter Boat Key West

File fish , this weird looking fish are common on the shallower reef and are notorious bait stealers, they are not caught on purpose but are actually pretty good to eat.

Dolphin or Mahi-Mahi are one of the more sought after sport fish in the Florida Keys. Not only do they fight and jump a lot when hooked they are delicious to eat. They are relatively easy to catch if you can find them. Due to their rapid growth they are often hungry, and the smaller ones especially rarely turn down a bait. They are found in offshore waters but occasionally can be found following bait up onto the reef. The season for dolphin is late spring to early summer, although there are some here year round. When in season you are pretty much guaranteed to catch them if you don’t mind burning a lot of gas trolling around in water 7-27 miles offshore. Most people troll for dolphin but if you find some debris that’s holding them, pitching live baits such as pinfish at them is a blast. They will also hit surface lures.

Crevelle Jack – Fishing Charters In Key West

Jack Crevelles as they are usually referred to are often considered trash fish when caught fishing for other species. They are not good to eat and are aggressive feeders. Although they are considered undesirable they put up a great fight on light tackle. They are a blast to catch on surface poppers and when feed will actively attack all manner of surface baits.

Small Jacks are good big baits for big fish.

Cobia – Charter Boats In Key West

Cobia can be caught all around the Keys but are much more common in the gulf waters. They tend to congregate around structures like rock piles and wrecks. They will eat live fish and cut bait, pinfish and small blue runners are common baits for Cobia.

They are strong fighters and often jump when hooked, they are good to eat and have white firm meat.

Bonnet-head Shark – Fishing Charters Key West Florida

Bonnet head sharks are common in most shallow water of the keys, they will eat just about anything and pretty easy to catch. They hang out on the same flats as bonefish, and very common in the back country and everglades. They are caught sometimes when the bonefish or permit are not being cooperative. They fight decent for their size and are fun to catch on light tackle.

Bonito – Key West Offshore Fishing

Bonito and Little Tunny are similar looking fish that are often caught in the same places. They are common in the Atlantic and the Gulf and often caught while fishing for other fish. They are not good to eat but put up a terrific fight. They are used live as bait for big fish such as Marlin and make great cut bait, because of their bloody meat.

Bonefish are one of the most prestigious sport fish of the keys, they are extremely spooky and hard to catch. People fish for them on the flats usually using a fresh shrimp, but sometimes with a fly or jig. They are amazing fighters for their size and take off like rocket when they are hooked. They make extremely long runs and the smaller ones sometimes jump.

Bluefish are common around Florida Bay in the cooler months and are in the sounds of the upper keys all year. The bluefish that live down here don’t get as big as the ones up north , they usually are less then 5 pounds, but they are aggressive fish specifically when they are schooling. They literally chew baits to shreds, attacking baits almost as big as they are. They have sharp teeth so either a wire or heavy leader with a circle hook would be the preferred tackle. They are good to eat but have oilier, darker meat.

Bluefish – Fishing Charters Key West Fl

Blue runners are found all around the Florida Keys, from the Bays and back country to offshore in the weed lines. Like dolphin, they can be found in the weed lines. They average less then 4 pounds are are usually much smaller. They put up a good fight like all jacks and are fun to catch on light tackle. They can be eaten but they tend to be small and are boney. They make good big baits for big fish.

Blacktip Shark – Key West Florida Fishing Charters

Blacktip sharks are one of the best sharks to catch in my opinion, since they fight like crazy, often leaping and corkscrewing in the air. They are also supposed to be one of the best eating sharks, but I have never killed one. They will attack live and dead bait, and long steel leader the length of their body is required. They don’t get as large as some of the other species of sharks.

Black grouper are one of the most sought after bottom dwelling fish. Their meat is highly prized for its taste and its flaky texture. Black groupers grow large- up to 70 pounds, even more. They will eat a variety of baits and people fish for them with live bait, cut dead bait and even troll for them. People troll for groupers usually with large lipped diving plugs. They mostly hang around the bottom structure but sometimes venture out, and in shallow water will sometimes even come to the surface to grab a bait. They are strong fighters , and will often burrow into the nearest hole and puff up , which can make them impossible to get out. A trick when a grouper rocks you and doesn’t break the line, is to let the line go slack and wait a couple minutes, and sometimes they will swim out of their hole and you can land them.

Black grouper will eat large live baits, so don’t be scared to put out a big bait for them. The will consume ballyhoo, blue runner, pinfish, pilchards, pretty much if it will wiggle around and will fit in their mouth they will eat it.

Blackfin Tuna – Key West Deep Sea Fishing Charters

Black fin Tuna are primarily a winter fish in the keys although they are caught year round. They are known for their fighting ability and how good they are to eat. There is nothing better than some fresh pan-seared black fin still raw in the middle.

One of the popular methods of catching Black Fin tuna in Key West is filling the well with pilchards and live chumming with them over one of the deep wrecks, this can be fast and furious fishing with many tunas and bonitos getting caught.

Yellow Jack – Key West Charter Boats

Bar Jacks and Yellow Jacks are common throughout the keys. They travel the entire reef and will be seen and caught from shallow patches to deep wrecks.  They are most commonly caught on live baits. Both fish are very good to eat unlike other jacks species.

Not really a fish you want to catch but you way catch one occasionally. Throw it back.

Amberjack – Key West Fishing Boats

Amber Jacks are sometimes called reef donkeys, are known for their large size and tremendous strength. They are usually deep water fish, and are common around deep reef and wrecks throughout the Florida Keys.

They are often caught on large jigs or large live baits fished near the bottom. They are not the best eating fish but can be ok if cooked right. Cooked right usually means smoked and made into a dip or made into a soup.

These fish are much more common and in shallower water in the winter although they can be caught all year round.

Catching more then a couple of them in a day can be hazardous to your back.