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Florida Native Saltwater Fish Species: Part 1

Florida Native Saltwater Fish Species: Part 1

The subtropical Sunshine State is home to many different species of native, migratory and invasive aquatic wildlife. Species that are native to Florida are those that are naturally occurring and self-sustaining, without any human involvement. Migratory and invasive species of wildlife can be detrimental to our native populations because they typically kill them off quickly. Luckily for us, our oceans, and other bodies of water supply plentiful amounts of native fish species for us to admire.

This article is Part 1 of a multi-part series that will include saltwater and freshwater species.

Native Saltwater Species

The native saltwater species are those that inhabit the saltwater bodies. These native fish have adapted over time to live in their high saline habitats.

Drums

Atlantic Croaker

Appearance: The Atlantic Croaker has a silvery-gray or bronze body with an iridescent head. The body also has indistinct wavy bars or lines on the upper sides. The fish also has a serrated preopercle (cheek) and small barbels on its lower jaw.
Size: Up to 20 inches, 4 pounds
Habitat: This fish is typically found north of Tampa Bay on the west coast and north of Cape Canaveral on the east coast. Juveniles are often found in estuaries, whereas adults (2 to 4 years) inhabit deep offshore waters during the winter months and move into bays and estuaries during the spring, summer and fall.

The Secret to Fishing Licenses

The Secret to Fishing Licenses

Obtaining a fishing license can feel like a daunting task, especially if you are new to fishing. Saltwater vs. freshwater; shoreline vs. vessel; combination licenses; sportsman licenses; additional permits; lifetime licenses. It can all just be too much!

Behavior: The Atlantic Croaker will become bronze or yellow in color during spawning, which happens offshore during the fall. Feeds on fish and invertebrates. The lifespan of this fish is approximately 2 to 4 years.

Black Drum

Appearance: The Black Drum has an arched, gray or black back and lighter-colored belly. Juveniles have 4 to 6 dark vertical bars on their sides, similar to Sheepshead and Spadefish, but these fade with age. The fish has barbels on its lower jaw, large scales and powerful pharyngeal teeth.
Size: Up to 67 inches
Habitat: This fish is quite versatile in its habitat choices, often being found inshore, offshore and as a bottom dweller. Inshore, this fish will commonly be found in bays, river mouths and lagoons, with juveniles living in estuaries. As a bottom dweller, this fish can be found around oyster beds, docks and bridge pilings.
Behavior: This fish, the largest of its species, has a life expectancy of about 35 years and spawns near shore in winter and early spring. It uses its powerful teeth to crush and feed on fish and invertebrates including oysters, mussels, crabs and shrimp.
Fishing Tips and Facts: Shrimp, sand fleas or blue crabs are the most common bait for this fish; just be sure to keep the bait on the ocean floor where it tends to feed. Tackle requirements are dependent on the size of fish being targeted, the location and current. Bait-casting or spinning tackle with 15 to 30-pound test line would be suitable for most conditions.

Gulf Kingfish (a.k.a. Whiting)

Appearance: The King Gulffish has silvery body without any dark markings, although the first dorsal fin is usually a dusky-brown color and the caudal fin has a blackish tip. This fish’s underbelly scales are smaller than those on the rest of its body scales, and it has barbels on its chin.
Size: Up to 18 inches
Habitat: The Gulf Kingfish likes to hang out in the surf zones of coastal waters.
Behavior: Feeds on fish and invertebrates. It is said that this fish prefers surf zones because of the high wave action, which helps to dislodge small crabs and other small crustaceans. Life expectancy is 4-6 years.

Redfish AKA Red Drum

Red Drum

Appearance: The body of the Red Drum is, not surprisingly, a copper-bronze shade, with a lighter-colored underbelly and one or more dark spots close to the caudal fin. This fish has large scales and powerful pharyngeal teeth.
Size: Up to 61 inches
Habitat: This fish lives in seagrass or muddy/sandy bottoms of coastal waters or near oyster bars or spring fed creeks.
Behavior: Juvenile Redfish are an inshore species until they reach roughly 30 inches (4 years). They then migrate to the nearshore population. During its spawning season, which runs from August through December, this fish can produce tens of millions of eggs. Spawning usually happens in passes, inlets and lagoon estuaries around the state. Throughout this season, the Redfish uses special muscles rubbing against its air bladder to produce a “drumming” sound for which it is named. It feeds on fish and invertebrates.
Fishing Tips and Facts: The Red Drum is one of Florida’s most popular sport fish and the state’s most widespread estuarine fish. Floating a live shrimp, crab, mullet, pinfish or killifish under a popping cork, or casting soft-bodied jigs, spoons and even top-water plugs are good tactics when fishing for Redfish. Red Drum makes for a great dinner!

Sand Seatrout (a.k.a. White Trout)

Appearance: This small fish has a tan or yellowish body, fading to a silver or white belly. The inside of its mouth is also yellow. It has a pair of large canine teeth at the tip of its upper jaw, 10-12 soft anal fin rays (like spines but softer) and barbels on its lower jaw.
Size: Usually less than 15 inches, 1 pound
Habitat: This fish lives in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, over the sandy ocean floor. It is very rarely found in Atlantic waters.
Behavior: The Sand Seatrout matures during its first or second year of life and has a prolonged inshore spawning season that extends through the spring and summer. It feeds mainly on small fish and shrimp.

Silver Perch

Appearance: The back of a Silver Perch is silvery or greenish-blue, the sides and belly are silvery-yellow, and the fins are yellow or dusky. It has 5 to 6 chin pores, a finely serrated preopercle (cheek), large canine teeth and barbels on its lower jaw.
Size: Up to 12 inches
Habitat: Primarily inhabits coastal waters but may enter freshwater.
Behavior: An adult Silver Perch will each crustaceans and small fish. The live expectancy is about 6 years. This fish begins to mature once it reaches 2 or 3, when it’s about 6 inches long. Its spawning season takes place from May to September in shallow, saline portions of bays and other inshore areas.

Silver Seatrout (a.k.a. White Trout #2)

Appearance: This fish has a grayish back, silvery sides and a white belly. The upper sides may have a visible row of spots. All of its fins are pale yellow except for the darker, dusky dorsal fin. The Silver Seatrout has large eyes and a short snout, with an upper jaw that contains a pair of large canine teeth. Its anal fins have 8-9 rays, and the bottom half of the caudal fin is longer than the top half.
Size: Usually less than 10 inches (1/2 – 1 lb).
Habitat: This fish is most common over sand or sandy mud bottoms offshore along both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts but migrates into bays during cold months.
Behavior: This fish feeds on small fish and shrimp and spawns offshore in deep water during spring, summer and fall.

Southern Kingfish (a.k.a. Whiting)

Appearance: As with many other species, the coloring of this fish includes a grayish-brown back with silvery sides and belly; however, this fish has 7 to 8 indistinct diagonal dark blotches on its sides. It has scales on its belly that are nearly the same size as the scales on its body and barbels on its lower jaw.
Size: Up to 19 inches
Habitat: Like the Gulf Kingfish, the Southern Kingfish likes to hang out in the surf zones of coastal waters. They can also be found in shallow coastal waters with a muddy-sand bottom as well as high salinity bays and estuaries along the coast.
Behavior: Feeds on fish and invertebrates. It is said that this fish prefers surf zones because of the high wave action, which helps to dislodge small crabs and other small crustaceans. Life expectancy is 4-6 years.

Spot

Appearance: The Spot is the only Drum in Florida with a forked caudal fin. Its back is bluish-brown, fading to brassy sides and a silvery-white belly, with a dark spot behind its gill cover and 12 to 15 dark diagonal lines on its upper sides.
Size: Up to 14 inches
Habitat: Coastal waters
Behavior: Feeds on invertebrates and decaying materials.

Seatrout

Spotted Seatrout (a.k.a. Speckled Trout)

Appearance: The Spotted Seatrout has a dark gray or green back, a silvery or white belly and black spots on its back that extend to its dorsal and caudal fins. On its upper jaw it has a pair of large canine teeth.
Size: Up to 39 inches (17 pounds) but the average size is about 14 inches.
Habitat: Coastal waters over sand bottoms or seagrass beds.
Behavior: Spawning for this fish happens inshore from March through November and then it will move into deeper waters in the colder months. It feeds on baitfish, mullet, shrimp and crabs.

Weakfish

Appearance: The Weakfish has a dark olive or blue-green back that fades into silvery sides and belly. Its upper sides have wavy lines of small, irregular, dark spots. The pelvic and anal fins are yellowish, while the other fins are more pal and uniquely, the tip of the Weakfish’s tongue is black. This fish also has a pair of large canine teeth at the tip of its upper jaw.
Size: Up to 20 inches
Habitat: This fish is usually found in the coastal Atlantic waters but not often found in the Gulf. Juveniles will be found in estuaries, while adults move inshore and north during warmer months, finding themselves in surf zone, inlets, bays, channels and estuaries; they will then move offshore and south during the colder months.
Behavior: This is a schooling fish that feeds primarily on shrimp and fish. This species can mature as early as age one, spawning in nearshore or estuarine waters between April and October.

Flounder

Flounder is a bottom-oriented flatfish species with both eyes on its left side, strong canine-like teeth and a wedge-shaped caudal fine with its tip in the middle. It also has several ocellated or eyelike spots on the body, at least five of which are arranged in an “X” pattern.

In Flounder, the right eye migrates to the left early in life. The Gulf Flounder has the ability to camouflage by changing colors to match its surroundings to avoid predators. It feeds on small fish. Although this fish stays close to shore, it is thought to spawn offshore.

Gulf Flounder

Size: Average size of 14 inches, 2 pounds
Habitat: This particular Flounder can be found Inshore on sandy or mud bottoms, often traveling into tidal creeks and occasionally ending up in nearshore rocky reefs.
Behavior: Gulf Flounder are also known to eat crustaceans.

Southern Flounder

Size: Average size of 20 inches
Habitat: The Southern Flounder is usually found in brackish waters and estuaries, sometimes ending up in tidal creeks and freshwater.

Summer Flounder

Size: Female Summer Flounder grow larger than males, reaching up to 36 inches in length, while males are about 24 inches.
Habitat: The Summer Flounder dwells both inshore and offshore, close to the ocean floor buried in sandy substrate. They can be found in the Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the east coast of Florida, but you will not find them in the Gulf of Mexico.
Behavior: This Flounder also favors crustaceans, especially shrimp and crabs. The average lifespan is about 12 to 14 years.

Grouper

Gag and Red Grouper are the most widely distributed of the Florida Groupers. Goliath and Nassau Grouper are protected from harvest in Florida State waters.

Black Grouper

Appearance: The Black Grouper is olive or gray in color with rectangular black blotches that have brassy spots. The second dorsal, anal and caudal fins are partly black as well, while the pectoral fins have a pale yellow or white margin. The bottom of its preopercle (cheek) is gently rounded.
Size: Up to 48 inches, 180 pounds, but the average weight is about 40 pounds.
Habitat: This Grouper will almost always be found in coastal waters near structures such as rocky bottoms, reef and drop off walls in water over 60 feet deep. Juveniles can be found inshore.
Behavior: The larger fish of this species are generally found in greater depths and they feed on fish and squid. The Black Grouper is a protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning that the female will eventually transform into a male as it gets older. Spawn season takes place during the winter months.
Fishing Tips and Facts: Grouper fishing from a boat typically involves baits fished near the bottom, with heavy tackle to bring the Grouper to the surface. Live fish, dead cut or whole bait are used. Grouper makes for a great dinner!

Gag Grouper

Gag Grouper

Appearance: The Gag Grouper is brownish in color with worm-like markings on its body and dark lines radiating from its eyes. Its fins are dark, with white edges on the anal and caudal fins. The bottom of its preopercle (cheek) has a strong serrated spur.
Size: Up to 36 inches, 50 pounds but the average weight is about 25 pounds.
Habitat: This Grouper will almost always be found in coastal waters near structures such as rocky bottoms, reef and drop off walls in water over 60 feet deep. Juveniles can be found inshore.
Behavior: This Grouper is also a protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning that the female will eventually transform into a male as it gets older. This particular Grouper feeds on fish and invertebrates. It will spawn between January and May with some of the more tropical species spawning year-round.
Fishing Tips and Facts: Grouper fishing from a boat typically involves baits fished near the bottom, with heavy tackle to bring the Grouper to the surface. Live fish, dead cut or whole bait are used. Grouper makes for a great dinner!

Goliath Grouper

**ALL HARVEST OF THIS SPECIES IN STATE & FEDERAL WATERS ARE PROHIBITED**
Appearance: The Goliath Grouper has dark spots on its head and its eyes are small and set forward. As for its fins, some have irregularly shaped dark bars on the sides; the caudal and pectoral fins are rounded; the first dorsal fin is much shorter than the second dorsal fin; and the dorsal fins have low spines.
Size: This is the largest Grouper species in western Atlantic waters, reaching up to 8 feet in length and 800 pounds!
Habitat: This Grouper hangs out in coastal and nearshore waters near structures or muddy bottoms, living predominantly in southern Florida. Juveniles are often found in estuaries, especially around oyster bars.
Behavior: This fish is an opportunistic predator, feeding on slow-moving or bottom-dwelling invertebrates and fish; they’re favorite food being calico crabs. It may attempt to eat fish struggling on a fishing line but does not often hunt quick moving prey. This Grouper will ambush its prey, catching it using a rapid expansion and opening of its mouth, which sucks the prey in to be swallowed whole. It will spawn during the summer months and has a lifespan of 30 to 50 years.

Nassau Grouper

**FEDERAL STATUS: THREATENED. ALL HARVEST OF THIS SPECIES IS PROHIBITED.**
Appearance: The Nassau Grouper is uniquely colored, hosting a light background body with red-brown bars transversing the sides. There’s a stripe on the top of the head that resembles a tuning fork. The third spine of the dorsal fin is longer than the second spine and the pelvic finds are shorter than the pectoral fins. This fish also has a large black spot on the caudal peduncle.
Size: Up to 36 inches, 55 pounds but the average weight is under 10 pounds.
Habitat: This Grouper hangs out in coastal and nearshore waters near structures or muddy bottoms, living predominantly in southern Florida. The adults tend to favor deeper waters and are site-specific, meaning they stick to familiar waters and structures. Juveniles are often found nearshore.
Behavior: It feeds on fish and invertebrates and will form large spawning aggregations, making this species highly vulnerable to overharvest.

Red Grouper

Appearance: The body color of this species is brownish-red, with a mouth lined in a scarlet-orange color, giving this Grouper its name. There are also tiny black dots on its snout and irregular white blotches on its sides. The second spine of the dorsal fin is long and the pectoral fins are longer than the pelvic fins.
Size: Up to 42 inches, 50 pounds but the average size is about 20 inches, 15 pounds.
Habitat: The Red Grouper is a bottom-dwelling fish found over hard and muddy bottoms. Juveniles are typically found offshore along with adults older than 6 years. Fish from 1 to 6 years occupy nearshore reefs.
Behavior: This fish can live up to 25 years. This Grouper is also a protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning that the female will eventually transform into a male as it gets older. It feeds on fish and invertebrates and spawns in April and May. This Grouper is particular, preferring water temperatures between 66-77° F.

Scamp

Appearance: The Scamp has a light gray or brown body, with dark or reddish-brown spots often grouped into rosettes and possible yellow coloration at the corners of its mouth. As it reaches adulthood, the lower caudal fins become longer.
Size: Commonly grows to be 12 inches but may reach up to 42 inches.
Habitat: This Grouper will almost always be found in coastal waters near structures such as rocky bottoms, reef and drop off walls or ledges.
Behavior: This Grouper is also a protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning that the female will eventually transform into a male as it gets older. It feeds on fish and invertebrates and spawns in late spring.

Warsaw Grouper

Appearance: The Warsaw Grouper has a mottled dark reddish-brown or brownish-gray back with a lighter-colored belly, but it lacks any distinctive marks. Its second dorsal fin spine is very high and the caudal fin is squared off. In juveniles, the caudal fin may have a yellowish hue and there may be a dark spot on the caudal peduncle.
Size: Up to 90 inches, 580 pounds
Habitat: The Warsaw Grouper prefers rocky bottoms in water over 200 feet deep, while juveniles live inshore.
Behavior: Feeds on fish and crustaceans.

Yellowfin Grouper

Appearance: The body of the Yellowfin Grouper is greenish-olive or bright red with oval groups of dark spots forming horizontal rows. The outer third of the pectoral fins are bright yellow. Larger Yellowfins may have small bright red spots on lower parts of the body.
Size: Average weight is about 20 pounds.
Habitat: An adult Yellowfin will typically be found in coastal to offshore waters, usually near reefs, while a juvenile will be found in seagrass beds.
Behavior: As with many other Grouper species, this fish is a protogynous hermaphrodite that feeds on fish and squid. This type of Grouper though is believed to be associated with ciguatera poisoning, hence its scientific name translating to “venomous”.

Yellowmouth Grouper

Appearance: As the name states, the Yellowmouth Grouper has a yellow mouth, both inside and out. The body is tan or brown with a lighter belly. Small dark spots cover most of the body and the top of the head and there may be some yellow around the eyes. The outer edges of its fins are also trimmed in light yellow or even white.
Size: Weighs up to 20 pounds.
Habitat: This Grouper hangs out in coastal and offshore waters near structures, living predominantly in southern Florida. It is not as common as Scamp in the Gulf.
Behavior: This Grouper is also a protogynous hermaphrodite and feeds on fish.

Popular Boats

Sea Bass

Bank Sea Bass

Appearance: The Bank Sea Bass is a pale olive or brassy-brown color with a lighter belly. It has black blotches that form dark bars on its sides, with the darkest blotch appearing above its pectoral fin. The head has wavy blue lines but no scales and the lips are purplish-blue. An adult has a caudal fin with three lobes.
Size: Up to 12 inches
Habitat: This fish favors hard bottom areas within coastal waters.
Behavior: It feeds on small fish and invertebrates and is a protogynous hermaphrodite, transforming into a male after three or four spawning seasons.

Black Sea Bass (a.k.a. Rock Bass or Rockfish)

Appearance: The Black Sea Bass has a dark brown or black body with white and black stripes on the dorsal fin. The caudal fin of adults has an elongated ray at the top and the fin may have three lobes. The back edge of the gill cover has a sharp spine. Large males have a fatty hump on their head, in front of the dorsal fin, as well as blue and ebony markings on the body. Females may have faint vertical bars.
Size: The average size of a Black Sea Bass is about 12 inches, 1.5 pounds but they can reach up to 24 inches, 8 pounds.
Habitat: This Sea Bass favors coastal waters near structures and rocky bottoms. Smaller fish are often found inshore in finger channels.
Behavior: Spawning season for this protogynous hermaphrodite is from January to March. This fish is an omnivorous bottom feeder, consuming small fish, crustaceans, and shellfish. While most commonly caught along Florida’s central and northern coasts, a Black Sea Bass may venture to south Florida waters during cold winters. It generally prefers depths of 20 to 80 feet but juveniles can also be found in shallower water over seagrass or near jetties and reefs.
Fishing Tips: It is common to catch a Black Sea Bass while fishing for Grouper or Snapper. This fish is aggressive and fun to catch, especially if you scale back to lighter tackle. Light to medium weight spinning or bait casting tackle with 10 to 20-pound test line is sufficient. At times (especially during the winter months), the Black Sea Bass gets so hungry and aggressive that it will hold on to your lead all the way to the surface or the bottom of your cooler. Good baits include squid, shrimp or cut bait, or jigs tipped with squid. As a meal, this fish is tasty and is known for its firm white flesh and mild flavor.

Rock Sea Bass

Appearance: Similar to the Bank Seas Bass, this Sea Bass has an olive-bronze body fading to a lighter belly with black blotches that form vertical bars on its sides. It also has a dark black spot near the middle of its dorsal fin base and the tips of the lower jar is purple. Separate from the Bank Sea Bass, this fish has bright blue and orange markings on its head and fins and scales on its head. An adult will have three lobes and elongated dorsal filaments on its caudal fin.
Size: Rarely more than 10 inches in length.
Habitat: This fish favors hard bottom areas within coastal waters but can also be found near sand or mud bottoms.
Behavior: Spawning season for this protogynous hermaphrodite is from January to March.

Top Port Charlotte Fishing Spots

Top Port Charlotte Fishing Spots

Charlotte county boasts some of the most prominent fishing communities on Florida’s gulf coast.

Sand Perch (a.k.a. Squirrelfish or Sand Sea Bass)

Appearance: This colorful Sea Bass has a body and dorsal fins with dark-brown bars and orange and blue stripes. The head has many blue lines. The body is slender and cylindrical, with a preopercle (cheek) that has spines radiating from two clusters and an elongated upper lobe of the caudal fin.
Size: Up to 12 inches
Habitat: This fish dwells in coastal waters, including bays, seagrass beds and shallow banks.
Behavior: Despite their common name, Sand Perch are not “true” Squirrelfishes.

Catfish

Gafftopsail Catfish

Appearance: The Gafftopsail Catfish has a bluish-green back and a silver-white belly, with three sharp spines (one at beginning of dorsal fin and one on each pectoral fin) that have elongated, fleshy filaments. This Catfish has two barbels (whisker-like organs) on its chin and a barbel at each corner of mouth its mouth that are flattened and very long.
Size: Up to 27 inches, 10 pounds
Habitat: Usually found in coastal waters but sometimes swims into brackish waters.
Behavior: This Catfish is usually less common to find than the Hardhead Catfish.

Hardhead Catfish

Appearance: The body of the Hardhead Catfish ranges from brownish to gray-green, with a white to yellowish belly. This Catfish also has three sharp spines (one at beginning of dorsal fin and one on each pectoral fin) but the spines do not have fleshy filaments. It has four barbels on its chin, as well as a barbel in each corner of its mouth that are short and not flat.
Size: Up to 24 inches, 12 pounds
Habitat: The Hardhead Catfish is often caught from bridges, catwalks and piers in passes, inland waterways and brackish waters. This fish also appears in continental waters.
Behavior: The male Hardhead incubates eggs in its mouth during spawning season.

Stay Tuned

There are many – many native fish in our subtropical, warm, and sunny state. We have just scratched the surface. Stay tuned for our next installment

Happy Fishing

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