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 2 of a multi-part series that will include saltwater and freshwater species. You can find Part 1 HERE.
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.
Appearance: This brightly colored fish is mostly red with silver on its lower sides and belly, yellowish-orange fins and orange or bronze eyes. It has a dark crescent-shaped blotch at the base of its pectoral fins and a rounded anal fin.
Size: Up to 30 inches, 30 pounds.
Habitat: Coastal waters, with adults in deeper water and juveniles in shallower areas.
Behavior: This fish mainly eats other fish.
Cubera Snapper (a.k.a Cuban Snapper)
Appearance: This fish is dark brown or gray in color, sometimes with a red hue and pale bars on its sides. It has a triangle-shaped vomerine tooth patch; thick, heavy lips and strong canine teeth found in both jaws.
Size: Averages about 40 pounds but can weigh up to 125 pounds.
Habitat: Adult Cubans live in coastal waters near structure and juveniles are often found in estuaries.
Behavior: This fish is actually not as common as most other Snappers. It is among the largest of the species, feeding on fish and larger crustaceans. Spawning season for this fish is in late summer and usually takes place in the Keys.
Appearance: The Dog Snapper is olive-brown with a bronze tinge. It has a pale triangle and row of blue spots below its eyes. It also has large canine teeth in its upper jaw.
Size: Up to 36 inches, 30 pounds.
Habitat: Adults live in coastal waters near structure and juveniles are often found in estuaries.
Behavior: This fish feeds on fish and invertebrates, known to feed at night. Spawning season is from spring through fall.
Gray Snapper (a.k.a. Mangrove Snapper, Mango or Black Snapper)
Appearance: This fish is dark brown or gray in color, with red-orange spots in bars along the sides and the dorsal fins have dark or reddish borders. Juveniles have a dark stripe from their snout to the upper edge of the gill cover. It has two large canine teeth near the front of its upper jaw and an anchor-shaped vomerine tooth patch.
Size: Up to 24 inches, 10 pounds.
Habitat: Gray Snappers live in coastal waters near structure such as reefs, mangroves and seagrass. Juveniles have been known to enter freshwaters.
Behavior: This fish feeds on fish and crustaceans and spawns from June to August.
Lane Snapper (a.k.a. Candy Snapper)
Appearance: The Lane Snapper has a pinkish-red hue on its back with a silvery belly and 8 to 10 yellowish stripes on its sides. It also has a dark spot on its side about as large as its eye, the tail fin is trimmed in black and the anal fin is rounded.
Size: Up to 14 inches, 1 pound.
Habitat: This species is most common in South Florida and lives near structure in coastal waters. Juveniles are often found inshore over grass beds or shallow reefs.
Behavior: Its bottom feeding diet consists of crustaceans, mollusks and fish. This fish sexually matures at 6 inches and spawns from March to September.
Appearance: This Snapper also has an olive-gray color with a reddish hue and a lighter belly. It has a large red eye, red fin edges, a dark spot on its lateral line and a preopercle with a serrated spur.
Size: Up to 15 inches, 3 pounds.
Habitat: This fish is mostly present in clear, coastal waters over reefs.
Behavior: This fish feeds on fish and invertebrates, known to feed at night.
Appearance: As with many other Snappers, this species is an olive-green color with a lighter belly and a dark spot on its side near the lateral line. Its anal fin is pointed, its lower fins have a red hue and there is a below stripe below the eye, following the contour of its gill cover. The tooth patch is chevron shaped.
Size: Up to 30 inches, 25 pounds.
Habitat: This species lives in coastal waters near structure.
Behavior: Spawning season for this fish occurs in July and August and it feeds on fish, crustaceans and snails.
Appearance: The Queen Snapper really lives up to its name, being quite a beauty, with a red back and upper sides, a lighter belly, and large yellow eyes. It has a long, slender body, a deeply forked tail and a dorsal fin with a notch in the middle.
Size: Up to 36 inches.
Habitat: This Snapper lives over rocky reefs of the continental shelf, with younger fish suspending at mid-depths.
Behavior: It is reported that the Queen Snapper lives at depths greater than 400 feet and consumers small fish and squid.
Appearance: The body of the Red Snapper is pinkish-red and the belly is white. Its eyes are red, its snout is long and triangular, and the rear of its anal fin is pointed.
Size: Up to 36 inches, 35 pounds.
Habitat: This species of Snapper lives offshore near structure, but juveniles are often found over sand or mud bottoms.
Behavior: Adult Red Snapper can live more than 20 years and possible even up to 60 years. It reaches sexual maturity at age 2 and spawns from June to October. It feeds on crustaceans and fish.
Fishing Tips: Use soft-bodied jigs, bucktails and spoons. Read more tips and tricks.
Appearance: Somewhat resembling the Dog Snapper, the Schoolmaster is olive-brown with a yellow tinge. It has a blue stripe below its eyes and narrow, white bars on its sides that fade with age. Its fins are yellow, its snout is long and pointed and it has large canine teeth in its upper jaw.
Size: Up to 24 inches, 8 pounds but most commonly weighs in at under a pound.
Habitat: The adult Schoolmaster is most often found nearshore in coastal waters around elkhorn coral reefs. It is also sometimes found on the continental shelf. Juveniles can also be found in grassy flats.
Behavior: This fish feeds on crustaceans, small fish and gastropods. Spawning season takes place in July and August.
Appearance: Similar to the Lane Snapper, the Silk Snapper has a pinkish-red body and a lighter belly, with yellowish stripes on its sides. The tail fin is trimmed in black and the rear of the anal fin is rounded. It has yellow eyes and pectoral fins.
Size: Up to 30 inches, 5 pounds.
Habitat: This species is most common in South Florida and lives offshore over rocky ledges in deep water.
Behavior: This fish spawns from late spring through summer and feeds on fish and crustaceans.
Vermilion Snapper (a.k.a. Mingo or Beeliner)
Appearance: This Snapper has a rosy-red back, a light belly and possibly some irregular yellow lines on its sides below the lateral line. It has large red eyes and a rhomboid-like vomerine tooth patch.
Size: Averages 14 inches, less than 2 pounds but can reach up to 24 inches, 6 pounds.
Habitat: The Vermillion Snapper lives offshore around structure.
Behavior: It feeds on fish, mollusks and small, swimming crustaceans. It spawns from April through September, maturing between 3-4 years of age. This fish grows very slowly.
Appearance: As its name says, the Yellowtail Snapper has a yellow, deeply forked tail. The rest of the body is an olive to bluish color with yellow spots, a yellow stripe on its side from mouth to tail. The lower side of the body and belly have narrow pink and yellow stripes.
Size: Up to 30 inches, 5 pounds.
Habitat: This Snapper can be found in tropical, coastal waters near coral reefs.
Behavior: This species feeds on fish and invertebrates and spawns in mid-summer.
Appearance: The Fat Snook has a deeper body than other Snook species and its mouth reaches below the center of its eyes. It has a yellowish-brown to greenish-brown back, silver sides and a black lateral line extending to its tail.
Size: Averages 10 inches in length but can reach up to 28 inches.
Habitat: This fish is an inshore species mostly found in freshwater, specifically in mangroves.
Behavior: Fat Snook use mangrove shorelines as nursery grounds for their young.
Appearance: The Snook has a large mouth with a protruding lower jaw that reaches below the rear portion of the eyes. It has a sloping forehead, a high dorsal fin that is divided, a black lateral line extending to its tail and a yellow pelvic fin.
Size: Up to 48 inches, 50 pounds, growing much larger than other Snook species.
Habitat: This fish inhabits inshore coastal waters, including mangrove shorelines, seagrass beds, beaches and around structure.
Behavior: This species begins life as a male but becomes female when it reaches 18-22 inches in length. Schools of this fish are formed during spawning. It can tolerate freshwater but not waters with temperatures below 60°F. It feeds on fish and large crustaceans.
Fishing Tips: The Snook will face moving water and wait for prey to be carried down the current. It can jump clear out of the water and burst into long runs. Live pinfish, small mullet, shrimp, or sardines free-lined or fished off the bottom with a fish finder rig are recommended, depending on water conditions. Beware of razor-sharp gill covers! Snook makes for an excellent meal. Continue reading about Snook fishing tips.
Appearance: The Swordspine Snook is yellowish-green to brown-green in color with a silver belly. It is the smallest of the Snooks, yet it has the largest scales. Its profile is slightly concave, with an anal fin extending beyond the base of the caudal fin and a prominent lateral line extending to its tail.
Size: Usually 10 inches in length buy may reach up to 15 inches.
Habitat: This Snook often inhabits inshore estuarine areas.
Behavior: Swordspine Snook uses mangrove shorelines as nursery grounds for its young. It is rare to find this fish on Florida’s west coast and it prefers only slightly brackish or freshwater.
Appearance: This species is the only Snook with 7 anal fin rays (others have 6). It has a lower jaw that curves upward and a compressed body. The tips of the pelvic fins reach beyond the anus and there is a prominent black lateral line extending to the tail.
Size: Usually 15 inches but may reach up to 22 inches.
Habitat: The Tarpon Snook is often found in freshwater and inshore coastal waters.
Behavior: It feeds on small fish and large crustaceans. It uses mangrove shorelines as nursery grounds and is rare on Florida’s west coast.
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Ladyfish (a.k.a. Skipjack or Ten-Ponder)
Appearance: This interesting little fish has a small, pointed head and a terminal mouth, meaning that the mouth is at the very front of its head. Most of the body is silver and the back has a blueish hue. The body is slender with small scales. Its last dorsal ray does not extend into a long filament.
Size: 36 inches, 2-3 pounds
Habitat: This fish occasionally enters freshwater but is often found in bays and estuaries.
Behavior: This species often forms large schools and spawns offshore, mostly during the fall. It feeds on fish and crustaceans. It also tends to leap when hooked.
Appearance: The back of the Tarpon is a dark blue-green or greenish-black color, while the sides are bright silver. It has one dorsal fin, with the last ray extending into a long filament. It has a large mouth that points upward and large scales.
Size: Up to 8 feet, 300 pounds
Habitat: During the summer, the Tarpon can be found throughout coastal environments. During winter, the water temperatures drop and force this fish close to the shores of South Florida.
Behavior: Spawning occurs offshore between May and September. This is a slow growing fish, not maturing until 7-13 years of age. The female may lay more than 12 million eggs that develop into a ribbon-like larval stage. While a juvenile will often be found in freshwater, an adult can tolerate both fresh and saltwater. It gulps air at the surface and feeds on fish and large crustaceans.
Fishing Tips: The Tarpon is a powerful, explosive and acrobatic fighter with great stamina, making it one of the state’s most challenging and exciting nearshore sportfish. Flies, streamers, floating and diving lures, jigs, live bait and dead bait can be used to catch this fish. The tackle to be used depends largely on the type of bait used, the location and the size of fish being targeted. While Tarpon is not a toothy predator, a long, heavy monofilament leader is especially important to protect your line from being cut by the gill plate or tail. The Tarpon has poor food value and is almost exclusively a catch and release fish. If you intend to keep a Tarpon, you must purchase a Tarpon tag in advance and you may only do so in pursuit of a Florida state record.
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