Florida is home to 6 species of Tuna. Most of these species put up a great fight, making them ideal for a fun day out on the water. We have compiled a guide for you to use when targeting the Tuna species, with everything from appearance to location to technique. The Florida Tuna fishing experience will become even more exciting once you learn how to locate, distinguish and eat these fish.
The Atlantic Bonito, also known as the True Bonito or Northern Bonito, belongs to the Scombridae family, which includes the mackerel, Tuna, and Spanish mackerel tribes. This species is Tuna-like in many aspects, with some differences.
The Atlantic Bonito has a body shaped like a Tuna (typically described as “torpedo-shaped”), only slenderer. It is most easily distinguished by the diagonal stripes located on its back. Its back and upper sides are of a dark blue hue, while the rest of the body is silver-ish in color. This fish has finlets behind the anal fin, relatively short pectoral fins and dorsal fins that are very close together. The body of this species is completely covered in scales, with larger scales near its pectoral fin and lateral line.
The True Bonito can reach a length of up to 36 inches and normally weighs between 11-13 lbs.
The Atlantic Bonito is a pelagic species, meaning it lives the middle of the water column of open waters; not on the surface or at the bottom. On occasion, it will come closer to the coast or enter estuaries. It is seldom found in the Gulf, most often inhabiting the waters of the Atlantic.
Behavior & Diet
This fish usually feeds on small types of fish and invertebrates because it lacks the ability to bite and must swallow its prey whole. Its diet consists of menhaden, silversides, mackerel, alewives, or sand laces, and sometimes squid. Although it doesn’t live near the surface, it will come up and jump out of the water when chasing food.
This species travels in schools and is a strong swimmer. The reproduction habits of this fish leave much to be discovered, except that spawning happens in June.
The Atlantic Bonito is considered an “unregulated” species, meaning a Federal HMS Angling Permit is not required in state or federal waters and there is no minimum size limit, but there is a daily bag limit of 2 fish or 100 pounds per day, whichever is greater. Fishing is open year-round for this species.
Although this fish in unregulated, it is managed and monitored by NOAA fisheries, following the guidelines set forth by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
Your best bet for catching Atlantic Bonito is to watch for them chasing bait at the surface. PRO TIP: Watch for birds congregating in search of prey. Consider using fast moving lures or bait. Trolling and surface casting are popular methods for anglers.
Just be careful not to run your boat through a school of this fish or else they will scatter.
FYI: The True Bonito also works well as a bait fish.
The flesh of this fish is very similar to that of Tuna and mackerel but because of its oiliness, it is not often considered the best for eating. If you are interested in cooking it up though, you can grill it up as a steak or bake it.
One of the most outstanding features of the Blackfin Tuna is the thick, bronze-colored stripe on its sides that runs basically from its head to its tail fin. The dorsal finlets also have a dusky, bronzy color with white edges. The bronze of the finlets and along the sides fades away upon death, often looking more yellow. While alive though, the absence of any actual yellow on the fins and finlets sets the Blackfin apart from several other Tuna species. It has the characteristic oval or torpedo-shaped body of Tuna, with a dark bluish-black back that fades into the bronze stripe, and then to silver and white. You may also notice iridescent patches on its sides.
As for fin appearance, this fish has a long pectoral fin that extends below the beginning of the second dorsal fin. There are separate finlets behind the anal and dorsal fins, with the anal fin resembling the second dorsal.
The Blackfin is one of the smallest Tuna species, averaging only 28 inches in length. It can, however, reach up to about 39 inches and weigh upwards of 46 pounds.
This fish prefers the warm waters of the western Atlantic and can be found coastally and offshore. As for depth, larger fish tend to inhabit deeper waters and the smaller ones prefer being closer to the surface.
Behavior & Diet
This is a highly migratory fish, as it likes to stay in water above 70°F (21°C). It tends to inhabit Floridian waters during fall, winter and spring, migrating north during the summer. The Blackfin travels in large schools that typically include Skipjack.
This fish is a fast swimmer, with speeds that can reach 46mph. It hunts all types of prey by straining the water and by chasing and jumping. This fish will eat surface and deep-water prey such as fish, squid, shrimp, crab and other crustaceans.
The lifespan of a Blackfin is pretty short, often not living much beyond 5 years. By 2, it reaches sexual maturity, spawning between April and November in coastal Florida waters, or between June and September in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Blackfin is another “unregulated” species that has no minimum size limit. The daily bag limit is of 2 fish per person or 10 per vessel, whichever is greater. Fishing is open year-round for this species.
A tried and true method for catching a Blackfin is to simply troll the surface. Another known technique is to throw live bait to entice the school towards the surface, then throw in baited hooks.
Many people really enjoy cooking up some fresh Blackfin Tuna. It can be smoked, grilled and seared. It is also a very popular fish used for sushi and sashimi. You can sear the Tuna in a hot pan for a delicious barbecue-seared recipe or take a shot at some fresh Blackfin Tuna Salad Sandwiches. A creamy sauce can also be used instead of salsa.
PRO TIP: Bleed the fish out immediately after catching, so as to maintain the quality of the meat for eating.
This Bluefin Tuna species is in fact a group of 3 different fish: the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Bluefin. The information below will cover the generics of the overall species. This species is often mistaken for Yellowfin Tuna, due to many similarities.
The Bluefin Tuna has the typical torpedo-shaped body but doesn’t have any kind of stripes, spots, or streaks. The back is of a deep, metallic blue color, while the sides and belly are silvery-white. The head of this Tuna is long, in comparison with other species, and is slightly pointed.
This fish has 2 differently colored dorsal fins; the first one is usually yellow or blue, while the second one is reddish-brown or a mixture of gray and yellow.
There is a small space between these fins, with the second being taller than the first. There are then 7 to 10 finlets behind the second dorsal. The anal fin is often dark blue, while the finlets present as bright yellow with black edges. The second dorsal and anal fins are elongated, but the pectoral fins are short.
The Bluefin Tuna is considered the largest of the Tuna species, reaching a length of up to 78 inches and weighing up to 1,000 lbs.
Because there are 3 different species of this fish, you can the Bluefin in many different waters; the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Gulf, mostly in offshore waters but occasionally coming near shore.
Behavior & Diet
The Bluefin travels in large schools with various other species of Tuna when its young. It is another highly migratory fish, moving north in the summer. It feeds on other fish, krill, squid and sometimes crustaceans and hunts using strategies similar to that of the Blackfin.
This is a slowly maturing fish with an average lifespan of 15 years, although it has been said that the lifespan can reach 30 years. Sexual maturation happens between ages 3-5. Spawning for this species is still somewhat of a mystery, but researchers have been able to ascertain that in the Atlantic, spawning happens from April to June in the Gulf.
Because this species is slow to mature and reproduce, it is often over-fished; therefore, a federal HMS Angling permit is required in both federal and state waters when fishing for Bluefin. This permit applies to the vessel, so all anglers aboard are covered.
When fishing in state waters, you must follow federal HMS regulations unless state regulations are more restrictive, in which case you would follow state regulations. Any Bluefin Tuna that is caught in these waters also must be reported to NOAA within a 24-hour timeframe.
It is also important to note that due to overfishing, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the Atlantic and Southern Bluefin as Endangered.
If you’re an avid angler looking for some big game Tuna, look no further. The Bluefin (and Yellowfin) is strong and fast so it will put up one heck of a fight. It may run and take your line with it or put on a show with its circular motions. This fish also has impeccable eyesight and can get spooked easily, so to snag yourself a Bluefin, heed our advice:
- For starters, because of their eyesight, you will want to consider a single strand wire trace to limit visibility of your line.
- Use fresh bait, such as squid, mackerel, herring or skipjack.
- You’ll want to save your Bluefin fishing for the summer, because this fish likes to hang out near the surface in the warm season.
- Keep an eye out for large schools of baitfish and birds hunting for prey; you can almost guarantee a Bluefin will be around.
The Bluefin Tuna is very popular table fare, especially at restaurants, and often has a hefty price tag! This type of tuna makes for great sashimi or Tuna steak. If you caught it yourself, there are several recipes worth trying for your valuable Bluefin. Sticking with the sashimi category, try Bluefin sashimi with soy sauce, sesame seeds and chives; or, try this Marinated Tuna Steaks recipe! You can also try some Bluefin with an olive, cucumber and cilantro relish.
Little Tunny (blue bonito)
The Little Tunny is one of the most common Tuna in the Atlantic and is known by several names: Little Tuna, False Albacore, Falsie, Blue Bonito and others.
The Blue Bonito has a body that is built for speed; the Tuna torpedo shape, combined with a pointed snout and crescent tail make it a powerful swimmer. The dark blue-gray, wavy (almost “worm-like”) lines on its upper sides and back make it easily recognizable. The top half of this fish is metallic blue or blue-green and the rest of its body is mostly silver and white, apart from the tell-tale dark spots between the short pectoral and pelvic fins. It has a large mouth, with a lower jaw that juts out beyond the upper jaw. The dorsal fin has 10-15 tall, descending spines, followed by 8 finlets. The anal fin is followed by 7 finlets. It does not have scales except for along the lateral line and on the corselet (a think band of scales circling the body).
Weighing an average of 20 pounds and measuring at about 32 inches, the Little Tunny is one of the smallest Tuna species. It can, however, reach up to 48 inches in length.
This fish also prefers warm, tropical waters, travels in schools and is a migratory species (although, not quite as migratory as other Tuna). It travels north in the spring and south for winter and fall. Different from most other Tuna species, the Little Tunny is often found in the coastal ocean zones (water that is closer to shore), as well as the open waters of the Atlantic. You can find it in points, jetties, inlets and around sandbars, where schools of baitfish are plentiful. You most likely won’t find a Falsie in brackish waters, though.
Behavior & Diet
This species schools based on fish size rather than fish species, often traveling with other fish of the Scombridae family. They also feed in schools as much of their prey travels in schools as well. The Little Tunny feeds on small, pelagic fish, as well as invertebrates, like squid and crustaceans. This fish is known to feed at night.
The Little Tunny matures sexually at between 10.6-14.6 inches for females and 15.7 inches for males. The spawning season in the eastern and western Atlantic occurs offshore (and sometimes in coastal zones) between April and November, in temperate waters.
There is no minimum size limit for this fish, but the daily bag limit is 2 fish, or 100 pounds per day, whichever is greater. Fishing is open year-round for this species.
This fish is actually a decent and popular game fish, as it is fast and strong. Seasoned anglers favor trolling bait, floating fish such as Bluefish or Pinfish, and casting lures baited with colorful feathers or metal. Many anglers catch this fish with the purpose of using it as bait for larger game. It is not often kept for eating, as the flesh is quite coarse and has a strong flavor. As with several other Tuna species, be on the lookout for flocks of birds when searching for Little Tunny.
If you are willing to cook up some Little Tunny, it can be fried, grilled or baked. Once baked, you can chill it, flake it and toss it in a homemade tuna salad. Just remember to bleed and ice it immediately upon catching to maintain the quality. It will also help to reduce the overpowering fishy flavor if you remove the dark strips of meat that extend the length of the fish.
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Also referred to as the Oceanic Bonito, the Skipjack is easily distinguishable by the dark purplish-blue color of its back and the 4-6 horizontal broke lines along its sides and belly. The lower sides and belly are silver. It has the tell-tale oval-shaped body and is, like many other Tuna species, quick and agile. The first dorsal fin has spines but the second does not. There are 7-9 finlets behind the second dorsal and 7-8 behind the anal fin. The pectoral fins are short.
This fish averages 32 inches in length and weighs about 22 lbs; however, it can reach a length of up to 43 inches and a weight of 76 lbs.
Because it is one of the most popular fish in the world, you can find this fish in tropical waters all across the globe. As with several other Tuna species, the Skipjack prefers warm waters. The difference is that it likes to live closer to the surface in mixed waters, especially at night. Throughout they day, it may venture down to a maximum of about 850 feet. The Skipjack inhabits the epipelagic coastal zone.
Behavior & Diet
This Skipjack is also a schooling fish, sometimes drifting along with objects or large fish and marine mammals. It also schools based on fish size, often traveling along with other tuna species. It mainly feeds on other fish, crustaceans and mollusks, often hunting at dawn and dusk. Spawning occurs year-round in warmer, equatorial waters but only in the summer months when the fish is further north.
Anglers need to have an HMS Angling Permit for both federal and state waters if they target the Skipjack Tuna.
Trolling is the preferred method when fishing for this fish. Many anglers will recommend using brightly colored artificial bait. PRO TIP: Look out for large schools of Skipjack near convergences and upwellings.
The easiest recipe for Skipjack involves seasoning the meat according to taste and grilling the Tuna meat on each side. You can use black and white pepper, thyme, cumin, or coriander, along with salt. You could even try some grilled blackened tuna with a mango salsa.
The Yellowfin Tuna, also known as ‘Ahi’ Tuna (which means ‘fire’ in Hawaiian), is known for having golden-yellow stripes on its sides. The top half of its body is a metallic blue-green color and the rest, aside from the stripes and yellow lateral line, is silvery-white. It has 2 dorsal fins, followed by yellow finlets (some may be trimmed in black) that trail all the way to the tail. The Yellowfin has a long pectoral fin, which sets it apart from the Bluefin, and long anal fins.
The Yellowfin usually averages between 40-80 inches in length but has been known to exceed 7 feet, pushing 100 inches! It usually does not weigh more than 450 lbs. This makes the Yellowfin one of the largest Tuna species but still smaller than Bluefin. Don’t let the size fool you though; this fish has the typical Tuna body shape, making it quick and agile.
This migratory fish can be found mostly in offshore tropical and subtropical waters, mostly within 350 feet of the surface. You may even catch one closer to shore or around mid-ocean islands. It schools in groups of other similar-sized fish and likes to hang out around floating objects and seagrass.
Behavior & Diet
This species forages for fish and all kinds of invertebrates; it does not discriminate. It tends to hunt at the surface during the day. The Ahi Tuna is mature once it reaches a length of 47 inches and spawns year-round, with the peak period happening during the summer.
Anglers need to have an HMS Angling Permit for both federal and state waters if they target the Yellowfin Tuna.
This fish is an ultimate sport fish for seasoned anglers. Some no-fail methods used by Yellowfin seekers include casting topwater lures during the fish’s feeding time, for intense, powerful challenges; chunking, for targeting those fish floating around objects; trolling; live baiting; and vertical jigging.
Compared to the delectable, fatty Bluefin, the Yellowfin Tuna is slightly leaner, offering a light taste and a more affordable price point. It is often eaten raw as sashimi or in poke dishes, just like Bluefin, but grilling is also a favorable cooking method. Give some grilled Yellowfin Tuna with cucumber dill sauce a try, or some seared Ahi Tuna steaks.
If you’re going fishing for your favorite Tuna species, bring you’re A-game! They all present their own unique challenges but are all worth it. Luckily, these species like to school together, as long as they are similar in size, creating a unique opportunity for catching a variety of Tuna. We hope this article has taught you something new or helped you to hone in on specific Tuna skills.