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Beginner’s Guide to Florida Saltwater Fishing

Learning How To Fish Florida Saltwater

Florida Saltwater Fishing snapper
Nothing better than seeing your grandson catch a couple big snapper!

Saltwater fishing in Florida may be the number one sport in the Sunshine State. The Beginner’s Guide to Florida Saltwater Fishing answers many of the novice questions like;

  • Do seniors need a fishing license in Florida?
  • What is the best way to learn about Florida saltwater fishing?
  • What is the best live bait for saltwater fishing in Florida?
  • What are the Florida saltwater fish limits?

Author’s Note;

 I came to Florida over 40 years ago as a cocky freshwater fisherman. I thought I knew fishing! Living on one of the top fishing lakes in Ohio, I thought saltwater fishing couldn’t be much different. If you resemble this “fishing know-it-all” person, get ready for some kindergarten lessons! Lesson number one. Don’t try one of your cherished bass rods on a Florida reef!

With over 1 million registered boats, Florida leads the nation for recreation on the water. According to the University of Florida, recreational fishing brings over 8 billion dollars annually to Florida’s economy. With 1000 people per day becoming Florida residents, we feel certain the Beginner’s Guide to Florida Saltwater Fishing will help some of our newest residents.

Do seniors need a fishing license in Florida?

guide to florida saltwater fishing estuary
If you are fishing in an estuary that may have fresh and saltwater fish, you may need TWO Florida licenses. This guy in the Everglades may need both.

The quick answer to that question is maybe not. If you are under 16 and 65 and over you do not need a Florida fishing license if you can prove residency.

Fishing laws are like many others, they can be complicated.

Do you need both a Florida saltwater AND freshwater fishing license?

Again, the answer is maybe. If you are 16 and under 65, with no other exemptions, you may need both. For instance, if you are fishing an estuary that has both saltwater and freshwater fish, you need both licenses.

For complete Florida fishing license information, visit this website for details. You can also purchase a license online here.

What are the differences between freshwater and saltwater fishing in Florida?

Simply stated, the fish and methods to catch them are vastly different.

Florida freshwater fishing is very much like fishing a river or lake anywhere in the United States. Bass, bluegill, crappie (specs) and catfish are found commonly in Florida. In particular, Florida produces as many 10-pound bass as any state in the country.

Florida saltwater fishing punta gorda
One way saltwater fishing is different than freshwater fishing is the different species you catch. Three guys fishing the same water out of Punta Gorda, same time, same bait and they catch a redfish, yellow tail jack and spotted trout. Snook they were catching are not pictured.

Saltwater fishing in Florida differs primarily because of the different types of fish. When freshwater fishing, you know there may be a half dozen species of fish you could catch on any given trip. Your average catch, depending on what you target, may be measured in ounces to a few pounds.

things you need when flying

Saltwater Game Fish Differ Greatly From Freshwater Fish

There are over 20,000 different types of saltwater fish around the world. Several thousand saltwater species exist in and around Florida. As a comparison, freshwater species number somewhere just above 220 documented by the University of Florida.

On a Florida saltwater fishing trip, despite what you are targeting, you have the opportunity and likelihood to catch a dozen different species any given day. Your average catch when Florida saltwater fishing may be measured in pounds to hundreds of pounds!

Beginner's guide to Florida saltwater fishing cobia
This cobia was caught while fishing for small mangrove snapper in 20 feet of water. It was a 15 minute fight on light tackle.

Personal examples include;

  • Catching a 30-pound cobia after a 30-minute battle on light tackle while fishing for 12-15 inch mangrove snapper.
  • Catching a 40-pound wahoo while targeting 4-6 pound Spanish mackerel. Wahoo are the fastest fish in the Gulf. Talk about being able to spool you in about 3 minutes!
  • It’s common to catch large 30-plus pound amberjack, tuna, and king mackerel while grouper fishing as the bait is moving through the water column.

 

I won’t even mention the number of times a shark has produced some fun and chaos while fishing both inshore and offshore.

Sharks can range from 24-inch bonnethead sharks to several hundred-pound bull sharks.

Florida saltwater fishing shark
Catching a shark can be fun, but if you are not rigged for them, they usually win the battle!

My point here is that being prepared is a key element of Florida saltwater fishing. Rigging, rods, reels, and equipment are much different.

 

How do you learn about Florida saltwater fishing?

There are two basic ways to learn to fish for saltwater species.

  1. Be a cocky freshwater fisherman like me and try to tuff it out learning on your own. This is a good way to lose a lot of fish, embarrass yourself and guests onboard your boat, and spend a lot of money on equipment unnecessarily.

You can also spend a lot of money on fuel trying to find fish, bait, and active water.

  1. Be smart. Hire a charter captain or guide to teach you the basics. I have yet to meet a good boat captain that was unwilling to teach you some basic techniques.

Your guide is NOT going to give you his “numbers”, but he will teach you to find your own. (Numbers are exact GPS coordinates of fishing spots. When I first started fishing GPS wasn’t around. We used LORAN numbers which were not as accurate.)

Florida saltwater fishing charter boat
This was a family fishing trip on a charter out of Clearwater Beach.

Rules for Charter Boat Florida Saltwater Fishing

While our thoughts are to hire a charter captain to learn to fish, there are some written and unwritten guidelines when you charter.

  1. The Captain is always in charge. You may be paying, but for your safety and trip quality, the Captain rules.
  2. You may want to fish for a certain fish. That is fine if the Captain agrees in advance. Otherwise, let your guide determine what is biting and what is fun to catch.
  3. You need not bring anything but your food and drinks. Don’t expect the Captain to feed you. It is common, but not required, for you to bring enough food for the Captain and mate if you are eating.
  4. Consuming alcohol is generally OK with most Captains. However, limit consumption for your safety.
  5. Tipping is anticipated. My rule is to tip a total of 20% to Captain and mate. Split it 50-50 or however you choose.

Finding a Great Charter Captain for Florida Saltwater Fishing

Finding a good charter captain may not be as easy as ads would let you believe. In every area, you will find many specialists.

For instance, you have inshore captains and offshore captains. Then you have offshore guys who are experts at bottom fishing. Others are great trolling guides. 

Then you have some guys that are species experts. For instance, in the Florida Keys, you have just a handful of captains that target swordfish at night. Others look for bonefish inshore on the flats. mainly by sight fishing.

There are charter guides that only do live bait fishing and others that only do artificial bait fishing. Even specialists for fly fishing in saltwater.

Beginner's Guide to Florida Saltwater fishing Boca Grande
This Captain put his guest on a big tarpon in Boca Grande Pass.

If all that is not complicated enough, you have area captains that specialize in annual fish runs. Captains in Boca Grande target tarpon in the annual spring run.

There are guides that love to fish tournaments like king mackerel tournaments up and down the Gulf Coast of Florida. Other captains love grouper-digging tournaments.

The bottom line, learn from a professional. It just makes economic sense and saves you a ton of frustration. If you want help finding a good charter captain in a specific area, send us an email.

What is The Best Live Bait for Florida Saltwater Fishing

guide to florida saltwater fishing marina in islamorada
This brand-new marina at the Post Card Inn in Islamorada is a great place to find out about inshore and offshore fishing charters.

The answer to that question is simple. What are the fish eating?

Sometimes, like king mackerel season, whatever is shiny they eat. Other times the same fish may only eat cigar minnows, or it could be ballyhoo, or some days blue runners are the best.

Grouper always seem to like pinfish but I have seen cut bait outperform live bait. Redfish inshore will like threadfin herring most of the time but if there is a recent shrimp hatch, they will devour that live shrimp.

Many times, tuna are caught in the bycatch of offshore shrimp boats. Mahi (dolphin fish) will sometimes eat anything that moves, but other times they are looking for whatever bait fish is schooling offshore.

The best live bait for saltwater can be dependent on the time of year, water clarity, temperature, tides and location. There is no one-bait-fits-all solution. The more options you have onboard, the better your chances.

What Are The Florida Saltwater Fishing Limits

Florida saltwater fish jet ski
We captured a picture of this guy catching a snook right in front of a tiki bar where we were having an adult beverage. Is this a legal catch?

Warning! The answer to the question is fish limits are ever-changing. It is a moving target to try to keep up with both Florida and federal guidelines. They change bag limits, size limitations, and dates that you are allowed to fish a specific species at least annually.

There are around 4 dozen different types of fish that are regulated. Our recommendation is to keep abreast of these regulations quarterly.

As a general rule, these common fish have limitations.

 All types of grouper and snapper. Cobia, amberjack, snook, all billfish, redfish, trout, bluefish and even some baits used for fishing.

More Resources to Learn Florida Saltwater Fishing

Florida saltwater fishing lures
Do you know what everything on this board is? How it’s used? That’s what Florida Sportsman can help with.

One magazine that was a great help to me was the Florida Sportsman magazine. The hard copy of the magazine and the online version are fun resources. They can also help with rigging techniques and equipment reviews.

Fishing clubs are all over the state. Fishermen are always friendly and willing to help “newbies” with the sport. For a fishing club near you, check out the Fish Explorer.

Many bait shops, sporting goods stores, and big retailers have seminars and demonstrations scheduled relating to fishing.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is a resource for regulations, places to fish, learning experiences, and general information about the sport.

Beginner's guide to Florida saltwater fishing - yellowtail snapper
One of the largest yellowtail snapper I have seen. Charter from Clearwater Beach.
One of the reasons rigging is so important is when you run into a yellowfin tuna off Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic coast.

My Most Embarrassing Moments While Florida Saltwater Fishing – Even After 40 Years of Learning

The most experienced fishermen, despite their preparation, seem to get surprised and embarrassed occasionally. Here are a few episodes.

  • While fishing near the Gulf Stream out of Key West, we had been catching dolphin fish (mahi). They had been hitting poppers on trolling rigs. We knew there was a chance for sailfish, so we were rigged for anything (we thought).

By mid-afternoon, we had several fish onboard and one of the outrigger lines snapped down. I could tell it was a decent fish, but one of the guys that had a little experience grabbed the pole and asked if the drag was set. I said yes and he said the fish was taking a lot of line. I was driving and wanted to keep moving to keep the other lines from getting tangled.

Soon it was clear the fish had no interest in being caught. The reel began to sound like the non-stop whine of a sewing machine.

I had everyone start reeling in the other lines. The speedster fish beat us up. I couldn’t back down and get the lines in before 400-500 yards of line was gone in a flash.

We never saw the fish but my guess was a big marlin that found being hooked as little more than a slight nuisance. I was too slow to react to the fish that spooled us. We didn’t have to lose that fish!

  • We were fishing a kingfish tournament out of Clearwater Beach, Florida. We were catching our share of kings but nothing tournament worthy. We had just rebaited a pole with a fresh blue runner when the king hit it as we deployed it. It was a large fish.

I was giving directions to everyone. Get all the lines in I shouted as the fish was giving us a big run. The guy on the pole was doing good. However, I coaxed him through fighting the fish for 15 minutes until we saw color.

As we brought the fish close to the boat, I could see he was barely hooked after the fight.

Florida saltwater fishing surf
One of the most popular types of saltwater fishing in Florida is surf fishing. In the panhandle, night fishing for huge sharks is a great catch and release sport.

I grabbed a brand new shiny stainless steel gaff I had bought just for a big kingfish like this. As the fish came within gaff range I made a perfect gaff just behind the gills in a fleshy part of the fish.

It was a perfect gaff – except for the part where the gaff slipped through my slippery hands. The fish, the gaff and my pride all vanished in 60 feet of water!

We were left with another “the big one that got away” story in a tournament.

  • We were fishing the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades. The estuary was active with redfish and snook. We were catching a few, despite having a new guy onboard. He was an expert bass fisherman and doing well with the reds and having fun with snook breaking the surface.

When freshwater fishing, if you want to slow a fish down that is taking line, you just put your thumb on the reel spool. No worries.

So our new guy hooks a shark about 6 feet long on the edge of the channel and off he goes. I yelled slow that damn thing down or he will spool us. He put his thumb on the reel and all I could smell was burning flesh.

He burnt his thumb so badly trying to slow down the shark that it was bleeding. I grabbed the rod and cut the line. I should have known he wouldn’t think about using the drag.

The bass fisherman had one sore thumb for weeks and one heck of a story to tell back home about “the big one that got away”.

  • Then there is the time fishing for Amberjack out of Key West with some friends. My wife catches the biggest one at 75 pounds. I wasn’t embarrassed then – just when she tells the story about who caught the largest fish in Key West.

My wife never went fishing again. She says she doesn’t need to after that! I don’t miss her on the boat. Afraid she might do it again! She continues to relish in recounting her story, only this is the one that didn’t get away!

Making Memories While Florida Saltwater Fishing

These bumps and bruises along the process of learning about Florida saltwater fishing were offset by the hundreds of memories that were one-of-a-kind great experiences. Another post may be in order for those thoughts.

Learning Florida saltwater fishing will put you into a class with some great people along the educational way. There isn’t a friendlier group or a more passionate group of people than saltwater fishermen and women. It’s a great sport.

Other Fishing Posts;

Most Unique Fishing Trips in Florida

Best Fishing Spots in South Florida

 

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