November 03, 2023
Florida is without a doubt the sport fishing capital of the world. In 2020 alone there were 2.4 million active saltwater fishing licenses in the state. Are you a deep-sea angler looking to catch your next sea monster? Head offshore to troll the local wrecks and reefs. Would you rather stalk shallow grass flats and bays for a sight fishing opportunity? No problem, hop on a flats boat and venture into the backcountry. From feet to fathoms, salt or fresh and everything in between we’ve got it covered.
But, if you are checking fish off your bucket list there are a number of native Florida species that you’ll need to target to complete the task. As always, when comparing one fish to another there will be objectively different opinions on why one is “better” or why one catch is more “impressive” than another. The circumstances surrounding the catch, the method used to catch the fish, and of course, the size or difficulty of the catch will always play a role. However, there are definitely a handful of species that most Floridian anglers can agree are more prestigious than others. Below I have compiled a list of what I believe are the top ten most impressive fish to catch in Florida.
The image of a jumping tarpon is iconic to Florida fisheries. They are beautifully colored animals with magnificent chrome scales and huge bucket-like mouths, making them one of the most photogenic fish out there. Tarpon may very well be the baddest fish that swims. They are prehistoric beasts capable of ridiculous feats of strength, acrobatics and endurance. They are highly migratory and can travel thousands of miles up and down the coast following bait and favorable water conditions. Juveniles spend their formative years in the backwaters of mangrove forests and tidal creeks before heading to beaches, passes and river mouths as full-grown adults. No matter the age, they are a formidable foe. When hooked, tarpon will often immediately hurl themselves out of the water, jumping, cat walking and flipping their way across the surface.
If you happen to survive the initial hook set and the onslaught of ballistic maneuvers, you’re now faced with the daunting task of reeling in a possible 100+ pound behemoth. And trust me when I say they will use every ounce of their body to fight you, going on blistering runs or bulldogging anglers into submission. I often tell my clients the first 10 minutes of a tarpon battle are fun, the following 30 to 90 minutes are pure punishment. There’s a reason captains affectionately refer to this fish as “The Silver King”. Their tenacity, beauty and ability to inspire awe have earned them a reputation as a top gamefish.
You don’t get a nickname like “The Ghost of the Flats” if you’re easy to catch. These South Florida natives are lightning-quick speed demons known for their spooky demeanor. Bonefish look like a mullet on steroids and can cook a light tackle reel, ripping off 100 yards of drag within seconds. They have a muscular, torpedo-shaped body that is perfectly designed to shred through mere inches of water. They don’t grow much larger than 10 pounds so most of their lifecycle is spent in very shallow grass flats and sandbars rooting around on the bottom looking for prey. Their large, forked tails are disproportionately sized compared to the rest of their body, allowing bonefish to accelerate instantaneously. But, that same tail betrays them at times and gives away their location to prying eyes. Their tail will often breach the surface as they forage on the bottom, which allows anglers to spot “tailing bones” in the skinny flats.
However, just because you can see the bone doesn’t mean you have the upper hand. Most of the water bonefish are found in is crystal clear at times. This makes stalking a shallow tailer incredibly difficult. They can see you coming and will force you to make longer, less accurate casts. Their grey backs and pale white sides also blend them flawlessly into the flats. As if that didn’t make things tough enough, bonefish can also be very picky with their food selection. They have small, downward-facing mouths with bony plates inside made for crushing up small crustaceans and invertebrates in the sand. This requires anglers to utilize small baits or well-tied flies for a chance to hook up.
In summary, bonefish are super skittish speedsters perfectly camouflaged to their surroundings that can dust an angler in a matter of seconds. Yeah, I think that qualifies them.
Finally, we have the last member of the "Big 3”, otherwise known as permit. At first glance, permit may not seem like much to the uninitiated. They do not grow to the 100-pound mark like tarpon and are often confused with their silver-sided cousins the pompano. They lack all the cool nicknames the boneheads are given, so what’s the big deal? Look closer.
Permit are gifted with an exaggerated forked tail that produces huge bursts of speed and a flat body they can turn sideways in a current for leverage. This means not only can they peel your drag but they can do it for long periods of time, increasing the likelihood your thin leader will pop. I know what you’re thinking— just tie on some heavier leader. Wrong. Permit are equipped with incredibly acute vision and frequent clear water regions of the state. Both of their eyes are capable of rotating nearly a full 360 degrees around their head and can focus on the smallest of details. This makes them very hard to approach and often results in spooked fish. And If you do get lucky enough to cast at a permit tailing through a flat or find a school edging along a reef, you have to hope your presentation is natural and concealed enough to fool them. They are highly discriminatory when it comes to what they eat, so painful denials can be a regular occurrence.
Simply put, they are difficult to approach, even harder to fool and are notorious for eluding South Florida anglers. This makes them an impressive catch for any outing.
4. Blue Marlin
Hemingway wrote books about them. Guy Harvey has made a fortune by putting their image on canvases and T-shirts. These legendary billfish can grow to fourteen feet long and reach weights of nearly 1400 pounds. A fight with one of these things is absolutely grueling, often lasting between 3 to 6 hours. Much like tarpon, blue marlin are notorious for breaching the surface and violently throwing their head back and forth. The only difference is they are literal sea monsters. They possess a sword for a nose and are larger than a four-door sedan. They can reach speeds of 50 to 60 mph in the water and are absolutely voracious predators. Regarded as one of the supreme predators of the deep, blue marlin are opportunistic and will not hesitate to take down some formidable prey items. They are well known for detonating on schools of tuna and mahi mahi, slashing them at high speed with their bill and devouring them whole.
Despite their obvious attraction to saltwater sportsmen, these leviathans aren’t easy to reach. They typically reside in hundreds to thousands of feet of water outside the continental shelf and along deepwater canyons. To find blue marlin you need to be prepared to make long runs offshore to fish in abyssal waters. The pursuit of bluewater billfish requires big boats, big tackle and big cojones. It requires a commitment to adventure and the acceptance of calculated risk at sea. You have to have some salt in your veins. But, when that risk is rewarded with a 3/4 ton fish of a lifetime, the struggle will be far from your mind.
If Usain Bolt was a fish he would be a wahoo. Simply put, these fish can move. Capable of reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour in the water, wahoo or “Ono” are among the fastest fish in the ocean. Their body is perfectly streamlined with an elongated, forked tail and a torpedo-shaped midsection and shoulders. They can grow up to 6 feet long and weigh over 150 pounds. They possess finely cerated, razor-sharp teeth that can sever their prey in half upon impact. Their beak-like face acts like an arrowhead, cutting through the water with ease. Wahoo are also perfectly camouflaged to the deep blue, with tiger-like stripes down their flanks. They are a perfect predator and are highly regarded among offshore fishermen.
Methods for targeting wahoo range from slow trolling to free lining. However, these days most offshore anglers choose to match speed with speed. High-speed trolling is a relatively new method of presenting large, action-heavy lures designed to rip through the water as they are pulled behind the boat. Trolling at 15 knots may seem ridiculous at first, but it is incredibly effective. By keeping the lures moving at a fast pace you can successfully weed out sharks, barracuda or other slower bycatch while simultaneously presenting a perfect ambush opportunity for wahoo. However, their soft mouths and brute strength often result in pulled hooks and cut lines. Due to their difficulty, size and speed wahoo are highly regarded as a prized catch for an offshore outing. They taste amazing and offer some of the best sushi you can find.
6. Goliath Grouper
If you’d like to see what it feels like to hoist a VW Bug off the ocean floor this is the fish for you. Goliath grouper live up to their name. They can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh almost 800 pounds. They’re absolute units and are an apex predator in any ecosystem they inhabit. They have a rotund, barrel-like body with bulging stomachs and dinosaur-like spikes running down their back. I affectionately refer to them as cookie monsters due to their massive, trash-can-sized mouths and insatiable appetites. I once watched a goliath chase down a wounded amberjack that had just been speared. The grouper ate the fish and the spear whole and plunged back to the depths. If they can fit their mouth around it, there is a good chance they will try to eat it.
Goliath are typically found inshore as juveniles, hiding in shallow structures. When they become grown adults they swim off to haunt the deeper waters of bridges, reefs, wrecks and rock piles. They are known to be extremely territorial and will attack almost anything that’s unfortunate enough to trespass on their real estate. With this kind of aggression hooking a goliath isn’t usually the hard part. Pulling up the fish can be a brutal struggle. Turning a surging goliath is nearly impossible at times. They have a broad, broom-like tail capable of generating tremendous power. They will often break off over and over again on structure before you can effectively raise one. You may find yourself completely outgunned and demoralized. All I can say is good luck!
They’re not the smartest fish that swims in our waters but they taste like butter and pull like trains. Cobia, also referred to as ling or lemonfish, are a Florida dinner menu favorite. Their high-quality table fare and aggressive attitude make them a high-priority target. It just so happens they’re also part of one of the most unique sport fisheries in the state.
Cobia are a migratory pelagic species that swim along both the east and west coast of Florida. As waters warm up, baitfish and crabs become more plentiful along our beaches and attract a number of larger predators. Cobia migrate inland toward the coast and accumulate in shallow water, often just outside the surf. On sunny days when light is plentiful and coastal waters are calm cobia are known to swim at the surface and float around looking for a meal. This makes them an easy target for a sight fishing opportunity. Coincidentally, manta rays migrate up the coast at the same time as cobia. These fish have learned that drafting behind, under and above massive rays allows them to swim through nearshore waters with ease. Cobia will school up on manta rays as they fly through the ocean, occasionally peeling off to pick up crabs, baitfish and eels. This means nearshore anglers can venture out looking for free swimming cobia or manta rays with hitchhiking fish on them. Trust me when I tell you that pitching a jig alongside a manta ray and watching a 50-to 80-pound cobia peel off the ray and smoke the lure is one of the coolest catches you can have.
8. "Gator" Trout
If you say the word “trout” most people picture a 12-inch fish with a mild disposition swimming in a pretty stream. What they don’t typically think of is a toothy savage weighing 12 to 14 pounds and eating baitfish that are nearly a foot long. These yellow-mouthed vampires slash at prey with 1/4-inch fangs and are violent inshore predators.
Trophy-sized speckled seatrout AKA “gator trout” are one of the prized inshore gamefish of Florida. Most male trout are between 15 and 20 inches whereas the females can grow well over 24 inches and reach double-digit weights. The holy grail of trout fishing is generally considered to be a 30-inch female breeder that is pushing 10 or more pounds. But, a trout of this size is extremely rare. Females grow fast in the first handful of years but significantly slow down in the back half of their lives. It is much more common to see 24-28 inch females than it is 30 or over. They are also incredibly hard to fool. They have had a lot of contact with anglers and are skilled at evading capture. Dolphins are also notorious for working their way through flats, creeks and Intracoastal waterways looking for sport fish to pick off. If a trout wants to avoid being eaten they have to be very aware of their surroundings. This makes them a cautious predator and a worthy adversary for inshore anglers.
Snook are definitely one of the oddest looking inshore species in Florida, but they are also one of the most exciting. They have a toothless, bony mouth much like a bass followed by hulking shoulders. Their long tapered body is attached to a big butterfly tail and has a racing stripe down the side. They can grow upwards of 45 inches in length and can weigh over 40 pounds.
Snook are true hammers when they’re full-grown and are revered for explosive attacks on baitfish. A softball-sized mouth can suck just about anything in and creates a signature snook “pop” when they feed on the surface. It can sound like someone fired a gun. They fight like small tarpon and tend to jump when they’re not burning line off the drag. They inhabit a wide range of central and south Florida ecosystems from inshore flats and tributaries to nearshore passes and beaches. For this reason, they are not nearly as rare as large trout, but they are twice as strong and grow much larger overall. If you’re seeking a violent fight from one of Florida’s prized inshore sport fish look no further than snook. They’re your huckleberry.
If tarpon are the most photogenic, redfish have to be the most popular. From top to bottom, east coast to the west coast red drum are found in almost every waterway in Florida. They are one of the most versatile inshore sport fish in the southeast United States. They’re a member of the drum family, so instead of teeth, they wield crusher plates in the back of their throat. These plates can smash hard calcium shells, bones and anything else they can squeeze into their face. Crabs, snails, clams, shrimp, fish, snakes, worms, crickets, mice… you name it they will try to to eat. I have come to affectionately call them the “trash can of the swamp”. This ability to feed on nearly anything allows them to be widespread and successful in so many different environments.
Redfish can grow up to 50 or more inches in length and are considered “bulls” when they are this large. However, the most exciting way to target a red is without a doubt stalking 5-to 10-pound fish in the shallows. These belly crawlers are known to prowl through extremely skinny water in creeks, sandbars and grass flats. They tip, tail and back their way through the shallows, making them an ideal candidate for some thrilling sight fishing opportunities.