How to Fish
This guide covers fishing basics to get you well on your way to catching a Florida memory!
What to Bring
Which One Do I Get?
Unless you are exempt, the first thing you’ll need is a fishing license. Licenses and permits are available at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com, via the Fish | Hunt Florida app, in person at a license agent at a tax collector’s office or by calling toll free 888-FISH-FLORIDA. (888-347-4356).
To learn more about who needs a fishing license and who does not, visit MyFWC.com/License and click on “Recreational” and “Do I need a license?”
Depending on what you plan to fish for, there are two umbrella licenses an angler can get for fishing: Saltwater and Freshwater.
A saltwater recreational license is required when attempting to catch saltwater species such as fish, crabs, clams, marine plants and other saltwater organisms regardless of whether in state or federal waters. Avid anglers are recommended to purchase a lifetime license for convenience and to save on annual costs.
- Resident Annual: $17.00
- Resident Five-Year: $79.00
- Non-Resident Annual: $47.00
- Non-Resident 3-Day: $17.00
- Non-Resident 7-Day: $30.00
Fishing from shore?
The Saltwater Shoreline Fishing Only license, which is a separate no-cost license, can be used when fishing from a structure attached to the shore or the shoreline. The license is not valid when on a vessel and is only available to Florida residents.
Florida has a few special licenses or permits you need to have when targeting certain species, including snook, lobster, tarpon or when shore-based shark fishing.
Fishing for freshwater species requires a freshwater recreational fishing license. This license can be purchased the same way as the saltwater license and has the same costs.
Want to fish both saltwater and freshwater? Buy a combo license for $32.50.
What if I’m fishing in brackish water? Whether you need a freshwater or a saltwater fishing license depends on what species you are targeting, not how salty the water is. If you are targeting snook upriver in fresh water, you’ll need a saltwater fishing license.
Try Fishing License-Free
License free fishing days provide an opportunity for anyone to try out fishing or share their passion. On these days, the fishing license requirement is waived for all anglers, resident or not.
*Seasons, bag and size limits still apply.
License-free freshwater days
- First consecutive Saturday and Sunday in April
- Second consecutive Saturday and Sunday in June
License-free saltwater days
- First consecutive Saturday and Sunday in June
- First Saturday in September
- Saturday following Thanksgiving
Before considering tackle, bait, or your lucky rod, go over this safety checklist every time.
Packing your tackle box:
Your tackle box should store fishing equipment such as hooks, lures, weights, pliers, and line cutters. It may also contain other necessary items such as a first aid kit, regulations book, and measuring device.
RODS AND REELS: THE PB & J OF FISHING
There are four main types of reels: conventional, spinning, bait caster and fly. The conventional style reel is generally used when trolling or deep-sea fishing offshore. Spinning reels are recommended for beginning saltwater anglers. (Watch a video on how to use a spinning reel!) Once experienced, baitcasting reels offer more accuracy and control while casting. For this reason, these are often the choice of bass anglers. The fly rod and reel combination is designed for precision and accuracy but can be challenging to learn on your own.
Choosing the right size rod and reel depends on both the style of fishing and species you are targeting. With a little research and talking to your local tackle store, you’ll be on the water in no time! Watch a video about types of rods and reels.
The most important parts of the hook are the eye and the barb. The eye is where you will tie the line. The barb is a small, extra point located on the inside of the hook that secures the hook in the mouth. However, barbs make it harder to dehook fish and can also damage the fish’s mouth. File or flatten the barb when planning to release your catch to support sustainable fisheries!
Types of hook
One major decision is whether you want to use a J-hook or circle hook. The circle hook is believed to greatly reduce release mortality by reducing the rate of gut hooks. Instead, they are made to specifically hook the fish in the mouth. The J-hook requires a strong hookset while anglers using circles hooks don’t have to worry about this, the fish tend to hook themselves so you just have to reel in the line. (Learn more on the topic.)
When choosing hook size, first remember that the size of the hook gets bigger as the number gets smaller (size 32 being the smallest and 1 being much larger). Even larger size hooks will end with a “/0” meaning naught. You should match the size of your hook to the size of your bait, NOT the size of the fish you want to catch but there will likely be a correlation. For example, a 18/0 hook might be ideal for shark fishing while a 5/0 hook might be used for grouper.
Barotrauma tools such as descending devices (Watch a video on how to use a Fish Saver descending device) and venting tools (watch a video about how to vent your catch) help fish experiencing barotrauma, a problem that occurs when fish are brought up from deep water too quickly. Watch a quick demonstration on how to treat barotrauma.
Dehooking tools can make it easier to unhook fish while minimizing handling time. Watch a video on how to use a dehooking tool.
Where to Fish for What?
No matter how good your tackle is, if you’re not in the right spot at the right time, then you still might strike out. This means considering moon phases, tides, time of day, water temperatures, and more. (TIP: Colder water temperatures can lead to more lethargic fish, try slowing your jigging during the colder months!) Florida is certainly not lacking in varying types of marine habitats. Mangroves, beaches and salt marshes are all home to specific species. Keeping detailed notes of successful fishing days is essential to knowing where each species of fish will tend to gather.
Fishing the beach is an inexpensive and fun way to spend the day. Besides enjoying the beautiful Florida beaches, you could catch snook, pompano, red drum, sharks (you’ll need a no-cost shore-based shark fishing permit) and more. Using a longer rod is key to casting your bait into the surf, where many of these fish tend to school. This can be done year-round; however, snook tend to populate beaches more frequently during the summer months. Watch a video on how to set up your own surf rig!
Pier fishing is a great option to get further from shore without the expense of a boat. This can open a whole new world of species such as king mackerel, whiting, croakers, black drum, sheepshead, and much more. Dropping dead bait or shrimp down to the bottom is a common method for catching whiting and croaker. It’s likely that you’ll end up catching catfish or stingray if you spend enough time pier fishing. Use caution and a dehooking tool to remove the hook while avoiding the spines or stinger.
Perhaps one of the most iconic places to fish in Florida, fishing flats can bring in red drum, snook, sheepshead, spotted seatrout, and even the occasional cobia. There are many flats around Florida accessible from shore, meaning you don’t have to have a boat to fish a flat. Kayaks and wade fishing are both viable options that can even get you closer to the fish than a boat. Fishing a flat can be a puzzling task but the reward is well worth it. The incoming tide (several hours before high tide) may be preferable as many fish gather closer to the shore or middle of the flat. Outgoing tides give anglers the opportunity to reel in some fish while schools are forced to leave the flat for deeper water. Every flat is unique, so it is important to keep a lookout for signs of life such as mullet jumping and birds diving. Being in the right spot on the flat at the right time is the key to success.
Knowing the fish that you want to catch helps maximize your time on the water. More importantly, knowing your desired species gives you an idea of where to go and what to bring. One great option to help identify your catch is a copy of a fishing guide like Fishing Lines. This will provide you with pictures, names, and even handling tips. The best way to identify your catch is to look at the shape, colors, fins, and any distinct markings. Also, consider what you know about your catch. Compare your observations with the information found in the guide.
Ethical Angling and Catch Regulations
Knowing the limits and executing the appropriate way to catch and release a targeted fish is called Ethical Angling. Ethical Angling means knowing when to keep and when to release your catch while always handling fish with care. This enables sustainable fisheries for generations to come.
Before you go, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the current regulations and best practices for handling fish. If possible, leaving fish in the water during release is the safest option. If you must remove the fish from the water, wet your hands first to minimize damage to their protective slime. The best general rule is to handle the fish as little as possible. When photographing your catch, keep the fish held horizontally and support the full weight as shown to the right. (TIP: A landing tool helps control the head of the fish and avoids damage to the gills and eyes common to careless handling.)
In the case that the fish appears lethargic upon release, resuscitation may be needed. The goal is to force water gently through the mouth and over the gills. (This can be done by using the current or taking the boat in and out of gear while holding the fish in the water.)
Types of regulations:
- Bag limit - How many fish a person can harvest during a given time. This is often measured per person, per day and occasionally also includes a daily vessel limit.
- Minimum size limit – Rules that state a fish must be larger than a certain size for them to be harvested. These rules allow fish to reach a size that enables spawning before being harvested.
- Slot limit – Similar to the minimum size limit, slot limits have both an upper and lower size limit, and only fish that are within that slot may be harvested. This tool allows young fish to mature, while also protecting larger fish, which are ready to spawn.
Season – Times of year that are open or closed to fishing for a certain species. This tool is used to protect fish from harvest during sensitive times of the year such as spawning periods or times of heavy fishing.
How to Fish: Techniques and Lures
Still fishing or bait fishing are the most basic fishing techniques. Still fishing is dropping your baited line in the water and waiting for a fish to bite. Still fishing can be done from anywhere: a boat, a pier, or simply standing on shore. In Florida, anchoring offshore and dropping live or cut bait to the bottom is a popular method for many desirable species including grouper and snapper. Bottom fishing means you need to add a weight to your rig. It should be heavy enough to beat the current and get to the desired depth. The key is being ready for changing conditions and using the lightest possible weight to get your bait down to the bottom. Do not bottom fish in areas where your gear might get snagged such as over oyster beds.
Trolling is a popular fishing technique which can be done with live bait or artificial lures and requires a boat. Let your bait out behind the boat and put it in gear! Slowly trolling live baits has proven a favorite method for many Florida anglers, especially for king mackerel and other pelagic species. A downrigger may be used to adjust the depth while outriggers can spread out bait.
Jigging is one of the oldest and most popular inshore fishing techniques. Used by many anglers, jigging gives the appearance of an injured fish. To jig, cast out and let your jig sink to the bottom. Using your wrist quickly snap and flick your rod either horizontally (side to side) or vertically (up and down). Afterward, proceed to let your jig sink back to the bottom. Repeat the process. This is a popular inshore method that can lead to success with many different species by simply adjusting the weight of the jig and speed of the motion.
How to Fish: Lures
Lures are shiny, colorful, artificial baits used to attract or lure fish. Coming in all types, shapes, and sizes, lures usually look like small baitfish or insects. Lures are popularly used by many anglers, and some consider them to be the best way to catch fish. Lures are also available for nearly all species of fish, from spinners to sunfish to plastic worms and minnow imitation for bass. Each lure type has its own techniques. Here are 5 lures you can use to catch fish:
Jigs are some of the most popular lures around. Used in both freshwater and saltwater, jigs come in many different shapes, colors, and sizes. Jigs usually consist of a weighted head and a hook or a slender, narrow metal jig. This is when the jigging technique should come into play.
Poppers are either wooden or plastic lures that are typically used in topwater fishing techniques. Carved with the cupped faces, poppers are designed to create topwater commotion to attract predators. While they are often used for other species, they are primarily known for their use in bass fishing.
Spoons are exactly what they seem. Spoon lures shimmer like the scales on a small baitfish to imitate prey. They come in many different weights and colors and are useful in multiple fishing techniques. However, two primary uses are: cast and retrieve, and trolling. They are effective for covering large distances with a quick retrieve. This makes them an effective method for finding fish in an unknown area. They are effective in trolling for the same reason.
Plugs and Crank baits
Plugs and crankbaits, much like poppers, attract fish at the top of the water. However, unlike poppers, plugs can be used beneath the surface depending on the style. Some plugs include lights, rattles, propellers, diving lips and much more! This makes for a fun style of lures to explore and find your favorite. Watch a video on how to use topwater plugs!
Spinners or spinner baits are used to catch inshore or freshwater species. This bait works by having an arm or blade spin around a hook or a lead head jig. Spinner baits work by imitating the sounds and movements of prey.
Nothing beats the real thing. Whether in saltwater or freshwater, live bait is often considered one of the simplest and most effective methods of fishing. They appear, smell, and taste appealing to fish. However, to choose your bait, know your fish. The best tip and old saying for live bait is to “match the hatch.” This means whatever the fish is naturally eating is most likely your best bet to use as bait. Learning to throw a cast net can be essential to getting a live well of fresh, lively, and local baits (Watch a video to learn how to pick a cast net and another on how to throw it). Here are some popular, universal freshwater and saltwater baits to help you get started:
whole or cut bait such as menhaden
The hangman’s knot, also known as a uni-knot or Duncan knot, is not only extremely versatile but also extremely easy to master. It is most notably used when tying lines together (double uni knot) or tying a hook/lure to your line. The uni-knot version of a hangman’s knot is depicted below. Watch a video example.
Serving as one of the most basic and easiest knots, clinch knots are used when tying hooks, various lures, and swivels to a line. (Watch a video of how to tie an improved clinch knot)
Palomar knots are one of the strongest knots to tie for braided line. Popularly considered one of the most reliable knots, Palomar knots are used to attach a line to a hook, leader, etc. and is also best when tying braided fishing line to a hook.