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How to Saltwater Fish

This information covers fishing basics to get you well on your way to catching a Florida memory! Also learn where to fish, find fishing resources and watch saltwater fishing how-to videos, and you'll be off on a new fishing adventure in no time. Then share your catch with us at CatchaFloridaMemory.com to earn prizes for your fishing achievements!

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:

Learn more about who needs a fishing license and who does not. 

Saltwater Fishing Licenses

A saltwater recreational fishing license is required when attempting to catch saltwater species such as fish, crabs, clams and other saltwater organisms regardless of whether in state or federal waters. Avid Florida resident anglers are recommended to purchase a lifetime license for convenience and to save on annual costs.

Special permits: Florida has a few special licenses or permits you need to have when targeting certain species, including snook, lobster, tarpon, reef fish or when shore-based shark fishing.

Freshwater Fishing Licenses

Fishing for freshwater species requires a freshwater recreational fishing license. This license can be purchased the same way as the saltwater license and has similar costs.

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. If you’re targeting largemouth bass in a saltmarsh, you’ll need a freshwater fishing license. Or you can purchase a combo license if you are a Florida resident and plan to fish for both saltwater and freshwater species.

Try Fishing License-Free

Four people on a boat fishing

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 Fishing Days

  • First consecutive Saturday and Sunday in April
  • Second consecutive Saturday and Sunday in June

License-free Saltwater Fishing Days

  • First consecutive Saturday and Sunday in June
  • First Saturday in September
  • Saturday following Thanksgiving
Tackle box

Before considering tackle, bait or your lucky rod, watch this safety checklist video and view FWC's Saltwater Fishing Checklist.

Pack your tackle box with fishing equipment such as:

  • Sunscreen
  • First aid kit
  • Regulations booklet
  • Fish identification guide
  • Several different sized circle hooks that are non-offset, non-stainless steel and barbless
  • Dehooking tools
  • Extra lures
  • Line clippers
  • Extra line
  • Several different sized weights and floats
  • Snaps and swivels if you’re using them
  • Measuring device

Learn about proper fish handling tools and tactics.

Spinning Reel

There are five main types of reels. Watch a video on the types of rods and reels.

  • Spincast: Also known as push-button or closed-face reels, these are recommended for beginning saltwater anglers. 
  • Spinning: Also known as open-face or flip-bail reels, these have a bail that winds the fishing line onto the reel. Watch videos on how to use a spinning reel and how to cast a spinning reel.
  • Conventional: Generally used when trolling or deep-sea fishing offshore.
  • Baitcaster: Offer more accuracy and control for experienced anglers while casting and are often the choice of bass anglers.
  • Fly: Designed for precision and accuracy but can be challenging to learn on your own.

Rod style should be stiff for offshore rods and provide a fair amount of give for inshore rods.

Choosing the right size rod and reel depends on both the style of fishing and species you are targeting. With a little research, practice and talking to your local tackle store, you’ll be on the water in no time! 

Fishing Hooks

Image comparing a J-hook and circle hooks

From left to right: J-hook, circle hook, non-offset circle hook, offset circle hook.

Learn more about circle hooks and other fishing tackle and gear to help released fish survive!

Hook Parts:

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 fish's mouth. However, barbs make it harder to dehook fish and can also damage the fish’s mouth. File or crimp down the barb to support sustainable fisheries! The advantage of using barbless hooks is that they are easier to remove from a fish or yourself. 

Types of Hooks:

One major decision is whether you want to use a J-hook or circle hook. The circle hook is believed to help released fish survive by reducing the rate of gut hooking. Instead, they are made to specifically hook the fish in the mouth. Because they reduce mortality, circle hooks are required when targeting reef fish species with natural bait. The J-hook requires a strong hook-set while anglers using circles hooks should maintain tension on the line but not set the hook.

Hook Size:

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 aught. You should match the size of your hook to the size of your bait and the size of the fish you are targeting. For example, an 18/0 hook might be ideal for shark fishing while a 5/0 hook might be used for grouper.

Barotrauma Tools

Barotrauma is a condition seen in many reef fish caught at depths greater than 50 feet caused by pressure changes leading to an expansion of gases in the swim bladder. These devices should only be used when fish show signs of barotrauma.

Barotrauma tools such as descending devices (require a designated rod or rope and a large weight to help bring fish back down) and venting tools (allow air to escape so the fish can swim down) can help increase a fish's chances of survival if they are used quickly and effectively. 

Watch a quick demonstration on how to treat barotrauma.

Dehooking Tools

Dehooking tools can make it easier to unhook fish while minimizing handling time. Watch a video on how to use a dehooking tool.

If a fish is gut hooked, cut the line as close to the hook as possible to avoid further damage to internal organs. 

Fish Identification

Proper fish identification practice

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 field guide like Fishing Lines. This will provide you with pictures, names and even handling tips. You could also opt to purchase a more detailed field guide or try out different fish identification mobile apps and websites, like our species profiles.

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 Fishing Regulations

Proper fish handling technique

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. In addition to the recreational fishing regulations, you should familiarize yourself with the marine life regulations.

  • The best general rule is to handle the fish as little as 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.
  • When photographing your catch, keep the fish held horizontally and support the full weight as shown to the left.
  • A landing tool like a lip grip helps control the head of the fish and avoids damage to the gills and eyes common to careless handling.
  • If 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, taking the boat in and out of gear while holding the fish in the water, or moving the fish forward in a figure 8 motion.

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 spawning fish.

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.

The Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program (MRRP) is an innovative statewide project dedicated to reducing the environmental damage caused by discarded fishing line. MRRP aims to educate the public on the problems caused by monofilament line left in the environment, encourage recycling through a network of line recycling bins and drop-off locations, and help citizens host volunteer monofilament line cleanup events. 

You can make a difference by disposing of your used monofilament fishing line in a designated bin. You can also cut all your fishing line into small 6-12 inch sections and dispose of in a lidded trash receptacle to keep it from entangling wildlife. 

Where to Fish for What?

Before you head out on your next fishing adventure, you’ll need to plan where to fish. You can even check out FWC’s Boating and Angling Guide Series to help you decide the best way to access fishing near you. 

Shore Fishing

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). Keeping detailed notes of successful fishing days is essential to knowing where each species of fish will tend to gather.

Knowing which habitats and food sources fish prefer is also key. Some species are more commonly found in the high action wave zones of beaches, while areas that offer reliable food sources and shelter such as mangroves or salt marshes are popular with other species. Seagrass, oyster bars, and other structures such as rock piles and docks can also provide good fish habitat.

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 surf rod is key to casting your bait into the surf, where many of these fish tend to school. If you’re fishing with weights, you will want one that is designed to stick in the sand like a pyramid or sputnik weight.

Beach fishing can be done year-round; however, snook tend to populate beaches more frequently during the summer months. Remember to be courteous to other beach goers when fishing from the beach. 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, tarpon, cobia, sharks (you’ll need a no-cost shore-based shark fishing permit), croaker, 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. Watch this video to learn how to use a dehooking tool!

Perhaps one of the most iconic places to fish in Florida, fishing flats can bring in red drum, snook, spotted seatrout, flounder, tarpon and even the occasional cobia. There are many flats around Florida accessible from shore, meaning you don’t need 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.

If you have a boat, try fishing over an artificial reef or trolling in open water. No boat? Consider hiring a charter to get you offshore and help you learn about commonly caught fish in your area and ways to target them.

How to Fish: Techniques, Baits and Knots

Still Fishing

Photo of a girl fishing

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

Trolling for fish from a boat

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 the boat 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

Photo of angler with vermilion snapper

Jigging, one of the oldest and most popular fishing techniques, 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 and offshore method that can lead to success with many different species by simply adjusting the weight of the jig and speed of the motion.

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 used by many anglers, and some consider them to be the best way to catch fish. Each lure type has its own techniques and lures are available for nearly all species of fish.

When using multi-hook lures or rigs, remove all but one set of the hooks. When using lures with treble hooks, clip off one of the trebles. This will help fish survive if released and reduce the chances of hooking yourself. 

Here are 5 types of lures you can try:

Jigs

Jigs

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

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

Spoons are exactly what they seem – they have the concave shape of a spoon. 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, their two primary uses are to troll or cast and retrieve. They are effective for covering large distances with a quick retrieve, making them an effective method for finding fish in an unknown area. They are effective in trolling for the same reason.

Plugs and Crankbaits

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.

Spinner Baits

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 live baits to help you get started:

Shrimp

Add a quick two sentences about how to hook fish or shrimp might good. 

Squid

Cut Bait

Pinfish, minnows, finger mullet, menhaden, etc.

Crabs

Sand Fleas

Below are a few common knots to get you started. As you gain more experience, you’ll most likely expand your knowledge far beyond this list. As you experience situations where more complicated knots are necessary, try visiting our freshwater knot tying page or saltwater fishing how-to videos.

Improved Clinch Knot

Serving as one of the most basic and easiest knots, improved 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.

Uni Knot

The uni-knot, also known as the 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 or lure to your line. Watch a video on how to tie a uni and double uni knot.

Palomar 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.

Visit our marine fisheries webpage to learn more about all things saltwater fishing!