How to Identify Saltwater Fish on the Florida Gulf Coast


The Florida Gulf Coast, with its warm and relatively calm waters, can be a great place to spend a relaxing afternoon fishing, diving or boating. The Gulf of Mexico contains some of the most productive commercial fisheries anywhere on earth, a testament to the abundance of fish there. With the variety of species in the gulf, including its bays and estuaries, identifying what you may have caught or seen might look like a daunting task. Taking a step-by-step approach can put you on the path to an accurate result.

Things You'll Need

  • Field guide (a book or laminated fish identification sheet, for example)
  • Optional: Measuring device, camera, notepad and pen, fish-handling gloves
  • Familiarize yourself beforehand with the names and locations of the exterior body parts of a fish. This will help you understand the field guide descriptions and to distinguish between similar-looking fish.

  • Consider your location. Some fish species stay exclusively in a particular habitat. For instance, you would find the dolphin fish (mahi mahi) in the open gulf waters. Striped mullet, on the other hand, can be found offshore in shallow waters. Other species stay around pilings.

  • Note the size of the fish. Common larger fish you might encounter on the Florida Gulf Coast include grouper, king mackerel and snook. Medium-size fish include sheepshead and gafftopsail catfish. Among the smaller species are pinfish and ladyfish.

  • Study additional details about the fish's appearance. Is it more elongated, like the sea trout, or more rounded, like the lookdown? Note its color and any distinguishing characteristics, like the dark spot in front of the tailfin of the red drum. Also, take note of the skin texture and appearance. Is it smooth and shiny with less visible scales, like the Florida pompano? Or are the scales more prominent, as in the case of the spottail pinfish?

  • Use the information gathered to find the fish in your field guide or other source.

Tips & Warnings

  • Take a photo or notes if you don't have ready access to your field guide. You can also inquire at a local bait and tackle shop (but if you plan to keep the fish, be sure you're certain it's not on a restricted list---if in doubt, just take a picture and release it). In inclement weather, a trip to a local aquarium, such as the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, can help you become familiar with the local fish species.
  • If you are keeping your fish, be sure you have accurately identified it so you are not in violation of regulations regarding legal catches. Wear fishing gloves--some fish do have teeth and sharp fins!

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  • Photo Credit Bandini:
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