Saltwater Game Fish
Learn tips and tactics for catching some of the most popular game fish.
A broad variety of saltwater game fish awaits anglers of every persuasion, from weekend afternoon snapper and grouper fishermen looking for a tasty dinner, to the most hard-bitten tournament and competitive anglers on blue water or tidal flats.
Seaworthy offshore boats take their choice among billfish, tuna, kingfish or dolphin, but have no edge on fun and excitement over the inshore game fish angler hunting the shorelines and inshore waters for redfish, snook weakfish or flounder. Saltwater fishing may be simple and economical or time and money intensive, but the challenge and the lure remains the same for anglers at all levels of expertise and commitment.
Bonefishing, traditionally sight-fishing for them on tidal flats, offers a challenging blend of hunting and fishing. Wary, wily and powerful, bonefish, demand a quiet and stealthy approach by the angler, followed by the gently presentation of a fly, lure or bait on light tackle. Once hooked, the scorching runs challenge both angling skills and line, rod and reel.
Bonefish (Albula vulpes) range from South Florida, through the Bahamas and into the tropical Caribbean. School fish average two to five pounds; the trophy mark is 10 pounds; record fish range into the mid-teens.
Truly the big game experience for everyone, tarpon fishing comes in many forms throughout the temperate and tropical waters where they roam. Success be as simple as soaking a mullet head in a channel, drifting a live bait on the tide, or as demanding as stalking fish in shallow water with a lure or fly.
Whether its baby tarpon, under 20 pounds, mid-sized school fish, those above the benchmark 100-pound mark or the true giants approaching 200 pounds, the acrobatics and adrenaline inducing all-out fight and spirit of Megalops atlanticus stand alone in salt water angling.
Striper fishing offers mainstay sport for legions of anglers on the east coast. From the time of the first European settlers, striped bass, known as rockfish in the Carolinas, Morone saxitalis was an important food fish along the East Coast from the St. Lawrence River to northern Florida and around the Gulf Coast. Modern distribution and importance is limited to the east coast, particularly from the mid-Atlantic to Maine, and San Francisco Bay on the West Coast, remnant of transplanting in the 1800s.
An anadromous species dependent on spawning in freshwater streams and rivers, development has curtailed spawning in historically important breeding areas, and current focuses on the Chesapeake Bay. Veracious feeders, stripers hit a variety of natural baits and lures and are taken by still fishing, casting and trolling alike, both in inshore waters and from the surf. The current world record stands at 81 pounds, 14 ounces.
Redfish, common name for the red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), can be found from Maine to Florida and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Easily recognizable by their bronze backs, large scales and the distinctive black spots, fishing for redfish for most means seeking them in inshore, but they are also common in channels and along outside beaches, where they hit a variety of baits and lures. Most inshore redfish max out at 10 pounds, but trophy fish run up to 30, and the largest ever taken scaled 92 pounds, 2 ounces.
Tuna fishing encompasses a variety of sport-sought species as well as a host of smaller relatives including the bonitos. Of primary interest to serious anglers are the Thunnus genus, yellowfin, blackfin, bluefin, big eye, and albacore. The tunas are among the strongest, hardest fighting fish that anglers pursue, from giant bluefins that can reach over 1,000 pounds, to their miniatures, the bonitos. Trolled artificial lures and tuna feathers help locate fish.
Perhaps the perfect fish, dolphin strike readily, fight and jump explosively, they reproduce and grow quickly, and they’re great on the table. Also known as dolphinfish, dorado, or mahimahi, Coryphaena hippurus inhabits warm offshore waters worldwide, such as the Gulf Stream, and the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the tropical Pacific.
Anglers intent on dolphin fishing generally troll. paying attention to weedlines as well as assorted flotsam, which attract dolphin. Anglers routinely encounter a range of sizes from schoolies or “peanuts,” to “slammers” which may top 50 pounds, with trophies reaching 70 and 80 pounds.
Flounder fishing, or fluke fishing, however you prefer to call it, maintains an unrivaled popularity throughout its range from Maine to northern Florida. During the warmer months Paralichthys denatus moves into the inshore shallows, where it feeds on baitfish and is a ready taker of live and dead baits and a variety of lures.
Flounder fisherman generally concentrate on the bottom and midwater depths. A lively fighter, flounder offers first-class table fare, lending itself to a variety of preparations. Smaller fish generally inhabit the shallower reaches of bays, while larger fish, up to 20 pounds, most often come from deeper waters.
Snook fishing for enthusiasts lapses into a cult-like quest. Famed resident of the mangroves in south Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, Centropomus undecimalis represents one of six related species in the Atlantic and another six in the Pacific tropics.
Susceptible to live and dead baits and a range of lures and flies, snook fishing is as varied as their chosen habitat. They cruise beaches, lurk in the inshore mangroves, and hunt channels and the mouths of rivers. Snook can range from a couple of pounds to the occasion rare trophy of 40 or 50 pounds.
The loose term halibut fishing refers to any of three different species: the Atlantic halibut (current world record, 418 pounds, 13 ounces) from the cold deep waters of the North Atlantic; the California halibut (current record, 67 pounds, 5 ounces), found in coastal waters from San Francisco to Baja, Mexico; and the Pacific halibut (current world record 459 pounds) occurring from the Bering Sea, south into California. Halibut fishing primarily consists of drift fishing, with bait or lures and bait, from the bottom, to mid-water column. They put up a spirited fight and are excellent on the table.
Marlin fishing represents the epitome of offshore angling, due to the relatively rare nature of the species and the time, effort, equipment and money the sport requires. Nonetheless, marlin fishing is a well-developed enterprise for black, blue and striped marlin in the Pacific; and for blue and white marlin from New Jersey to Brazil in Atlantic waters.
Trolling with live and dead baits or lures remains the mainstay technique. The species vary widely in size, with world record white marlin scaling 181 pounds; striped marlin, 494 pounds; Pacific blue, 1376 pounds; Atlantic blue, 1402 pounds; and black marlin, 1,560 pounds.
Cobia fishing occurs worldwide, but for anglers’ purposes they’re sought from New England to South Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. They inhabit tropical and warm temperate waters and migrate along the continental shelf, which brings them into inshore waters, where they may be sight-fished.
But once hooked, these powerful fish unleash supercharged runs, a dogged fight and may incur damage to anglers and gear if boated before they tire. The effort is well worth their exceptional food value. Most run from 20 to 50 pounds, but are not uncommon topping 100 pounds. The world record sits at 135 pounds, 9 ounces.
Snapper represents a large family of related fish in both the Pacific and Atlantic, though the Pacific species only occasionally reach as far north as Southern California. They range in size from pan-sized, to over 100 pounds in the case of the Cubera snapper, and mostly inhabit offshore waters, except in Florida where they occur inshore as well.
Snappers are structure-oriented fish, usually found around reefs, wrecks, rocks and other bottom structure. Snapper fishing usually amounts to finding suitable structure. They are game fighters and universally fine table fare.
Spotted sea trout, technically of the croaker family, represent an extremely popular quarry, wherever they occur, for inshore light-tackle anglers. Sea trout fishing takes place from New Jersey to South Florida and they typically inhabit grass flats and shell bars, though they move deeper when water temperatures drop.
They’ll hit a range of baits, from live and dead shrimp and strip baits to swimming and topwater plugs and flies. They generally run a couple pounds, with 10 pounds the trophy mark. The world record is 17 pounds, 7 ounces, from the east coast of Florida.
Tripletail fishing comprises running and searching, aided by the fact that they have a propensity for floating on the surface with their noses tight against trap buoys, pilings or other surface-breaking structure. Named for the appearance of having three tails, due to the similarity of shape and alignment between the dorsal, caudal and anal fins, their habit of drifting on the surface makes them great sight-fishing targets. They’ll hit a variety of baits, lures and flies, and put up a short but spirited fight. And they make great eating. World record is a 42-pounder from South Africa.
A member of the populous jack family, California yellowtail most resemble the amberjack of the Atlantic, though they are held in higher regard in their Pacific haunts of Southern California and the Baja peninsula. Often found chasing bait in the open ocean, they also tend to hang on structure, such as rocky shorelines and kelp paddies. They’ll hit a variety of live baitfish and squid, as well as jigs and lures. Generally between 15 and 30 pounds, they commonly reach 100 pounds and more. They are tough fighters, and great on the table.
A familiar species to inshore anglers from Cape Hatteras to Maine, these insatiable marauders in nondescript steel-gray seem to feed constantly. Fishing for bluefish is seldom more complicated than finding them as they tear up schools of bait in the nearshore waters, along the beaches or off piers and jetties. They’ll eat a variety of locally available baits, as well as a range of artificials on a fast retrieve. Strong jaws and sharp teeth make keen attention and pliers necessary when landing them. They’ll run from less than a pound to over 20, with the world record at 31 pounds 12 ounces.
This tiger-striped speed demon, a member of the mackerel family, is one of the fastest of game fish. They roam the blue water in the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Pacific, and are targeted species for offshore trollers.
Artificial lures are generally used, as high-speed trolling, around 10 knots, is the preferred method of fishing. They’ll often hunt seamounts and rips, where bait is aggregated. The majority run 20 to 50 pounds, but in places they’ll regularly top 100 pounds. The world record is 184 pounds, from Cabo san Lucas, Mexico.
Fishing for sailfish is many anglers’ introduction to offshore fishing and bluewater trolling. Ready takers of trolled baits, their acrobatics and surface fight provide plenty of action in a manageable and accessible species. Common seasonally along the east coast and Gulf of Mexico, as well as in the Pacific.
Pacific sails (world record 221 pounds) tend to run larger than their Atlantic cousins (world record 142 pounds). In the Atlantic most fish run less than 100 pounds, but at whatever size and whichever ocean, they remain a perennial favorite offshore quarry.
King mackerel, found in subtropical and tropical waters from Maine to Florida, most often go by the name kingfish. Fishing for kingfish is a game of trolling with minnow and feather-minnow combinations, rigged with an extended stinger hook to forestall the bait being cut in half on the strike, which is the kingfish style. Popular as a tournament species, fishing for kingfish has developed as a specialized art, when there is prize money on the line. Most kings run 10 to 30 pounds, with the world record fish from Puerto Rico scaling 93 pounds, 10 ounces.