A Boatload of Fish on Florida’s Treasure Coast

Terry Gibson

It’s springtime as I pen this blog post, late-April to be exact. Rising water temps have many species of fish migrating north and feeding along Florida’s Treasure Coast. That’s where I live and run a charter service, along with freelance writing and working as a consultant for conservation groups.

On this calm day, I’m sitting in the wrong chair. Several of my friends in the charter industry are taunting me via text message with reports of cobia, dolphin (mahi mahi) and a bevy of snapper species along with other reef fish. A few of those guys include fishermen that used to have issues with feds and the councils managing certain species under the auspices of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA). That’s the body of law that established the fisheries management council process, where as fishermen we get to provide input on rules that ensure that fish populations remain strong and diverse. With fisheries management on my mind, I stopped short of responding with, “How do you like those regulations now?”

My buddies will spend quite a bit of time at the cleaning table this evening. I hope they count their blessings. A few species remain fished down to low levels of abundance and geographic distribution here in the South Atlantic, but the science and on-water experience show that most of the stocks managed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service are healthier than they’ve been in decades. We’re witness to these rebounds.

I would never allow people on my boat to approach a recreational fishing trip this way—we have a take-what-you need policy—but the regulations allow us to kill an obscene amount of fish. After checking the council’s regulations and fish ID page, it looks like we could keep more than 77 individuals of managed fish species per day across families that include the snappers, groupers, mackerels, porgies, grunts, jacks, and wrasses, as well as dolphin, wahoo and cobia. Such a haul could easily add up to more than 400 pounds of fish. Granted, you can’t catch all of these species all of the time everywhere. Many are migratory, and some are basically tropical, so they don’t always occur in the same waters at the same time.

But still, if you have the time, energy, and skills, you can literally land a boatload:

Cobia: If you’re fishing in federal waters, you’re allowed two cobia over 33 inches per day. If you’re fishing inside Florida waters, you’re allowed one fish per person over 33 inches and a maximum of six per boat. To put how much food this is into perspective, I caught one cobia about 38 inches two weeks ago, gave my buddy a fillet and took home the other. My wife and I ate cobia for three consecutive dinners, with plenty enough to enjoy fresh sashimi the first night. Cobia can exceed 100 pounds, and I’d guesstimate a 33-inch fish weighs about 15 pounds. So a six-fish boat limit would likely provide between 100 and 200 pounds, and possibly more.

Wahoo: When I’m offshore, near deep ledges or humps, and there’s a tide change coming, I’ll often reel up the bottom baits or bring in the live baits to troll lures at fairly high speeds for wahoo. I’ll give it about half an hour after the change, then go back to whatever I was doing. Often, that’s enough time to put a wahoo or two in the box, without wasting a ton of time or fuel. You can keep two of these delicious “uber-mackerels,” which can exceed 100 pounds. This tactic is also a great way to catch mahi and several species of tuna at the same time.

Mahi mahi: You’re allowed ten “dolphin” over twenty inches or up to 60 fish per boat. A 20-inch dolphin weighs about three pounds, and would provide a dinner for four if stretched with enough sides. Keep in mind that dolphin grow to more than 100 pounds, with an average size of 10 to 15 pounds, give or take, and plenty caught over 30 pounds. In the most common scenario, a boat finds a school of “peanut” dolphin, keeps the school chummed up boatside, and starts bailing fish. If a boat with six or more anglers catches 60 fish that are five pounds, they’re bringing home 300 pounds of fish, whole weight. You could feed a village with that many mahi.

King mackerel: Florida-based anglers are allowed two king mackerel per day that are over 24 inches, fork-length. A barely legal “kingfish” will produce two generous filets or four or five chunky steaks. Kingfish reach at least 93 pounds, according the world record keepers, and fish in the 40- to 60-pound range are frequently landed. Catch a couple of “snakes,” the smaller, better eating kings, and you’ll have plenty of fish to smoke, grill, bake, or fry. Catch a couple of “smokers,” and you’ll be wondering what to do with 70 to 100 pounds of mackerel. Our freezer is loaded with fish dip.

Snappers: Within the SAFMC region, anglers are allowed an aggregate bag limit of ten snapper across any species, excluding red snapper and vermillion snapper, a.k.a “beeliners.” So your 10-fish bag limit could include delicacies such as yellowtail, the tropical favorite, gray or “mangrove” snapper, which occurs all along Florida, lane snapper, mutton snapper, dog snapper, and cubera snapper, which grow to more than 100 pounds. Even if the fish are on the small side, you’re looking at ten, plump snappers to fry or bake whole. That’s how we like to cook our snappers.

Vermillion snapper: Commonly called “beeliners,” this fishery is one of the rebuilding success stories brought about by the laws in the MSA that require depleted fish populations to be rebuilt. Beeliners prefer cooler, temperate waters to the tropics. They’re rarely caught south of Jupiter, Florida, where there’s a marked climate transition. The species grows to about six pounds. You’re allowed five beeliners per angler per day, in addition to the aggregate limit of ten other snapper species. So if you’re fishing where beeliners occur, you can legally keep 15 snappers, and probably catch that many if you put in the effort and the fish are biting.

Black seabass: Another rebuilding success story thanks to the MSA, black seabass are a small, delicious grouper that grows to about six pounds. I live on the very southern edge of the species’ range, and it’s been fascinating to watch them return to reefs as far south as Palm Beach, after many decades of absence. That’s what happens when you rebuild a fish population: Everyone gets to enjoy the fish along their entire historic range, instead of only in the areas where the habitat suits them best.

We’ve always caught a lot of seabass off the Treasure Coast, but we used to discard a lot of undersize fish to catch a few legal ones. It was a pretty wasteful way to fish, given that even if you vent the fish you release, they swim through a vertical gauntlet of predators back the bottom. Now, the number of big, knot-headed males is way up, and dead discards are down. If you’re fishing on the right numbers, you can easily add five seabass to everything else you’re allowed to put in the cooler, even at the far southern edge of the species’ range.

Amberjack: Anglers are allowed one “AJ” per day, which must be over 28 inches to the fork. Comparable in size/weight ratio to cobia, even a barely legal AJ will provide several meals. A large one will leave you wondering how much to eat fresh, and how much to smoke.

Red porgy: Another delicious plate-sized “panfish” of the reefs. Anglers are allowed three fish per day, in addition to everything else.

Shallow water groupers: Except during the spawning months when the season is closed, January 1 through April 30, anglers may keep three groupers. May 1 through December 31, this aggregate limit may include the shallow water species: gag, black grouper, red grouper, scamp, red hind, rock hind, coney, graysby, yellowfin grouper, and yellowmouth grouper. Several of these species, especially the black and gag groupers, get big. Deepwater species including snowy grouper and the tilefish family are included in this aggregate limit. The world-record gag weighed 81 pounds. If you caught three gags half that size, you’d have more than 120 pounds of fish that’s mostly meat.

Spanish mackerel: Anglers are allowed 15 “Spanish” over twelve inches per day. The area known as “Pecks Lake,” just south of the St. Lucie Inlet, in Stuart, holds millions of mackerel from November through March, while there are always some fish available year-round along our beaches and in our estuaries. These fish reach up to 12 pounds. If the average fish is about three pounds, give or take, you can bring home 45 pounds of mackerel. I hope you have a smoker, because they’re only tasty if eaten fresh, or smoked.

The 20-fish aggregate limit: In addition to the bag limits on pelagic (open water) and coastal pelagic species, and in addition to the bag limits on the reef fish complex, you can also harvest a 20-fish aggregate limit of species not managed under a bag limit. These include tasty triggerfish, grunts, knobbed porgies, saucereye porgies, whitebone (chocolate chip) porgies, banded rudderfish, among others.

Tunas: Tuna fisheries fall under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service Highly Migratory species division. Depending on where you fish, and if you have the appropriate permits, you can keep yellowfin and bluefin tuna, the latter of which grows to more than 1,000 pounds. Smaller skipjack tuna also fall under this jurisdiction.

Unregulated tunas include tasty blackfin tuna and Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda), which have no size or bag limits, except that you can keep up to 100 pounds of them—the de facto bag limit. Certain times of the year, it’s easy to catch that much tasty Atlantic bonito (not to be confused with the bloody little tunny) off northeast Florida. Bagging a full limit of blackfins is usually possible if not easy off the Florida Keys.

Other unregulated species: Many popular recreationally targeted species, including the delicious cero mackerel and barracuda commonly found in large numbers in tropical waters, aren’t regulated. These are included in your 100-pound unregulated species bag limit.

Signing off: I’m glad my friends had such a great day offshore. And I hope others, especially our elected officials, will realize that there’s just no credibility to the argument that the regulations are too rigid for the South Atlantic. Yes, a few species are off the menu, and rightfully so. It takes a while to rebuild the long-lived snapper and grouper species that also are late to fully mature in terms of egg production. The old “system” is to blame for not putting on the breaks on those fisheries sharply enough. In actuality, as evidenced by the liberal bag limits and diversity of harvestable species, the new system allows anglers and managers a great deal of flexibility in terms of what we can catch, where, and when, while rebuilding the species that the old system allowed us to abuse. Let’s stay that course.

About Terry Gibson

Terry Gibson serves as Government Affairs Director for the American Water Security Project, which focuses on repairing and upgrading our nation’s sewage infrastructure, and is an outdoor journalist who publishes in fishing, hunting, surfing and diving publications. He recognizes his parents and public lands and water access for bestowing those skills.

1 comment on “A Boatload of Fish on Florida’s Treasure Coast

  1. Great to have you writing again! Excellent pragmatic guide from ocean to table. My rule of thumb is that if I have to freeze it, then its better I keep it in the ocean to catch it another day. Next time your in Pompano Beach come fish on the Island Candi with me. See you on the water!

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