At over 400 square miles, Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary. Its size, and the fact that it’s fed by over a hundred small streams and four rivers, makes Tampa Bay one of the most diverse ecosystems connected to the Gulf of Mexico.
These freshwater sources coupled with the sea grass beds and surrounding mangrove swamps of Tampa Bay also support a wide array of fish species.
While we could probably write an entire book or two about all of these species, below are 10 of the most common ones an experienced fishing charter captain will take you to on Tampa Bay.
Found primarily in grass flats, this fish is known for its prowess in the water and awesome fight. While they primarily feed on baitfish and crabs, a snook has been known to go after largemouth bass. In the colder months, snook like to move into canals and other areas where it’s warmer. Most snook average up to 3-feet in length with the record for Tampa Bay registering at 4-1/2-feet long.
Considered one of the most popular sportfish for charter captains and general anglers, fishing for “Reds” as they’re commonly called is best from early March through late October. Redfish are generally found near docks, oyster beads, grass flats and mangroves. Crabs and shrimp are their primary food sources. Redfish typically average anywhere from 20 to 35 inches in length with the record coming in at 45-inches and 51 pounds!
3. Spotted Sea Trout
Another common species of the “flats,” the spotted sea trout (a.k.a. speckled trout or “speks”) also feed on shrimp and small fish. In the spring and summer, trout are typically found in seagrass or near islands, oyster beds and off the beach itself. In the winter, the sea trout typically move into residential canals and other tributaries where it’s warmer. Speks generally average around 18-inches in length with a state record coming in at just over 34-inches.
If there’s one fish you’ve seen in one of those glossy magazine photos or a picture somewhere, it’s probably the tarpon. Known for its fight and incredible “acrobatics,” the tarpon is considered by many charter captains to be the most exciting fish to catch in Tampa Bay. Tarpon typically average 80 to 120 pounds and feed mostly on fish, shrimp and crabs. Smaller ones are typically feistier and give a better fight. Tarpon also move farther south in the winter months and are catch and release only. The Florida record for Tarpon is 243 pounds.
Video: Tampa Bay Tarpon on Fly
5. Black Drum
Considered a “bottom dweller” species, the Black Drum can generally be found in the flats or at the mouth of a river. They feed in shallow water often near docks and bridge pilings on crabs, shrimp, oysters and small fish. On those sweltering summer days, Black Drum will be in the shade. They typically average between 30 and 50 pounds with the Florida record coming in at 96 pounds.
6. Spanish Mackerel
A fast swimming fish, the Spanish Mackerel is one of the most common fish in Tampa Bay and around Florida. They typically feed in hard bottom areas and wrecks – pretty much anywhere they can find bait fish – on a wide variety of species, including Spanish sardines, scaled sardines and threadfin herring. Spanish Mackerel can also be found in shallow water over grass beds. Anglers and fishing charters look for diving birds to find these fish. The Florida record for Spanish Mackerel weighed in at 12 pounds.
As far as the open waters of Tampa Bay are concerned, Flounder are certainly more prevalent in the winter months since other species move further south or inshore. Flounder are typically found in moving water buried in sand. They inhabit a wide variety of environments, including brackish river tributaries, bays, estuaries and beaches. Male flounder can grow to 12-inches while female can be as long as 25-inches. They generally weigh anywhere from 2 to 4 pounds.
8. Mangrove Snapper
Also known as the Gray Snapper, younger ones are generally found, as the name suggests, near mangroves and in tidal creeks and grass beds. As they mature, Mangrove Snapper move to coral or reefs off the shoreline in the Gulf. Mangrove Snapper are known to move in large schools during their spawning season in late summer. They typically feed on shrimp, crabs and small fish. Mangrove Snapper average 10 to 12 inches in length.
Another winter time favorite, the Sheepshead is typically found in canals, brackish water, along rocky channel edges, under docks, in oyster bars, and in nearshore reefs and wrecks. They typically feed on barnacles and shrimp. Sheepshead is also known as the “convict
fish” because they commonly nibble and steal bait. Most Sheepshead average 3 to 4 pounds, but the Florida record weighs in at over 15 pounds!
With the exception of the Tarpon, the Cobia is one of the larger fish in Tampa Bay. They typically reside in the mouth of the bay at the Gulf of Mexico and are most active in the spring and early summer. Cobia typically feed on crabs and squids and are found in warm, tropical waters throughout the world. The Cobia provides a similar fight to the Tarpon. On average, they weigh around 30 pounds while the Florida (state) record comes in at just over 130 pounds.
Tampa Bay Fishing Charter
Which fish your Tampa Bay charter tries to target and where they take you depend on a wide variety of factors, including the season, the time of day, and the length of your charter.
An experienced fishing charter captain will likely have their favorite spots and be familiar with the various tributaries feeding into the bay like the Hillsborough River, Alafia River and the Manatee River. To learn more about common fish in Tampa Bay or to schedule your fishing charter, we recommend to contact Capt. Steve Betz to schedule your outing today!
** Images courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission