Estero Bay Fish

A wide array of saltwater fish species can be found in Estero Bay. Below are some of the most common species that call southwest Florida home and their corresponding regulation seasons and size limits. Regulations are subject to change – check the FWC’s website for the most up to date rules and regulations.

Black Drum

Black Drum | Bonita Boat Rentals
Pogonias cromis
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Slot 14″ – 24″ (may possess one over 24″ included in bag limit)
  • Bag Limit: 5 fish per person per day

Very similar to the red drum and sheepshead, the black drum is the largest of the drum species. Like the red drum, its name is for the drumming noise they make when out of the water. Its main identifying characteristic is the barbels on its lower jaw that resemble a beard, used to detect prey while drifting along the bottom. Because it is a bottom dweller, you want to keep your bait on the bottom while targeting this fish. Shrimp or other cut bait are among the most commonly used bait for catching black drum and you’re most likely to find them hiding near dock pilings or in oyster beds. They can grow to be as large as 67 inches and can live to be over 35 years old! The largest catch ever recorded was 96 pounds and caught near Fernandina Beach.

Blue Runner

Blue Runner | Bonita Boat Rentals
Caranx crysos
  • Unregulated Species

Sometimes referred to as the “Blue Stripe Jack,” the Blue Runner is very similar to the Crevalle Jack. While they can reach up to 20 inches and weigh in at 4 pounds, you will most commonly see this fish weigh in at around one pound. They feed on very small fish, shrimp, or squid and usually lurk around floating objects or structures. Mature species may be found inshore, whereas juveniles stay offshore after spawning until reaching adulthood. Found to be a less than desirable table fish, you can use the Blue Runner as bait to catch larger fish, including a monster-sized Snook or Tarpon while fishing inshore.


Catfish | Bonita Boat Rentals
Arius felis
  • Unregulated Species

Perhaps the least desirable saltwater catch is the Hardhead Catfish. Though not considered officially poisonous, incorrect handling of this fish can result in serious injury. Their razor sharp spines and fins will slice through flesh and can even go through a sole of a tennis shoe with relative ease. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance that you handle catfish with extreme caution and never assume you can step on the fish to keep it still while you pull out its hook. We highly recommend cutting your line if you are inexperienced in handling this fish – after all, rigging up another line is much more preferable to spending a day in the ER with a catfish spine through your hand! While they are frustratingly easy to catch as compared to the more prize-worthy fish in the bay, catfish aren’t all bad. Use them as bait for tarpon or cobia and remember that to be a true angler is to show respect for all members of our beautiful ecosystem.


Cobia | Bonita Boat Rentals
Rachycentron canadum
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Minimum 33″ fork length
  • Bag Limit: 1 fish per person per day or 2 per vessel, whichever is less

Shaped long and thin like a torpedo, many an angler will say the cobia fights like one too. Both exciting to catch for sport and excellent table fare, cobia is a much sought after fish, especially given that it lives in tropical waters all around the world. We see this fish the most once the waters to the north of us get above 68 degrees and they make their way to Southwest Florida’s warmer waters come October. Highly mobile, this fish lives a mostly solitary life in open water but is also found inshore in small groups. Once inshore, they frequent buoys and channel markers, as well as any other free floating object where they prey on shrimp, small fish, and crabs. Catch this fish with nearly any kind of live bait, but you may get especially lucky if you rig up a pinfish or blue runner.

Crevalle Jack

Crevalle Jack | Bonita Boat Rentals
Caranx hippos
  • Unregulated Species

Few fish put up as fun a fight as the Crevalle Jack. This is the most common of the local jack species, found both inshore and offshore in varying rates of salinity. Smaller jacks cruise inshore waters in large schools while the larger ones prefer to hunt in pairs offshore. Shrimp and other small live bait interest this jack the most. When targeting bigger Crevalle, use the most lively bait available as this fish gets bored quickly by anything that appears unnatural. Though their strong-tasting meat is undesirable to most palates, eating smaller-sized crevalle has become somewhat popular.

Florida Pompano

Pompano | Bonita Boat Rentals
Trachinotus carolinus
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Minimum 11″ fork length
  • Bag Limit: 6 fish per person per day

A member of the jack family, the Florida Pompano puts up a fight nearly as fun as that of the Crevalle Jack. Much better tasting than its more common cousin however, pompano is a fine dining staple in Florida and a prized catch in Estero Bay. Find pompano near sandy shorelines, oyster bars, and seagrass beds as this fish prefers murky water conditions. Migration patterns send this pompano down to our waters come December or January, once water temperatures up north have gone below their favored 70-80 degrees. The pompano’s diet consists mostly of shrimp, sand fleas, and crab – so be sure to use those as bait when targeting this fish.

Gag Grouper

Gag Grouper | Bonita Boat Rentals
Mycteroperca microlepis
  • Closed Season: June 1 – Dec. 31
  • Size Limit: Minimum 24″ total length
  • Bag Limit: 2 per person within 4 grouper aggregate bag limit

Fish a rocky bottom to catch many of the fish found in Estero Bay, including the prized Gag Grouper. Be ready for a thrill because this guy doesn’t come in easily. Most grouper strike extremely hard and then, once hooked, fight even harder. Gags use the rocky landscape they frequent to their advantage once they’re hooked and will often attempt to take your line down into a hole. The attentive angler knows to crank the reel’s drag down to prevent the grouper from reaching a hole or else the chance for a catch disappears into the hole with him. Delicious, firm white flesh makes this fish excellent table fare and some much sought after game nearly everywhere in Florida.

Gray (Mangrove) Snapper

Gray Snapper | Bonita Boat Rentals
Lutjanus griseus
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Minimum 10″ total length
  • Bag Limit: 5 fish per person within the 10 snapper aggregate bag limit

Though maybe not as revered as the mighty Snook or as impressive as a colossal Redfish, you’ll never see an inshore angler upset with a cooler full of gray snapper. These snapper hang out anywhere from mid-depth to bottom near virtually any inshore structure, earning them the nickname “mangrove” snapper. Live bait such as shrimp or minnows are most appetizing to the snapper – but be sure to rig it up on low visibility leader as this fish has excellent eyesight. Catch enough of them to make Snapper Almondine and you won’t be disappointed – it’s even Captain Andy’s favorite meal!


Ladyfish | Bonita Boat Rentals
Elops saurus
  • Unregulated Species

You’re cruising Estero Bay and see something small leap out of the water. What was it? More than likely, you saw a school of ladyfish. Though not considered edible in most circles, these fish are very fun to catch and make excellent live bait for large snook or tarpon. They frequent lower salinity estuaries – especially shallow, slow-moving water areas like mangrove channels. Although their chompers aren’t as obvious as those of a sheepshead, these fish do have small, razor sharp teeth that will cut flesh. Consider a de-hooker or some other precaution while handling. An added bonus, these fish bite around the clock, their intense energy a welcome reprieve from an otherwise dead tide.


Mullet | Bonita Boat Rentals
Mugil cephalus
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: None
  • Bag Limit: 50 fish per person per day

Fish these waters from Thanksgiving through January and you’ll be sure to experience what’s known as the ‘fall mullet run,’ peak season for this species as large schools move down from the Carolinas into the warmer waters of Southwest Florida before heading offshore into the Gulf. Throw a baseball-sized fist of chum away from the boat and cast into it for your best shot at catching mullet as they’re easily spooked by your anchored vessel.

Catch mullet to use as bait or use the school itself as bait – a school of mullet gives itself away by quickly leaping across the surface as they’re pursued by predators. Use this to your advantage to catch the prized sportfish hunting the mullet! Instead of putting yourself right in the middle of the commotion, cast your bait towards the outside of the frenzy and work it across the surface like a wounded fish in order to entice snook, redfish, trout, and others looking to pick off mullet on the outside of the school.

While mullet make excellent live baitfish as nearly every fish in the Bay will feed on them, their reputation is changing from exclusively that of baitfish to more elegant table fare. Mullet roe is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, especially China. Known internationally as “bottarga,” mullet roe is beginning to gain popularity domestically as well, with Cortez Bottarga of Anna Maria Island, Florida fetching $300 a pound to supply upscale restaurants with mullet roe around America and the rest of the globe.


Pinfish | Bonita Boat Rentals
Lagodon rhomboides
  • Unregulated Species

Pinfish are a common baitfish that can tolerate waters of highly varying conditions – they will thrive in waters from 50-95 degrees and any amount of salinity from freshwater to full saltwater. Due to their hardy nature, they can be found everywhere from the coast of Massachusetts to the Yucatan Peninsula. They spawn offshore from late fall to early winter and eggs are carried inshore by ocean currents where they settle in shallow waters until maturity.

Predators of the pinfish include many prized sportfish of Southwest Florida including grouper, snapper, trout, redfish, snook, and countless others. There are many ways to catch pinfish – a pinfish trap made of chicken wire that can be found at your local bait shop is a good option as well as hook and line fishing near a grass flat, or chumming up an area for cast netting.

Red Drum

Red Drum | Bonita Boat Rentals
Sciaenops ocellatus

Red drum, also called redfish, channel bass or reds, are one of Florida’s most popular sport fish. Red drum are named after the “drumming” sound it makes when taken out of the water.


Sheepshead | Bonita Boat Rentals
Archosargus probatocephalus
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Minimum 11″ total length
  • Bag Limit: 8 fish per person per day

Identifying characteristics of the sheepshead include its human-like teeth and its black and silver prison stripes that earn it the nickname “convict fish.” Much like a convict, sheepshead are known to suck the bait off your hook without you even realizing it, so be sure to check your bait semi-often when you know these burglars are around.

Find sheepshead in Estero Bay once temperatures begin to drop in the fall and they make their move inshore. Their impressive teeth makes oysters and barnacles their favorite snack – meaning you can find sheepshead wherever you might find crustaceans, such as channel markers, docks, seawalls and artificial reefs. Chum them up with barnacles and break off a shrimp’s head to use as bait, hooking it through the tail to hide the hook. Cast so that your line drifts into a structure for your best chance at catching one of these delicious fish. Look out for a subtle bite and rapidly set the hook to ensure a successful catch but don’t get discouraged if they escape – the elusive sheepshead can evade even the best of anglers!


Snook | Bonita Boat Rentals
Centropomus undecimalis

Snook, also called linesider, sergeant fish or robalo, are one of Florida’s most sought after sport fish. All snook begin life as males, but between 18″ to 22″, some become females. When feeding, they face into the current and wait for prey to come to them. When hooked, snook jump clear out of the water and make a hard run, usually towards structure. They are excellent table fare but be careful of the razor-sharp gill covers. Snook cannot tolerate water temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the frigid winter of 2010 killed over 100,000 snook statewide.

Southern Flounder

Southern Flounder | Bonita Boat Rentals
Paralichthys lethostigma
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Minimum 12″ total length
  • Bag Limit: 10 per person per day

The Southern Flounder is impressive table fare and a prized catch in Southwest Florida. Tolerant of low salinity, find southern flounder in the more brackish parts of the Bay near the mouth of the Imperial River. Camouflaged to match the bottom, this ambush predator uses the tide to their advantage to prey upon bait passing overhead – so be sure the water you’re fishing in has some movement if you want to land one. Try your luck at inlets and bridges at passes with an active current.

Southern flounders are not very picky eaters but they aren’t completely fooled either – live shrimp will suit them just fine as will a lure so long as it’s flavored. Cast in such a way that your bait will drift very slowly along the bottom with the tide. Pay attention because a southern flounder hit is gentle and difficult to detect at first. Allow 5-10 seconds after the initial hit before setting the hook, the flounder needs this time to get the bait fully into their mouths if you want a chance at keeping them on the line. Also make sure to use a net to get them into the boat – many a flounder is lost as they’re pulled out of the water!

Spanish Mackerel

Spanish Mackerel | Bonita Boat Rentals
Scomberomorous maculatus
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: Minimum 12″ total length
  • Bag Limit: 15 per person per day

Spanish mackerel are plentiful in Southwest Florida so long as the water temperatures are ‘just right,’ hovering around 70 degrees. The Spanish mackerel run begins around November in these waters and lasts until the water gets a little too cool for the mackerel and they make their way south. The run then picks up again around mid-March through May, when our waters get too hot and the fish migrate north again for the summer.

The best bite is early in the morning when they’re most active. Minnows and mullet are their favorite but artificial baits will get the job done, especially if it has shiny patterns of silver or gold. Spot Spanish mackerel in the surf or look for diving pelicans nearby – but be sure to drift to a mackerel spot slowly and quietly as this fish is easily spooked. Spanish mackerel are one of the quickest fish in the Bay – they aren’t like a lazy flounder who waits for bait to pass by. Far from lazy, the Spanish mackerel hunts down its prey, striking it quickly and aggressively – so keep your bait lively and retrieve it often if you want to entice a mackerel.

While they’re not the most desirable tasting fish in the Bay, they are very entertaining fighters and overall a very neat fish. If you do plan on eating your catch, be sure to bleed it out right away and eat it fresh as Spanish mackerel does not freeze well.

Spotted Seatrout

Spotted Seatrout | Bonita Boat Rentals
Cynoscion nebulosus
  • Closed Season: None
  • Size Limit: More than 15″ and less than 19″ total length (may possess one over 19″ included in bag limit)
  • Bag Limit: 3 fish per person per day with 6 fish vessel limit

The spotted (or speckled) seatrout is actually not a trout at all – in fact, the ‘trout’ to which we will be referring is actually in the same family as redfish and black drum, colloquially known as ‘croakers’ due to the drumming noise they make while out of the water. Spotted seatrout are unique in that they rarely migrate very far from the estuaries in which they are spawned. Spawning occurs inshore from March through November mostly near seagrass beds and mangroves. Since spotted seatrout often hang out near the same places they spawn and feed, anywhere with a grassy or muddy bottom is likely to be a hot spot for this fish. And, since they tend to frequent the same locations, make sure you mark your coordinates if you had a lucky day with spotted seatrout because more than likely you’ll get lucky at the same spot again.

Spotted seatrout feed most heavily from early to mid-morning on mostly live shrimp. They’re ambush predators, hitting their prey hard and fast with their sharp teeth before swallowing it whole. For this reason, be sure to set the hook appropriately as soon as you feel a trademark hard hit. When feeding, spotted seatrout regurgitate part of their food and the oil slick it leaves behind on the surface will alert an attentive angler to their whereabouts.

Spotted seatrout are very delicate creatures, especially their paper-thin mouths. You’ll want to bring any keepers in with a net to ensure the trout’s mouth doesn’t rip from the hook as it’s brought into the boat. Return any unwanted or illegal fish as promptly and gently as possible so the species can retain a healthy population.


Stingray | Bonita Boat Rentals
Hypanus americanus
  • Unregulated Species