Since there are over a thousand different types of fish in the Gulf of Mexico, it would be overwhelming to try to learn about all of them at once. However, you can start by learning about four of the most sought-after pelagic species and about some of the reef species that anglers often target in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gulf of Mexico Pelagic Species
Saltwater pelagic fish inhabit the water column (as opposed to near the bottom or the shore) of coasts and open oceans. If you haven’t done much saltwater fishing, you might be wondering which types of Gulf of Mexico fish species are pelagic? Tripletail, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, and cobia are four types of Gulf of Mexico pelagic species.
The tripletail is an almond-shaped fish that has large, round dorsal and anal fins that look similar to the caudal (tail) fin, which is how the ‘tripletail’ acquired its name. Tripletail are a coastal pelagic fish species that prefer a solitary habitat, choosing to float near buoys or pilings and around offshore debris out in open water.
Spanish mackerel have a greenish back with silver sides and belly, but they also have yellow or bronze oval spots. These spots distinguish Spanish mackerel from cero mackerel, which have yellow-gold streaks along their midline.
King mackerel are a pelagic Gulf of Mexico fish species that have slender, elongated iron-gray colored bodies and light silver sides and bellies. This species also has a lateral line that takes an abrupt drop at mid-body; in contrast to the lateral line of the Spanish Mackerel and Cero Mackerel, which generally curves slightly from the top edge of the gill to the tail.
Adult cobia can be identified by their dark brown color and single dorsal fin. Young cobia have more distinct markings that can include alternating black and white horizontal stripes with patches of bronze, orange, and green. Cobia are found in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico during the summer months, but migrate to warmer south Florida waters in the winter.
Gulf of Mexico Reef Species
Gulf of Mexico fish species are fish that live in close relation to coral or artificial reefs are reef species. Since reefs form complex ecosystems, they are the preferred type of habitat for species like amberjack, mutton snapper, red snapper, and red grouper.
Greater Amberjack are a hard-fighting reef species that can be identified by the dark amber strip on their head that extends from the nose to the first dorsal fin. They have a brownish or bluish-grey back, a silvery-white belly, and an amber horizontal strip along the mid-section of their body.
Adult mutton snapper can vary from orange to reddish-yellow with red on the lower sides and underside. Juveniles in shallow water are generally bright, with an overall rosy appearance. Both adult and juvenile mutton snapper have blue lines in the gill cover and along the back, with a single black spot near the dorsal fin.
Red snapper in deeper waters tend to be redder than those caught in shallower waters. They have a long triangular face with the upper part sloping more strongly than the lower. Their jaws are equal, with the lower one sometimes slightly projecting. Red snapper are generally found in waters from 30 to 620 feet deep and are one of the most heavily regulated edible fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
Red grouper are common fish in the Gulf of Mexico. The head and body of a red grouper is a dark reddish brown, with pink or reddish shading below and occasional white spots on the sides. They have large mouths with a lower jaw that usually projects slightly beyond their upper jaw and includes bands of sharp, slender teeth.
Make sure you check the state or federal fishing regulations (depending on how many miles out you plan to fish) for types of fish in the Gulf of Mexico before you plan a fishing trip. In Florida, for example, Florida state waters are from shore to 9 nautical miles on the Gulf. In most places, federal waters extend from where state waters end out to about 200 nautical miles or to where other country's waters begin.