For many who grew up in the Pensacola area October meant flounder gigging season. This once popular past time involved going out at night along the shores of Santa Rosa Sound with flounder lights and gigs seeking a local favorite flounder. Everyone has their favorite recipe for this fish but in this article, we are going to focus on the fish – maybe something you did not know about it.
In the northern Gulf of Mexico, flounder are flatfish with the two eyes on the left side of the head. Locally, flatfish with eyes on the right side are called soles. We do have native soles, but all species are too small to be a food option. If you are not familiar with the “two eyes on one side of the head” idea, yes – flounder hatch from the egg looking like a normal fish, an eye on each side of the head. But earlier in development one eye slides across to the other side. This is a weird transformation and there are probably videos online, so you see how this happens – check them out. The reason for this transformation is to improve depth perception. Eyes close together give the animal binocular vision. Binocular vision does not have a wide viewing range, can basically see what is in front of it but not so much what is behind it, but it does give the animal good depth perception, it can tell how far away the prey actually is, and this is important when hunting.
Once the eyes have shifted to the left side of the head, flounders lose the pigments on the side without eyes, which becomes white, and the fish lays on its side – white side down. The cells on the “eye side” have chromatophores that allow the fish to change color to match the sand on the bottom. Another important feature of being a successful hunter. Most of know they will bury themselves in this sand as well. With their binocular vision, camouflaged body, and sharp teeth, they lie in wait to ambush predators.
You may also be surprised at how many different kinds of flounder are found in the northern Gulf of Mexico. There are 21 species listed, and they range in size from the small Spiny Flounder which can reach an average length of 3 inches, to the Southern Flounder which attains a length of 3 feet. The Gulf flounder and Southern flounder are two species that are popular seafood targets, but any decent sized flounder will do.
Flounder are found in a variety of habitats ranging from shallow seagrass beds nearshore, near structure just offshore, to artificial reefs and the base of bridges, to depths of 1200 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. Many species spend the warmer months in the estuaries moving offshore when the weather cools down to spawn. Hard northerners can trigger a mass migration and a great time for commercial and recreational fishermen alike.
It is flounder season. Whether you prefer to catch your own or buy from the local seafood market I think will enjoy one of the variety of ways to prepare this fish.
We are fortunate to have several whale species that have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico including humpback whales, Rice whales, fin whales, sperm whales, sei whales, and orca whales. Recently, however, we have seen multiple reports of whale sharks near shore in Destin and Panama City Beach.
Whale sharks, however, are not whales, but the largest shark species and the largest fish alive today. Whale sharks aren’t even closely related to whales. They have gills, not blow holes. They are huge, up to 46 feet in length and weigh up to 22,000 lbs., the weight of two African elephants. Despite their large size, they are filter feeders with plankton being their main food, although they are also known to eat squid, krill, and small baitfish. They glide through the water at speeds of less than 3 m/hr, gently swinging their bodies side to side. They are not aggressive and pose no threats to humans.
Whale sharks prefer warm water, which is why they can be found in tropical areas and are often attracted to coastal areas due to a higher abundance of food. It’s no surprise, then, that they have been spotted in the Gulf. June to October is whale shark season in the Gulf, with Destin sightings being reported previously in 2013 and 2020. They are also found in many other countries around the world including Mozambique, Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Australia, Belize, Thailand, Egypt, Mexico, Seychelles, and the Maldives.
Unsurprisingly, many ocean lovers are desperate to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures in the water. However, experts recommend a hands-off policy for these gentle sea creatures. The Okaloosa Coastal Resource Team has been collaborating with NOAA scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi to tag 10 of this year’s visitors to gain valuable insights into their migratory patterns and habitat use. You can follow their Facebook page for updates on current locations and tracking data. https://www.facebook.com/whalesharkresearch
For Florida recreational anglers in state waters, the season started a few days later on June 16. While the summer season ends on July 31, 2023, fishing enthusiasts can look forward to 3-day fishing weekends in Florida State waters later in October and November 2023. This means there are still additional days of red snapper fishing opportunities in 2023, giving you ample time to plan exciting fishing adventures.
Here, we present Bay County’s recent artificial reefs, which serve as prime fishing locations for this year’s seasons. This select collection includes three distinct areas: east (State), south (Federal), and west (State). These sites have had the opportunity to grow and mature, with over 290 reef modules deployed between May 2019 and December 2020.
East Location – Sherman Site
Walter Marine deploys one of nine super reefs deployed in Bay County’s NRDA Phase I project located approximately 12 nautical miles southeast of the St. Andrew Pass. Each massive super reef weighs over 36,000 lbs and is 15 ft tall. Multiple modules deployed in tandem provides equivalent tonnage and structure similar to a medium to large sized scuttled vessel. Photo by Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.
This project was completed in May 2019 in partnership with the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The deployment site in the Sherman Artificial Reef Permit Area is approximately 12 nm southeast of St. Andrew Bay Pass at a depth of approximately 80 feet. A total of twenty-five modules were deployed, including nine 18-ton reefs and sixteen 3-ton reefs.
South Location – Large Area Artificial Reef Site (LAARS) A
Large 45,000 lbs. concrete modules staged for deployment. These were placed by HG Harders and Son in July of 2019.
This project was completed in July 2019 in partnership with the Bay County Artificial Reef Association and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The deployment site in LAARS A is approximately 12 nm south of the pass, with reef modules located around the center of the permitted area. The reefs are situated in about 105 feet of water. There are seventeen reef modules, including five 22-ton reefs with a height of 18 feet and twelve 2.5-ton reefs with a height of 5 feet.
West Location – SAARS E – L
This area has the largest number of reef modules and permit sites. It includes 154 small pyramids that are 8 ft tall and weigh about 10 tons. There are also 26 large pyramids that are 18 ft tall and weigh about 18 tons. Additionally, 25 concrete disk reefs, weighing about 3 tons each, were deployed nested inside select Super Reefs, adding to the complexity and diversity of the reefs. In total, approximately 980 tons of engineered concrete artificial reef material were placed in 8 permitted areas. These deployments were completed in December 2020 with the support of the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.
Bay County’s NRDA Phase II deployment in Small Area Artificial Reef Sites (SAARS) E – L are located 11 – 15 nautical miles (nm) southwest of St Andrew Bay Pass in Florida state waters. (Source ArcGIS mapping software).
This monitoring dive was conducted by FWC in January 2021, shortly after the reefs were deployed. You can move the 360 deg video image to experience what the divers see and observe.
Below is an overview map of these three prime snapper sites!
Wishing everyone great fishing days on the water with family and friends!
Chantille Weber, Coastal Resource Coordinator, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County
L. Scott Jackson, Bay County Extension Director, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County and Florida Sea Grant
An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Andra Johnson, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.
When visiting and exploring seagrass beds, most are hoping, and expecting, to see fish. As we have seen in this series, there are a lot of creatures that can be found living within a seagrass meadow, but it is the fish that get our attention and what we talk most about afterwards.
According to Hoese and Moore’s Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters, there are 497 species of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico. In my surveys of Pensacola Bay over the years, I have logged 101 of those in the estuary. I am sure there are more, but I can confirm there are at least those. Many spend all or part of their time in our seagrasses. As you seine or snorkel in the grassbeds you will notice most of them are very small. Much of this is due to the fact that the seagrasses are nursery areas for many species, and it is the young that we find here. But many are also small as adults, and the grass provides food and shelter for them. There are far too many to mention in an article like this, but let’s look at some of them.
Sardines and Anchovies
As you snorkel through the grass, or even look at it from a boat or dock, you see numerous silver colored baitfish flashing as they dart in and out of the grass. There are all sorts of silver baitfish in the seagrasses with sardines and anchovies being two of them. In my experience seining for fish, they appear to be seasonal. I did not capture them all year but when I did, I would capture a lot. These species are famous for being the ones in small tins that people consume, though there is no fishery for them here locally. Anchovies have also been considered an indicator species; their presence suggests good water quality.
Also known as silversides and glass minnows, these are one of the most common fish collected in seine nets. They are abundant year-round and are an important food source for many of the larger predators living here. Small and transparent, you do not see them while snorkeling. Their huge presence is only discovered when you pull a seine net through the grass. There are several species of them, but they are not easily identified and more often are just logged as “silversides”. They are an important member of the seagrass community.
Seahorses and Pipefish
These two fish are highly specialized for living in seagrasses. They look like grass and move very little making them hard to detect. Like silverside minnows, it is rare to see them while snorkeling but make their presence known when seining. Their bodies are covered in armor-like scales, and they have tubed mouths for “vacuuming” small invertebrates from the water column. They are very slow swimmers and have to avoid detection by blending in with the environment. And yes, it is the males that carry the eggs in their brood pouches. These are amazing fish and always bring excitement when they are captured in the net. There are two species of seahorses and seven species of pipefish found in our waters.
Often called “bull minnows” by anglers, these small fish are, at times, very abundant. There are seven species of killifish in our bays but the Gulf Killifish, Longnose Killifish, and the Bayou Killifish are the ones we most often collected.
These are common, frequently seen, fish swimming at the surface of the water. Long and needle-shaped, these fish have long snouts full of sharp teeth indicating they are one of the predators of this system. There are four species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart. They are harmless to humans unless you capture them in your net at which time they will try to bite.
Another very common fish found year-round here. This species are the ones famous for jumping while you are fishing, paddling, or just watching from the beach. Those who do not visit the Gulf coast often always ask “I just saw a fish jump!” and the reply from a local (without even looking up to see what it was) will reply “It’s a mullet”. These schooling fish can get pretty large (average length is 30 inches) and it is common to see fishermen out with their cast nets trying to catch a few. It is a popular food fish for those along the Gulf coast. Mullet fries, with beans and grits, are a way of life here. The fish are easily seen swimming and darting over the grass as you paddle by, and their young are found seasonally in seine nets. They are bottom feeders, feeding mostly on algae from the grass blades. There are actually two species, the white and the striped mullet. The striped mullet, also known as the black mullet, is the one most often sold in the seafood markets.
Drums and Croakers
With 18 species within this family, this is the largest family of inshore fish in the Gulf. Growing up along the panhandle people learn quickly about croakers. Back in the day when gill nets were used to harvest mullet, croakers were a common catch as well, and often consumed. Today they are still sought by some shore-based anglers and juveniles are common in seine nets. The species I most often captured were the spot and Atlantic croaker. Spot croakers were common year-round, Atlantic croakers were more seasonal.
Drums are larger members of this family. There are several species more associated with sandy bottoms and the shoreline of the Gulf, many of these are called whiting, but the red drum (redfish) and black drum can be found in the grassbeds. Redfish are particularly common here and one of the reasons many anglers get out of bed in the morning. They are very popular sportfish across the region. Black drums are not found as often, and like being around pilings and structures that offer certain foods they prefer. Both species can get quite large. Redfish average 5 feet while black drums can reach an average of 3 feet.
All of the fish in this family are famous for their “croaking” “drum” sounds they make using their swim bladder, and it is rare not to capture at least one kind in a seine net.
Spotted Seatrout; Speckled Trout; “Specks”
There is no “trout family” in the fish world. Most freshwater trout are members of the salmon family while the marine versions are members of the drum/croaker family. This is the case with the famous speckled trout – or speck. There are white trout and silver seatrout in this family, and all are sought after by anglers, but it is the speckled trout that is most associated with seagrasses, most sought after by anglers, and is one of the top predators in this system. They reach an average length of 4 feet.
Pinfish and Sheepshead
From my experience both snorkeling and seining the grasses, I would say – hands down – that pinfish is the most common species found in our grasses. For many young anglers this is the first fish they ever catch. You can see them easily while snorkeling and they are the most numerous species in the nets throughout the year. Their huge numbers play an important role in the food web of this system. Feeding on a variety of small invertebrates in and around the grass blades, pinfish are a large part of the diet of the larger sportfish we target. Throwing cast nets and dropping pinfish traps is popular with anglers to collect this abundant baitfish for their life bait fishing efforts. They are called pinfish because of the sharp spines in their dorsal fins. These are also the fish that nip at your ankles while you are standing still in the water.
Sheepsheads are larger members of the porgy family (the ones these two species belong to). As adults sheepsheads prefer hard structure where they can use their incisors to chip away at barnacles and other shellfish, but they are sometimes found roaming the grassbeds and their young will spend their growing years hiding and feeding in the grass.
When first captured in the seine net, pigfish are often confused with pinfish – they look very similar. But a closer look at the striping/spotted pattern on their sides, and the position of their mouth, you realize you have something different. Being members of the grunt family, they also “croak” like croakers and drums – hence their common name “pigfish” – due to the grunting sounds. This helps with identifying which fish you have. Though common in the grasses, I did not catch these as frequently as pinfish and they were not as abundant.
This is a common silver baitfish that resembles the pinfish and is frequently collected in our seine nets. The mojarra is in a different family than pinfish. They lack sharp spines and incisor teeth, rather they have a sort of “vacuum” like mouth which they use to suck small invertebrates from the sand.
This is a popular sport and commercial fish from the wrecks and reefs of the Gulf of Mexico. But gags begin their lives in the seagrass beds, and we have collected medium sized individuals in our seine nets. This underscores the importance of these grassbeds to the fisheries so many love. We need to protect these systems from our activity both on land and in the water.
Another popular group with anglers, many species of jacks use these grasses as their nurseries. We most often collected juvenile lookdowns, pompano, and crevalle in our nets. At times we caught a small member of the family called a leatherjacket. These were seasonal and associated with breeding. Once again, underscoring the importance of having healthy seagrasses.
One of the creeper looking fish in the seagrass community is the Gulf toadfish (also known as the oyster dog). This monstrous looking bottom fish lives in burrows scattered around the grassbeds where they lie in wait to ambush prey. Their large mouths and sharp teeth can grab a variety of creatures, including the human finger. At times small toadfish will move into an empty can or bottle discarded by people instead of a burrow where they grow to a size they can no longer escape. It is said there may be a mild venom associated with their bite. Though no one has ever died, or been sent to the hospital, due their bite, it is painful and should be avoided.
Yes, barracuda can be found in seagrasses. But in our case, these have all been juveniles. There are three species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart. They also appeared to be seasonal in our collections. We never found them high numbers, usually one or two in a seine. But they are present.
This is another medium sized, sharp toothed, bottom dwelling predator of the grassbed community. There are seven species of them, and all have that “snake” “lizard” look to them having many sharp canine teeth. They spend their time buried in the sand waiting to ambush potential prey. Snorkelers may see them as they dart away tossing up sand when we get too close. I rarely see them snorkeling but occasionally capture them in the seine net to the delight of the students assisting.
Blennies and Gobies
These are very small fish that are almost impossible to find while snorkeling but are often collected in the seine net. They resemble the freshwater darters and, lacking a swim bladder, spend their time on the bottom. There are many species associated with rocks and artificial reefs but there are some who call the seagrasses home. They use their incisor teeth to feed on small invertebrates in and on the grasses. Being territorial, they can give a little nip to your hand. Gobies differ from blennies in that their two pelvic fins are fused together to form a sort of “cup” or “sucker disk”.
Another one of the more popular fish with students who help me seine. Everyone loves to see them inflate with either water or air into a “balloon” to make it very difficult for predators to consume them. There are eight species of puffers in the Gulf of Mexico, five of them have been captured in our seines. Most are small with little “bumps” on their bodies instead of spines. But there is the Burrfish, who is a member of a different family that is medium sized, has spines, and is very common in the grassbeds.
Our grassbeds are full of a small cousin to the triggerfish – the planehead filefish. Like triggerfish, filefish have a thick sharp spine that is found at the front of the dorsal fin – called a “trigger” on the triggerfish. The planehead filefish is a small species (nine inches average length), green to brown in color, and very common in the grassbeds; though you will probably not see one unless you catch it in a net.
Flounders and Soles
A favorite food fish for many locals, flounders spend a lot of time buried in the sand near grassbeds to ambush prey. Born with a typical fish design, early in development one of their eyes will move to the other side of the head, giving them two eyes on one side. By doing this, they have increased their binocular vision, improving their ability to judge accurate distance of the prey, and making hunting easier. They lose color on the side where the eye has left and have chromatophores (cells) on the side where the eyes are that, like octopus and squid, allow them to change colors and blend in. In our part of the Gulf, if the eyes move to the left side of the head, they are called flounders. If they move to the right, they are called soles. Soles in our part of the Gulf of small not of much interest to anglers. One small species is often collected by shrimpers who feed them to hogs. This sole can “cup” their body in defense making like a suction cup and they do this in the throat of the hogs sometimes killing them. They are called “hogchokers”. Flounders on the other hand are very popular with anglers. Some fish for them using rod and reel, others prefer gigging them at night using lanterns. There are 17 species of flounder, some reaching lengths of three feet.
Tonguefish are small flat fish with eyes on one side of their heads like flounder. They differ than that their tails come to a point and there is no caudal fin present, as there is in flounders. As mentioned, they are small – ranging from 3 to 8 inches in length. The Blackcheek tonguefish is particularly common in our grassbeds. But like so many, you will not see it unless you catch it in a net.
This is a very popular gamefish from south Florida associated with several habitats including grassbeds. Due to a process some call “tropicalization” – the movement of tropical species north due to climate change – snook are now, albeit in small numbers, reported in the Florida panhandle. This is a new species you may see while exploring or fishing out there.
There are many more species of fish found in our grassbeds we could talk about, but we will end it here. As we mentioned in the beginning, this is a group of animals that many come to the beach to find. Whether for fun or for food, finding fish makes for a good day. See how many different species you can find.
As I write this article it is mid spring, and the rays are bedding on the edges of our seagrass beds. The most common species seen is the Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina). They are often found in the sandy areas near the grass where they bury in the sand to ambush potential prey. This time of year, their numbers increase as the females are preparing to releasee their young in summer. Mating occurs in early spring and the females will deliver live young1.
According to Hoese and Moore2, there are eight families and 18 species of rays and skates found in the Gulf of Mexico. These are cartilaginous fish found in the same class as sharks but differ in that their gills slits are on the ventral side (bottom) of the body and their pectoral fins begin before the gill slits do on the side of the head. Most are depressed (top to bottom) and appear like pancakes, but not all of them. Sawfish and guitarfish appear more like sharks than rays.
Of the 18 species listed, seven can be found in the estuaries and may be associated with nearby seagrass beds. Two are species of sawfish, which are rare in our bays these days.
There are two members of the eagle ray family, the cownose ray and the eagle ray, which can be found in our bays. These resemble manta rays but differ in that they lack the characteristic “horns” of the manta (often called the Devil Ray because of them) and they do possess a bard on their tail, which manta’s do not. These are more pelagic rays spending their time swimming in the water column and hunting for buried food.
The butterfly ray does resemble butterflies in shape having wide “wing-like” fins and a very small tail. It behaves similar to stingrays burying in the sand and ambushing smaller prey.
Two of the more familiar stingrays are found in our grassbeds, the Atlantic Stingray and the Southern Stingray. The Atlantic Stingray’s disk is more round in shape while the Southern Stingray’s is more angular shaped. The Southern Stingray is larger (disk width about five feet, Atlantic disk width is about two feet) and prefers estuaries with higher salinity. The Atlantic Stingray is very common and can tolerate freshwater, thus is common throughout the bay.
Stingrays are notorious for their venomous bards and painful stings. They actually try to avoid humans and are frequently spooked by our activity fleeing as soon as they can. However, there are times when people accidentally step on one buried in the sand, or hiding in the grass at which time they will flip their whip-like tail up and over to drive their barb into your foot forcing you to move it – and you do move it – while you yell and scream. The ray then will swim away and can regrow a new barb.
The bard is a modified tooth. It is serrated on each side and there is a thin sac of venom along the flat side of the barb. When it penetrates your foot there is pain enough there. But the natural reaction of your body to an open wound is to close it, this reaction can pop the venom sac and release the toxin. The chemistry of the toxin is not life threatening to humans but is very painful. This experience is something you do want to avoid.
Like their shark cousins, rays do have rows of small teeth which they use to crush small invertebrates including shelled mollusks. They lie in the sand to ambush prey moving in and out of the seagrass beds. They possess two spiracles on the top of their heads which provide water to the gills when they are lying on the seafloor or buried in it.
Like sharks, males can be identified by the two claspers associated with the anal fin and the females usually have two uteri where the young develop. In skates, and some other rays, the young are deposited into the environment within a hardened egg case often called a “mermaids purse”. We see these washed ashore in the beach wrack. Young stingrays usually develop within the female and are born “live” in summer.
Though there is fear of this animal from some seagrass explorers they are a small threat unless you step on one. To avoid this, when in and around the sandy areas of a grassbed, move your feet in what we call the “stingray shuffle”. This is sliding your feet across the surface of the sand instead of stepping. The pressure generated from this movement can be detected by the ray several feet away and they will immediately move away.
Despite the fear, they are amazing creatures and play an important role in the overall health of the grassbed community.
1 Snelson, F.F., Williams-Hooper, S.E., Schmid, T.H. 1988. Reproduction and Ecology of the Atlantic Stingray, Dasyatis sabina, in Florida Coastal Lagoons. Copeia. Vol. 1988, No. 3 (Aug 1988). Pp. 729-739.
2 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M University Presse. College Station TX. Pp. 327.
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament May 20-21, 2023, at HarborWalk Village in Destin, FL, is gearing up to tackle a pressing ecological challenge while showcasing the power of sport to make a positive impact. This unique tournament, held along the picturesque shores of the Emerald Coast, focuses on combating the invasive lionfish population in the region’s waters.
Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have become a significant threat to the delicate balance of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. With their voracious appetite and rapid reproduction, these invasive species pose a grave danger to native marine life. The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament aims to address this issue by encouraging divers and fishermen to actively hunt and remove lionfish from the waters.
Participants in the tournament will compete to catch the most lionfish, utilizing their skills in underwater navigation, spearfishing, and conservation. Sponsors provide cash and prizes for multiple categories including most caught, largest and smallest lionfish. The event provides an exciting platform for experienced divers and newcomers alike to contribute to the preservation of the marine environment.
Beyond the ecological significance, the tournament also offers a thrilling experience for both participants and spectators. Divers equipped with their spears dive into the depths, searching for lionfish while showcasing their prowess and bravery. The tournament fosters a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among the participants, creating a community dedicated to the cause of protecting marine ecosystems.
In addition to the competitive aspect, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament promotes education and awareness about the invasive species. Participants and attendees have the opportunity to learn about the impact of lionfish on local marine life and explore sustainable solutions to combat the issue at the free Lionfish Awareness Festival from 10:00-5:00 each day. Sign up to volunteer at the event if you want to join the fun. The week prior to the tournament is dedicated to Lionfish restaurant week where local restaurants practice the “eat ‘um to beat ‘um” philosophy and cook up the tasty fish using a variety of innovative recipes.
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023 represents a unique fusion of sport, environmental conservation, and community engagement. By bringing together individuals passionate about marine conservation, this event serves as a powerful catalyst for change and a shining example of how sport can contribute to the preservation of our natural world. Learn more at https://emeraldcoastopen.com.