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  • Writer's pictureMax Augliere

The Ultimate Guide to Spearfishing and Lobstering in the Florida Keys in 2024

Updated: Mar 4


A freediver holds a large Hogfish
A Healthy Hogfish, an Iconic Species in The Keys

The Florida Keys are known for epic spearfishing. Whether you are interested in trying spearfishing and lobstering for your first time, or you want some tips to help you be more productive, here's your chance! We've put together the ultimate guide for spearfishing in the Florida Keys with everything you need to know to get started. Keep reading!


Keys Spearfishing REgulations

There are several spearfishing regulations in the keys. We've broken these regulations down by where you can and can't spearfish, and what you can and can't spearfish and lobstering regulations. To spearfish in the Keys, you will need a Florida Saltwater fishing license, which you can buy here. If you plan on only spearfishing Lionfish, you do not need a license.


Where to go

If spearfishing from Miami to lower Islamorada, you may spearfish beyond 3 nautical miles from land on the Atlantic Side. This means many of the reefs you may spearfish on, as long as they are not in a protected marine sanctuary or state park. Oftentimes, these "no-take zones" will be marked by large yellow buoys.


Pickles Reef

Pickles Reef is one of the closest places to spearfish near Key Largo. It's 6 miles southeast of Key Largo, and 4 miles off Tavernier and ranges from 6 - 30 feet deep. Grouper, snapper, yellow jack, and the occasional hogfish can be found here. Ensure you avoid spearfishing within any yellow buoys indicating a "no-take zone."

Crocker Reef

Crocker Reef is a good spot to spearfish about 4 miles off Islamorada. The reef gets up to 30 feet deep, and there is a deeper wall on the south side that drops to 60 feet. Grouper, Snapper, Cero Mackerel, and Yellow Jack can be found here.

Delta Shoal

Delta shoal is a shallow area to spearfish off Marathon. You don't need to be 3 nautical miles out offshore to spearfish in Marathon, which opens up your opportunities. Many patch reefs can hold large grouper if you are lucky, and deeper reefs will be home to hogfish and snapper. Marathon and Big Pine Key also mean you can spearfish in the Gulf without being 3 nautical miles offshore. Plenty of Hogfish, Red Grouper, and Gag Grouper roam the gulf side, where the visibility is not as clear as the Atlantic, and the spots may be harder to find, but if you can find the spots, they are often very productive.

Western Dry Rocks

Western Dry Rocks off Key West is a good place to spearfish, with shallow and deeper reef structures. It's about 10 miles southeast of Key West. Fishing is prohibited within the marked boundaries near Western Dry Rocks from April 1 – July 31. Here's a video of Aaron Young, from Key West Waterman spearfishing around Key West.



3 nautical mile rule

From Long Key to Miami Dade County you must be at least 3 nautical miles from land to spearfish on the Atlantic side, and 9 nautical miles to spearfish on the Gulf side. Within 3 nautical miles are state waters, and when traveling through them to get to spearfishing spots, make sure your guns are not loaded and that you do not stop for sightseeing. If you are renting a boat, most will come equipped with a GPS that will show the 3 nautical mile line. From Long Key to Key West, you are allowed to spearfish in state waters and do not have to be 3 nautical miles from shore. Long key is just south of Islamorada.

State Parks

The following state parks are prohibited for spearfishing. This map shows the zones of all the state parks in Florida.

  • John Pennekamp State Park

  • Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

  • Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

  • Lignumvitae Key Submerged Land Management Area

  • Long Key State Park

  • Curry Hammock State Park (extending 400 feet from shore)

  • Bahia Honda State Park (extending 400 feet from shore)

  • Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (extending 400 feet from shore)

Marine Sanctuaries

EMAs (Existing Marine Sanctuaries) and SPAs (Sanctuary Preservation Areas) are prohibited from spearfishing and lobstering. The EMAs are very large and will be marked on most GPS units. The SPAs are smaller and marked by large yellow buoys.

  • Key Largo EMA -adjacent to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and extends to the 300-foot depth

  • Looe Key EMA - five-square-nautical mile area surrounding Looe Key reef

  • Carysfort Reef

  • Elbow Reef

  • Key Largo Dry Rocks

  • Grecian Rocks

  • French Reef

  • Molasses Reef

  • Conch Reef

  • Hen and Chickens

  • Davis Reef

  • Cheeca Rocks

  • Alligator Reef

  • Coffins Patch

  • Sombrero Key

  • Looe Key

  • Newfound Harbor

  • Eastern Dry Rocks

  • Rock Key

  • Sand Key

  • Conch Reef

  • Looe Key Patch Reef

  • Tennessee Reef

  • Eastern Sambo

  • Western Sambo

  • Tortugas North and South

Bridges, Jetties and Public BEaches

You must be 100 yards away from any public swimming beach, jetty or public fishing bridge to spearfish. You may not spearfish in any man-made canals and marinas. You may lobster under bridges. You can view this NOAA map to see the various marine sanctuaries and no-take zones in the Florida Keys.

 

Legal Species for Spearfishing in the Florida Keys

Spearfisherman holds a Yellow Jack with a shark pictured behind him in the water.
Yellow Jack, an Underrated Delicious Species Found In The Keys

Hogfish

hogfish

Hogfish are a highly sought-after fish to spear in the keys. They have delicious white flaky meat and are known for being easy to spear as long as you can find them because they are slow-moving. Hogfish can be found in shallow depths of ten feet or as deep as 100+. They can inhabit the grass beds, the reefs, or the sand as they dig up crabs. All hogfish begin their lives as females, until the largest one in a given area changes to a male and develops their iconic brown beak.


Mangrove Snapper

Mangrove Snapper

Also called Gray Snapper, Mangrove Snapper are delicious and abundant in the keys. They can be found in shallow mangroves, near structures such as bridges, or on the reef and coral heads.


Beginning around the full moon in June, larger Mangrove Snapper come into shallow water to spawn, so Summer months are best to target them.

Mutton Snapper

Mutton Snapper

Mutton Snapper is a favorite amongst anglers and spearfishers alike in the Keys. They are challenging to catch and easy to identify with their black spot toward the end of their body. Mutton Snapper can be found in shallow waters during the Spring and Summer months in the Keys. Chumming for them is a great way to bring them in. They are challenging fish to target, but they are curious if you can lay down on the bottom and create commotion such as kicking up sand.

Cero Mackeral

Cero Mackerel

Lesser known, and more delicious than the Spanish Mackeral and Kingfish, rivaling Wahoo for sashimi, the Cero Mackeral should be on every Keys Spearfisher's bucket list. They can be targeted year-round and are found in the water column moving quickly, which means you don't often have to dive deep to get them. They are opportunistic and attracted to commotion. Some spearfishers will use lure-like flashers dangling from a buoy to lure Cero Mackeral in. You can identify Cero Mackeral from Spanish or Kingfish due to the elongated stripes running through their midbody in addition to their spots. Cero Mackeral tend to be shallower than King Mackeral, making them an excellent fish to target for beginners and advanced spearfishers alike.

Yellow Jack

Yellow Jack

Yellow Jack will give any sushi a run for its money. They are delicious, strong, and common throughout the Keys. Yellow Jacks are found in the water column, often swimming in pairs or small schools. Like many other species in the keys, they can be found swimming near structures such as bridges, or wrecks, or along the reefs and rocky bottom. Be ready when they come in, as they often move fast.

Lionfish

Lionfish

Lionfish are invasive and notorious predators in the Florida Keys. The good news is that they are also delicious, with white flakey meat that can be served raw, as ceviche, or cooked in a number of ways. No fishing license is required to spear them, and they are incredibly easy to spear because they do not move much at all. The challenge with Lionfish comes after you spear them, as the spikes along their back have venomous barbs. When spearing a lionfish, be very careful to not have it slide up the shaft and spike your hand, and when it's in the boat, make sure it is put away somewhere where no one will come into contact with it. There are plenty of videos out there showing how to filet a lionfish such as this one. They can be found pretty much anywhere, from random rocks and coral heads to reefs, and wrecks.

Black Grouper

Black Grouper

Black Grouper is an iconic and world-class eating fish, drawing fishermen every year to the keys to try and catch one. They are strong, elusive, intelligent, and delicious. Many spearfishermen consider them to be the pinnacle of spearfishing. Black Grouper can be found on structures like rocks and wrecks, or on the reefs. Often they will be hiding in the reef itself, and many spearfishermen dive with a flashlight to try and find them within the holes. Here's a video of Key West Waterman spearfishing Grouper in shallow areas around Key West.

Red Grouper

Red Grouper

Prized for their meat, Red Grouper are a staple menu item in the Florida Keys and beyond, and a fairly easy fish to spear if you can find them. They do not spook as easily as the Black grouper, and will often hover around their hole giving a good shot opportunity to spearfishermen. Red Grouper hang out near ledges and structures, and like other Grouper they respond well to chumming before diving.

Barracuda

Barracuda

While Barracuda is not commonly found on menus, it doesn't mean it's not a very good eating fish. Larger ones have been known to harbor Ciguatera, a rare disease that comes from bioaccumulated algae within fish, but the smaller Barracuda feet pose little risk of this extremely rare disease.


Gray Triggerfish

Grey Triggerfish

Triggerfish are a local favorite in the Keys eating. They have delicious firm white meat and are plentiful in the Atlantic. Cleaning them is the challenging part because their skin is like leather, you must use a strong sharp filet knife. They are also an easy fish to target for spearfishing because they are slow moving and the shape of their body.


2024 Florida Atlantic Spearfishing Regulations

Species

Season

Limit

Length

Hogfish

May 1st - October 31st

1 per harvester per day

16" fork length

Mangrove Snapper

Open year-round

5 per person per day

10" total length

Mutton Snapper

Open year-round

5 per person per day

18" total length

Cero Mackeral

Open year-round

no limits

no limits

Black Grouper

Open May 1 - December 31

1 per person per day

24" total length

Red Grouper

Open Mat 1 - December 31

3 per person per day

20" total length

Lionfish

Open year-round

no limits

no limits

Yellow Jack

Open year-round

no limits

no limits

Barracuda

Open year-round

100 lbs

no limits

Triggerfish

Open year-round

10 per person per day

12" fork length

2024 Florida Gulf Spearfishing Regulations

Hogfish

Open year-round

5 per person per day

14" fork length

Mangrove Snapper

Open year-round

5 per person per day

10" total length

Barracuda

Open year-round

100 lbs

no limits

Cero Mackeral

Open year-round

no limits

no limits

Red Grouper

Open year-round

2 per person per day

20" total length

Black Grouper

Open year-round

4 per person per day

24" total length

Triggerfish

March 1 - May 31 and August 1 - December 31

1 per person per day

15" fork length

Mutton Snapper

Open year-round

5 per person per day

18" total length

Yellow Jack

Open year-round

no limits

no limits

Lionfish

Open year-round

no limits

no limits

Off-limit species for spearfishing


  • Goliath Grouper

  • Nassau Grouper

  • Lobster

  • African Pompano

  • Permit

  • Pompano

  • Red Drum

  • Sharks

  • Snook

  • Tarpon

  • Tripletail

  • Ornamental Reef Fish

  • Parrotfish

Some fish have intentionally been left out of these regulations because the likelihood of seeing them is lower. If you want more information on regulations, you can go to FWC's website.

 

Finding Spots

You can search for spots on Google Earth, or use your bottom finder/fish finder to search for structures and bottom relief. Using a GPS app like Navionics, or purchasing a map with spots like a Hotspots map are other options as well. The fastest and most recommended way to find fish and become familiar with an area is to hire a spearfishing guide. We have some guide recommendations later in the article.


Google Earth

When searching for spots using Google Maps or Google Earth, you can identify patch reefs and larger coral reefs, as well as smaller coral heads. Smaller coral heads can be havens for groupers and lobsters, so don't skip the smaller-looking areas of interest on your maps. Many of the reefs in the Keys begin about 3-5 miles offshore, where you will still have cell service, but your phone GPS will work without service. You can save spots on your Google Maps and navigate to them with your phone's GPS.

Florida coral reefs taken from Google Earth.
A chain of patch reefs and coral heads off Marathon Key.

Where to Go

The main reef begins about 3-5 miles on the Atlantic side. Depths here can range from just a few feet to over 100 feet. You'll find the clearest water in the keys is at the reefs, with visibility averaging 40 feet and often exceeding that. If you have rented your own boat, you can use the fish finder/depth finder to look for large jumps in the bottom topography called relief, fish love to hang out here.


When to go

Early summer is the best time to go spearfishing in the Florida Keys. The ocean is more predictable with calmer seas, clearer visibility, and many of the native delicious species such as grouper being legal to spear. Afternoon thunderstorms mean you'll want to finish your day with plenty of time to get back to shore.


Best Day To Go

Days with wind under 10 knots and seas below 2 feet will be excellent diving conditions. Use tools like windfinder.com and the National Data Buoy Center for the Florida Keys to plan your trip and pick your days.


Renting a boat

The Keys have plenty of rental boat companies. If you've found a day with favorable conditions, and you feel comfortable driving a boat, this may be an option for you. Florida requires that you have a temporary boating safety license to operate a boat if you are over 18 years old and born after 1988. The exam has 25 questions and you can take it or read more here. The challenge with renting a boat is knowing where to go, and the rental company should be able to give you local information to help you get off on the right foot. Center Console boats are the most ocean-capable boats to rent.

Hiring a spearfishing guide

With spearfishing gaining popularity, more qualified guides are offering excellent experiences. When hiring a guide, you'll want them to know your diving capabilities, this will help them understand what depth they should take you. Even if you have little to no experience, there are spearfishing opportunities for you, and many people can dive to 20 feet and beyond feet with very little training. Freediving for lobster is a great way to take snorkeling to the next level before you try spearfishing. You can hire a guide to take you lobstering as well.


Key West Waterman

Aaron Young, also known by Dibs On Bottom runs Key West Waterman, a spearfish guiding service in Key West that we highly recommend. Tune into his Youtube Channel for insights into his epic adventures and environmental stewardship.


Forever Young Charter Co

Captain Tony Young runs Spearfishing Charters based out of Islamorada. His website is www.diveyoung.com.

Gear

To spearfish in the keys, here's what you will need.

  • mask and snorkel

  • fins

  • speargun, pole spear, or sling

  • weight belt

  • dive knife

  • gloves

We have a full list of gear and gear to get you started without breaking the bank in this article.


 

Lobstering in the Florida Keys

Man holds two lobsters he caught while spearfishing
Two Healthy Lobsters Harvested From a Beach Dive

Going to the Florida Keys to freedive for lobster is a tradition for many. Some aren't aware that freediving for lobster is not as challenging as they may think because lobsters can be found in less than 10 feet! Here is everything you need to know about Lobstering in the Florida Keys.


When to go

There are two seasons where you are allowed to recreationally harvest Spiny Lobster in Florida. The 2024 Florida Lobster mini-season is Wednesday, July 24, and July 25th. During mini season you are allowed to harvest 12 lobsters per day per person, if you are in Monroe County you are allowed 6 per person per day. The 2024 Florida regular lobster season is August 6th - March 31st, and you are allowed 6 per person per day. If you've never been to Florida during this time of year, be sure to book your boat rental or guide far in advance, as this is a very busy event in the keys. But, you don't need to go during mini season, as the regular season has plenty of lobsters to offer and is much quieter.


What you need



A non-resident Florida fishing license for three days is $17.00 and a non-resident license for 7 days is $30.00. You'll need to purchase the additional lobster permit for 5 dollars. A resident annual permit is $17.00 and a non-resident annual permit is $47.00 You can buy these at myfwc.com.

Many people think you need to harvest lobsters while scuba diving, but this is not true. Lobsters can be found in just a couple of feet of water, making them easily accessible for snorkelers.


How to find them?

Spiny Lobster around coral reef

Spiny lobsters take shelter in almost anything from coral reefs, to sunken debris. Common places to go lobsters in the Florida Keys are near bridge pilings, coral reefs, and rocky structured bottom, where they will often be hiding out of sight.


How to catch Lobsters?

The two main ways of catching lobsters in the keys are by net and tickle stick or by using a lobster snare.


Net and tickle stick

To use this method, you'll swim with a net and a tickle stick and search the seafloor for antenna sticking out from where the lobster is taking shelter. You'll then swim down and finesse the lobster out of their cave by placing the tickle stick behind them and nudging them slowly forward. Once you have them far enough out of their hole, you can then place your net behind them, and poke them near the front of their body to get them to move backward or "scuttle" into the net. Then you can grab them using the net and your gloves and swim to the surface to measure the lobster with your measuring device and check it for eggs. If it is undersized or bearing eggs, you'll want to release it.


How to check a lobster for eggs

Lobsters bearing eggs are illegal to harvest. You can check a lobster for eggs by looking underneath the tail, the eggs will be orange and attached to the bottom of the tail.


Using a lobster snare

To harvest lobsters with a snare, you'll search the seafloor for their antenna. Once you find where they are hiding, you will then open your snare and place it behind the lobster trying to loop the end around their tail. Once you have the snare around their tail, you can then close it, securing the lobster and swimming back up to the surface. Once on the surface, you'll measure the lobster and check it for eggs. If it is undersized or bearing eggs, you'll want to release it.

Conclusion

Spearfishing and lobstering in the Florida Keys is accessible, and a fun way to recreate in all the beauty for the Florida marine environment has to offer. Be responsible and a good steward of the environment. Know all the laws and regulations before going, you can always call Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission if you would like more information.


Spearfishing Rhode Island is a 1 on 1 spearfish guiding experience located in Newport, Rhode Island with a mission to teach people how to spearfish and harvest responsibly and sustainably for their food.


















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