How To Catch Hogfish in the Florida Keys

To catch hogfish on hook and line, you need to present one of their favorite foods, like shrimp, on the bottom, away from the main reef area. In the Florida Keys, hogfish patrol the outer edges of hardbottom and patch reefs, digging in the sand with their distinct mouths looking for crustaceans.  They use the reefs as cover at night, but don’t usually feed there, so they are infrequently caught when fishing for snapper, grouper, or other reef species. 

Hogfish Can Be Caught On Hook And Line

Tell an old-timer that you’re going to go fishing for hogfish in the Florida Keys and they will wonder if you’ve lost your mind.  There’s still a perception that you can only catch hogfish by spearing them, but that thinking is outdated, completely false, and the thinking is changing.  You can successfully target hogfish with a hook and line if you know where to go and how to fish for them. 

Hogfish can be caught on hook and line if you know how to target them.

Where To Find Hogfish

How do you find a good spot for catching hogfish? Try Google Maps or Google Earth and look for transitions in bottom type on the ocean side of the keys.  Hogfish are on the bayside as well, but not as easily located. The water of the oceanside in the keys is so clear, that you can differentiate reef, hardbottom, and sea grass with a little practice just by looking at the satellite maps. When you find an area of sea grass meeting hard bottom or patch reef, look for the sandy areas that separate these habitats, that’s where you’ll find the hogfish. 

The example below, near Islamorada, shows a perfect hogfising spot. The hardbottom (top) meets the seagrass (bottom). Notice how the seagrass is “fuzzier” and more uniform in color than the hard bottom. The hard bottom areas will contain lots of patchy white which is the sand and limestone bottom pockmarked with sea fans and other non-grassy growth. The bonus of the location below is the proximity to the rocky patch reef marked with the pin. This area of large rocks provides nighttime cover for hogfish next to their preferred foraging grounds. 

One fool-proof method is to anchor just away from shallow patch reefs less than 20 feet deep. Hogfish will usually be in the vicinity of the reef, but you won’t catch them if you’re fishing directly over the coral.

If you’re in the area of Islamorada, try fishing these spots for hogfish. These patch reefs are good examples of hogfish habitat.

Where To Anchor The Boat

Your location relevant to the reef is important, you need to be close enough to the oceanside reef that you surround yourself with potential cruising hogfish, but not so close that your baits attract snappers and grunts which will nearly always outcompete the hogfish.

We have found that 30-50 feet away from the main reef structure is sufficient. If you are losing lots of baits to grunts and the like, move out 50 feet and try again. Hogfish have an outstanding sense of smell and will eventually locate your baits.

One trick is to anchor in the sand that surrounds nearly all of the patch reefs, but down wind, or the opposite side that you would anchor if you were reef fishing. If you find you’re catching the wrong kind of fish, you can just let out a little more anchor line to move farther away from the reef structure.

Best Bait and Tackle For Hogfish

The preferred tackle and rig for catching hogfish is a medium action spinning rod with 12lb test monofilament line. You can’t beat the Penn Spinfisher 4500 for all round fishing in the keys. Pair the rod and reel with a ½ ounce jig head with a 2/0 hook and you are all set.

Live or frozen shrimp are the preferred baits.  First remove the head, then slide the shrimp on the hook making the jig head its replacement head.

A frozen shrimp presented perfectly on a 1/2oz jig is the ideal hogfish rig.

How To Attract Hogfish To the Boat

Do not use traditional fish chum, this will attract unwanted species and your bait will not get enough “soak time” to attract the hogfish. However, occasionally throwing the unused shrimp heads and a few freebies into the water around your boat will help get the scent in the water and speed up the action. 

One non-traditional chumming technique used in the deeper waters of the gulf is to drop frozen blocks of shellfish down to the bottom. Using a plastic container with a lid, fishermen will add scraps of shrimp, clam juice, oysters, and other similar shellfish bits and freeze it into a block. The block is then lowered in a weighted cage or netting down to the bottom next to the boat.

When fishing for hogfish, it will generally take longer for the action to start versus traditional reef fishing, so be patient. If you’ve given a spot at least 30 minutes with no bites, pick up and try another nearby reef and repeat the process. Hogfish generally aren’t big schooling species like snapper, but they are often found in small groups, so once you find one, there are likely more to be in the area. 

Hogfish travel in small, family groups led by a single, dominant male. All hogfish are born as females and are sequential hermaphrodites, meaning they will transition to males at sexual maturation. Once the male leaves the group, another female will transition, taking his place.

Hogfish travel in small, family groups led by a single, dominant male.

If you start to catch porgy while hogfishing, consider it a bonus and a good sign. Porgy inhabit similar environment and eat the same kind of food as hogfish, so if you’re catching them, a hogfish might not be far behind. Catching juvenile mutton snapper can also signal that you’re in the right spot.

However, if you’re catching small grunts, mangrove snapper, schoolmaster snapper, lane snapper, or losing lots of baits to small, nibbling fish this is a bad sign. Consider moving the boat a little further away from the structure if your hooks are constantly coming up empty or with small reef fish attached. 

Florida Regulations For Hogfish

Be sure to read the official hogfish regulations before you go fishing.

The Florida Keys are part of the Atlantic waters fishery for hogfish and if you’re fishing on shallow hardbottom and patch reefs, you’re likely to be in state waters. The limit for hogfish as of this writing is one fish per person at least 16 inches long with an open season starting May 1st and closing October 31st. There are also gear restrictions regarding the types of hooks (non-stainless steel) that can be used. These regulations are constantly changing, so be sure to check out the FWC website for details before you hit the water. 

Hogfish Are Great to Eat

Hogfish are excellent table fare, with some of the whitest, mildest fillets of any reef species in the Caribbean. Many compare the firm, flakey meat to very tender lobster as it has a sweetness derived from their shellfish diet. 

Hogfish fillets taste great, your goal as the cook is to just not mess it up. For a super simple technique, just sauté in butter in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add salt and pepper once the fillets are just cooked through. That’s it, enjoy on a sandwich, over rice, or alone as the main dish!