How to Catch a Ladyfish

How to Catch a Ladyfish

If you are looking for a good time, the ladyfish will give you one! Called the “Poor Man’s Tarpon,” it has earned the title of the best fighting inshore fish that swims. The ladyfish is often used as bait for shark, snook, bull reds, and tarpons. If you’re looking for a fish to serve on the dinner table, keep looking. The ladyfish is considered a trash fish and sometimes a nuisance, however, the acrobatic leaping makes it an eventful catch. They are a nuisance because while you are fishing for other fish, you will more than likely catch a ladyfish as they are not picky eaters and are abundant.

Often running with Spanish mackerel, the ladyfish is also called a skipjack in the panhandle of Florida.

Ladyfish are a great fish to target if you are new to saltwater fishing or if you want to take a child fishing as it is exciting and they are easy to find. Use caution however, ladyfish fishing seems to be the portal to the saltwater world and once you go in, you can’t/won’t want to come back.

Whether you are looking to catch a ladyfish to use as bait or just looking for an eventful day full of catching, knowing how to identify a ladyfish, where the ladyfish are located, how to catch them, and what bait or lures to use will be sure to make a ladyfish fishing trip a success. 

How to Identify a Ladyfish

The ladyfish resembles a tarpon and has legendary leaping abilities. With shiny scales, large eyes with adipose eyelids, a deeply forked tail, long terminal mouth and a slender body. A ladyfish will resemble a juvenile tarpon but the difference is that the lady fish does not have the last elongated dorsal fin ray. Ladyfish can grow up to 40 inches and weigh 22 lbs, however, most of the ones that you will catch will more than likely be 3-5 pounds. The fight the ladyfish gives is not proportionate to its size.

Where to Find Ladyfish

Ladyfish are not hard to find as they tend to follow bait balls and can be found in several different types of water. Ladyfish can be found off the western North Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod all the way south to Brazil. The best time of the year to catch ladyfish is from spring to fall. With a high tolerance to various salinities, ladyfish can be found in full salt water as well as brackish water and almost freshwater. They enjoy the Florida mangroves and salt marsh channels. Going offshore for spawning, ladyfish can also be found at the edges of deep grass flats, open channels, passes and inlets. 

These fish are abundant and can be found in other places as well. Try fishing off a pier, jetty, beach or in a bay and you will likely catch a ladyfish. They are not deep dwellers and should be caught between 0-50 m deep. They follow the bait so be on the look for bait balls. Once you find a bait ball, the ladyfish will run in schools following it. Another way to locate ladyfish is to find the Spanish mackerel. These two species of fish often run together. Finally, look at the birds. Finding birds that are diving into the water signal bait, and where there is bait, more than likely there is a ladyfish.

A good key point to keep in mind is that these fish move, they don’t sit stagnant so if you are not catching ladyfish where you are, move. At nightfall, ladyfish can be found near sea walls and underbridges. Often, once you find a school, you will catch multiple fish and can follow them down the beach catching the entire way. 

How to Catch a Ladyfish

Now that you have located the ladyfish, it is time to catch one or several! Ladyfish can be caught at any time of day and at any tide. Many times, you will catch ladyfish even when you are not targeting them. There are two methods of ladyfish catching. First you can fly fish for them. The backwaters are the place to fly fish for them as they will be protected from the wind. Use a 2-4 weight rod that will allow you to cast far.

The second method is with a rod and reel. If you are fishing front the beach, a 7-9 foot rod with a fast-tip is ideal. A fast spinning action 3000 series reel will get the job done. Arm the rod and reel with 10-pound or heavier monofilament. You could also use a fluorocarbon but we suggest you don’t use braid. Ladyfish have great eyesight and you don’t know them to see the line. Little, sharp teeth can slice through lightweight mono. A 30-pound monofilament leader is ideal and will help prevent ladyfish from slicing it off.

Whatever combination of line and leader you use, we suggest that you are able to cast it quite a distance. If you want an extra good time, use a light set up on the rod and reel. Try a line rated at 4 to 6 lbs on a six-foot pole. This would be a good set-up if you are targeting young ladyfish for bait.

You can use bait or lures to catch ladyfish and we will examine those later, but we wanted to take a minute and discuss hooks. Most lures come with a treble hook and these hooks will catch fish, however, single hooks are better strictly for your safety. Ladyfish will spit hooks out and shake them free and you don’t want to catch those in your eye.

Once you’ve found diving birds or bait surfacing, cast just outside the school of bait. Don’t drive your boat through the bait, keep just far enough away that you can cast. Reel fast and you will hook up if the ladyfish is there. If you don’t catch on the first cast, cast again. Bouncing a jig off the bottom is a great technique if you can reach the bottom such as in the grass flats. Once you hook one, the fight has just begun. Keeping the ladyfish hooked can be challenging because they thrash trying to unhook themselves. They will also surface and leap out of water trying to unhook. Ladyfish don’t generally take off running and they won’t spool you but they will put up a fight between the end of the line and the reel.

ladyfish fillets

Now that you are hooked and the fish is at the boat, grab the slender body of the ladyfish just behind the head. To remove the hook you can use pliers as it may be tough to remove the hook especially if it is a treble hook. You definitely do not want to lip the fish as the small, almost invisible teeth would not feel good on your fingers.

Sarasota Fishing Charters discusses more about fishing for ladyfish in Florida.

You must now decide if you want to keep the ladyfish or let it go. Remember, ladyfish is not a delectable treat. However, if you plan to use it as bait, keep it. Otherwise, let the ladyfish go and move on to the next one! Keep in mind that ladyfish are fighters and they will not just lay on the shore or in the bottom of the boat. They will flop around trying to get back in the water. If you are keeping them for bait, besure to get them in the livewell quickly so they don’t find themselves back in the water and you find yourself with one less bait fish. 

Best Bait and Lures for Ladyfish

These slender body fish are not picky eaters (which might be why they don’t taste very good!). Ladyfish can be caught on both bait and lures. As long as it is fast, the ladyfish will go after it. Ladyfish enjoy live shrimp, anchovies, mullet, glass minnows and sardines. A circle hook is ideal to use when using bait. There are several brands of hooks that are sharp enough out of the package that you won’t have to set the hook to get the ladyfish to the boat. Owner is one of these brands of hooks.

However, lures are more desirable for ladyfish because once you catch one, you can easily catch another and stopping to bait your hook again will take up time. The most popular and effective lure will imitate a small silvery fish. Examples include hair jigs, spoons, jerkbaits, bubble rigs, and Mirrodines. Another great color to use is chartreuse. To cast for distance, we suggest using spoons, bubble rigs, or Gotcha lures. Bouncing some of these off the bottom will entice the ladyfish to bite. 

Ladyfish Companions

It is very rare to find a school of ladyfish that is just ladyfish. Because the ladyfish follow the bait, you will often find other fish mixed in with them. We have already mentioned that Spanish mackerel and ladyfish often swim together but the ladyfish has other companions as well. Crevalle jack, blue fish, trout and tarpon will all run with the ladyfish so be ready. These are all good fighters and will be exciting to catch. If you target any of these fish, you may also catch a ladyfish. The ladyfish companions would be better to serve on your table but none of these will be as good of bait as the ladyfish. 


Catching ladyfish is not hard. They are like the bluegills of the ocean. Often, you can catch them without even trying. Although humans don’t find the ladyfish very tasty, many different species of other fish do which makes them excellent bait. Whether whole, or in pieces, you can catch much bigger game using ladyfish. One thing to keep in mind is that ladyfish have a reputation of pooping when being pulled out of the water or being slung into a boat so be sure to keep some sort of cleaner on hand. Dish detergent and white vinegar is inexpensive and works great. This release of the bowels is just a slight negative aspect of catching ladyfish as the fight and aerobatic display is quite thrilling and definitely outweighs the negative aspect.

Knowing where to find ladyfish, how to catch them, and what bait and lures to use is important when you are targeting ladyfish to catch. So whether you’re looking for bait or just a good time, catching ladyfish will give you both! Catching ladyfish is the portal to surf fishing. Once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Interested in learning about catching other types of fish? Read: How to Catch a Pufferfish

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