Have a saltwater aquarium? It’s tons of fun to catch your own tropical fish when you live in the Florida Keys

Who could have guessed that catching those tiny tropical fish would teach me so much about the ocean. All of my time diving had been about looking for the big guy. Either a large grouper or hog snapper to shoot or I was hunting for the big lobster to catch.

When I began trying to capture tropical fish for my aquarium I began to notice all kinds of creatures and habitat of those creatures that had been all but invisible before. Oh, I knew they’re were beautiful colored small fish all over the reef , but I didn’t know their names or anything about their habits. Here's a book that's very informative about setting up and maintaining you're saltwater aquarium.

In the beginning I didn’t care which kind or fish I caught. It just had to be colorful and easy to net. The Beaugregory Damselfish was my first catch. They are plentiful and pretty. So I caught several of them. I soon found out they’re extremely territorial and aggressive. Having more than one in my aquarium was too many. I discovered they like to pick on any other fish in the aquarium that are smaller than they are and some that are larger.


The wrasse was the next fish I captured. I caught several yellow wrasse. I believe them to be Rainbow Wrasse. I also caught a Bluehead Wrasse. After joining the two kinds of wrasse with the damsels , I discovered I had a very aggressive aquarium. No one was happy. I took several of the fish out and returned them to the ocean.

The next fish I lucked out on catching was a Yellow Tang. He was really fast. I trapped him to get him into my net. When I introduced him into the aquarium it looked great, but was still too aggressive.

I enjoy diving out back as well as out front. The fish I had captured so far were from out front on the coral reef . While diving out back I spotted some small black striped fish. They were Jackknife fish. They were easy to capture. I caught several of them. When I introduced them into the aquarium they hid. I had plenty of hiding places for all the fish. As the days went by I could see that they weren’t feeding. All the other fish were too active, so when the food was floating in the water they were too timid to feed. They died.

I kept these kinds of tropical fish in my aquarium for the first couple of years. I decided to try and catch other tropicals and try to get fish that will get along. I’ve came a long way by now and have gotten pretty good at getting whatever fish I target. So now I’m picky. I’ve also learned that the fish will get along much better if they are introduced into the aquarium at the same time. That way no one has a claim yet and no one has adjusted to the aquarium life. If another fish is introduced after this he will be picked on. There’s a good chance he’ll never get the chance to learn to feed on the fish food given to them.

Neon Gobies Florida Keys


I have a list of tropical fish I like to catch at the beginning of Summer each year. I like to change them out at least once or twice a year. I also like to get them as small as I can, this gives me a longer time to enjoy them before they get too large for my 35 gallon aquarium.

The fish I target are Neon Gobies, as many as I can get, Spotfin and Spanish Hogfish, Spotlight Parrotfish and Blue Chromis. I like to get several of each of these because they are all cleaner fish. The other fish I’ll try to get just one of are the Queen Angelfish, French Angelfish, a couple of Smooth Trunkfish very small, maybe one Jewel Damsel and if I can get two or three Yellow Tangs the same size I’ll take them. See a single Yellow Tang will be feisty, but if you have two or three they school and behave in a more docile manner. If it’s been a really good day I also try and get several Surgeonfish and my very favorite tropical fish of all the Redlip Blenny. The Redlip Blenny is the most difficult of all the fish on this list to catch. The habitat he lives in definitely gives him the advantage. They have a human looking face and they even have eyelashes.

I’ve been catching tropicals for at least twelve years. I had to learn to watch the particular fish I was after. In doing this I learn his habits, and his territory. Only then can I watch for that fish in a particular situation where it will be possible for me to corner him and get him to go into the net.

Redlip Blenny Florida Keys


I do not use any chemicals. I use a net that’s made of clear plastic with a mesh screen at the end. The handle is 12" long the opening for the net is 8" x 6 ½” and the net is 17" deep. I’ve been laughed at for using this particular capture net. My friend Bill O’Brien in Tavernier says it’s a wonder I ever catch a single fish, he says the fish see the metal rim and are not going to go into the net. I have proved him wrong. I can certainly catch tropical fish with that net and have been doing so from the beginning. I use a clear plastic gallon storage jar with a large opening to keep the fish in while underwater. I’ve drilled tiny holes all over the jar and its lid so water can circulate thru it. I have a small tickle stick that I sawed off from one of my lobster tickle sticks, it measures 18" long. I use this to coax the tropical fish out of their hiding places.

Smooth Trunkfish Florida Keys Before you try and get them out of their hiding places you’ll need to already have your net in position. The best chance of capture is when they have only two avenues of escape. One is where your tickle stick is poking and the other is where your net is. When you get him to move you better be fast. You’ll just get a glimpse that something happened. Soon as you see that you better close that net. If you’re any bit slow or hesitate, he’s out and gone. This is definitely the most challenging task I do while diving. I’m not always on the hookah, lots of the time I’m free diving, just holding my breath. It’s such great exercise. I’ve worked on one fish for as long as two hours before getting him. But doing this has caused me to learn so much about the fish on the reef that I didn’t know before. And I’m still learning.

When winter rolls around and I'm out pulling my stone crab traps sometimes I get lucky and find a small tropical fish in the trap that I need for the aquarium. One day I found a Batwing Coral Crab . It was too big for the aquarium, but it was a creature I had never seen before.

I believe that I enjoy my aquarium so much more knowing that I’ve worked for and caught all the tropical fish in it. I like that all the fish are from the local waters here in the Florida Keys.



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