America Go Fishing man holding snook fish

Fishing Licenses and Regulations

Fishing Licenses

man holding a large wahoo fish

All anglers, beginners to experienced, must obtain a fishing license before they catch a single fish. Licenses for recreational fishing are required in every state in the United States. The good news is that these licenses are easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive.

You need a license in most states to fish, spear, bait catch, clam or trap at all times, whether on land or on a boat. And each person who is participating in fishing or other related activity must have a license. For example, if 2 people are using a seine net to catch bait, each person holding a pole must have a license. There are exceptions which vary by state.

According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the money collected from the sale of fishing licenses goes directly toward conservation and restoration. This means that the funds raised from the sale of fishing licenses contributes to fish management, species and habitat restoration, habitat protection, land acquisition, research, education and public access for fishing and boating in all US states. Visit US Fish & Wildlife Service to learn more about how your fishing license funds are used.

There are different licenses to choose from and the prices will vary depending on the following:

  • What state you are fishing in
  • Where you will be fishing
  • How long you expect to fish (for example, for just one week or throughout the year)
  • The type of fish you want to catch
  • The fishing method you will be using
  • Resident status in that state
  • If you plan to sell, eat or release your catch
  • Your age (in some states, licenses for children and/or senior citizens are discounted or free)
  • If you are active military

two men fishing in mangroves standing in the water

Common Types of Recreational Fishing Licenses in the United States

There are many different types of recreational fishing licenses available in the United States. Licenses can be obtained from your state’s Fish and Wildlife Agency, online, an outdoor sporting goods store, tackle shop, marina, or by phone.

Freshwater License: Required for fishing in freshwater lakes, rivers and streams. Freshwater is defined as a landlocked body of water that contains fresh water.

Saltwater Fishing License: Required for fishing in salt and brackish waterways (mixture of salt and fresh water, like the water in estuaries or the end of rivers that deposit into the ocean). Places where you’d likely fish in salt water include at beaches, piers and in the ocean.

Commercial Fishing License: Required for individuals that plan to sell their catch, offer for-hire fishing charters, you are setting crab traps for personal consumption, or in Florida, you are a non-resident using a seine net while bait catching. The only way to know if an activity is regulated, and how it is classified, is to read the regulations catalog annually!

man driving boat with a lot of fishing rods

Non-Resident (Temporary) Fishing License: If you are planning to fish in another state for only a few days or weeks, many states offer short term licenses for non-residents that are typically anywhere from 1 to 30 days.

Combination License: Many states offer a combination license that allows you to catch both saltwater and freshwater fish species.

Junior or Senior Fishing License: If you meet the age requirements, usually under the age of 16 or over 65, many states offer licenses at a reduced cost or free to promote the hobby of fishing.

Lifetime Fishing Licenses: One year licenses are very common for residents. After the year, you will need to renew it and pay the annual fee. Some states offer lifetime licenses to residents. These lifetime licenses cost a considerable amount to acquire but offer the convenience of eliminating the annual burden of renewing your license. The overall, long-term cost of a lifetime license is actually quite inexpensive, especially if you acquire it at a young age.

Species Permits: You have the option to purchase additional features, called permits or tags, to your fishing license at the time of purchase. For example, certain species require an additional permit and fee to catch them, such as clamming, crabbing, or tarpon fishing.

Gear Permits: Many states require you to have a permit to use certain equipment while harvesting fish. Examples are setting crab traps or using a seine net.

Federal Permits: NOAA Fisheries, a branch of the US government, manages the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans & Caribbean Sea waters 3 miles from shore out to 200 miles and manages the Gulf of Mexico waters 9 miles from shore to 200 miles from shore. Permits are not normally required to fish in federal waters but some states, like New York, require you to register with them if you intend to saltwater fish offshore or in managed areas.

Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands: If you do not have a state license and would like to fish in federal waters which are 3 miles from shore, then you need to acquire a special license from NOAA. Visit National Saltwater Angler Registry (NSAR) to register.

If you plan to fish offshore for bottomfish in Hawaii, you will need to get a Main Hawaiian Islands Non-Commercial Bottomfish Permit.

If you plan to catch highly migratory species, which include tuna, marlin, sailfish, swordfish, sharks and billfish, then a federal permit is required for both recreational and commercial fisherman. These permits must be purchased directly from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fishing Regulations

redfish catch on a dock

In addition to purchasing a fishing license, you need to know the regulations and laws related to saltwater fishing in the specific state where you plan to fish, as well as the local jurisdiction, since regulations can vary. It’s important to ensure that you are in compliance with the law because anglers can be fined, have their catches confiscated, have their fishing license revoked and can even be arrested if they violate fishing regulations.

Regulations vary by the "area" you will be fishing. If you are fishing in "state" waters, you must follow that state's rules. If fishing in "federal" waters, you must follow their rules.

Fishing Regulation Terminology

14 tuna on a rack with fisherman

Harvest: Harvest refers to removing a species from its habitat. Harvesting is when you catch and keep the fish. Many species have specific regulations on how you can harvest that species. For example, in Florida you must return to port with fish whole including lobsters. You are allowed to clean them (gut), but the fish must be whole and identifiable.

Bag Limits: The number of fish of one species you can harvest (keep), usually on a daily basis.

Possession Limits: The total number of fish, from all days of fishing, that a person can possess at any given time.

Size Limits: The length and/or weight of the species you can harvest, usually expressed in a range of minimum length to maximum length..

Aggregate Bag Limits: A single bag limit that includes multiple species of fish. Some species may have their own specific bag limit within the aggregate limit. Species with federal regulations that have aggregate limits include snapper, grouper, triggerfish, amberjacks, tilefish and lobsters.

Daily Creel Limit: the lawful amount of a species of finfish that a person may take in one day.

Bushel: 9.3 gallons or approximately 37 quarts.

Unregulated Species: These include any species that are not listed as regulated. Even though these species are technically unregulated, many states have total daily catch limits in pounds per species or a total quantity you are allowed to harvest.

Prohibited Species: Species that you cannot harvest, possess, land, purchase, sell or exchange. If you unintentionally catch a prohibited species you must immediately return it to the water unharmed. Examples of prohibited marine species include some groupers, many species of sharks, turtles, live rock and many reef species.

Gear Allowed: Many regulated species can only be caught using certain equipment, such as a traditional hook and line. Many states have restriction on where you can use certain equipment, such as a seine net, gaff, hoop net, etc.hand holding a cod fish

Open & Closed Seasons: A period of time when you can or cannot harvest a certain species. Many saltwater fish migrate throughout the year from one area to another for different reasons, typically to reproduce, which is called spawning. During these seasonal migrations many states close fishing for specific species throughout the year to protect them. Other times a season is closed for a species to ensure the fish is not over-fished, ensuring its long-term survival.

Open & Closed Areas: It is common to have areas open and closed to fishing, which are usually imposed seasonally. These regulations give certain species, or even a specific fishing area, a break from the pressure of fishing and harvesting marine life.

Management Zones: Regulations for either a certain species or fishing all together, that have different regulations than the surrounding waters. Management Zones exist in most states and in federal waters.

Saltwater Demarcation Line: A line established by a state that is the separation point between saltwaters and freshwaters for both recreational sport fishing and commercial fishing.

Species Regulations

Many species (fish, shellfish, etc.) are regulated to ensure that the specific species are not over fished, which could cause endangerment or extinction. There are size limits, open and closed seasons, and limits on how many you can harvest (keep).

Having a fish ID card, regulations catalog or fishing app readily available while fishing is always good practice. As soon as you can see the fish you have hooked, you have to quickly identify it, decided if you "can" keep it, decide if you want to keep it or return it to the water. If you catch a fish that is regulated, you need to check if it is of legal size to keep in the area you are fishing. Any fish caught that isn’t regulation size must be carefully released and returned to the water.

men on a boat with a tarpon fish in the water

Large species should not be removed from the water if they are release-only species like tarpon. Never remove a fish from the water just to take a picture of it. This is very harmful and may impact the ability of the fish to recover from the trauma of being caught.

Federal regulations are in place for Highly Migratory Species including tuna, marlin, sailfish, swordfish, sharks and billfish. Please see the Federal Regulations section for more information.

Required Gear

There are regulations in place, on the state and federal level, for gear required to have on hand when fishing. Some requirements are species specific and usually for offshore fishing opposed to shoreline or inshore fishing which are usually much smaller fish that require less care. The required gear actually helps you by reducing the handling time of the fish ensuring it's survival if released.

map of florida circle hook requirements

Circle Hooks are required when fishing with live bait in Atlantic Federal Waters and they must be non-stainless steel and non-offset in certain regions. Circle hooks will usually hook the fish in the mouth 90% of the time and reduce the likelihood of leaving the hook in the fish.

Dehooking Devices are used to safely remove a fish from your hook. They are required in many states and federal waters. You can purchase dehooking devices in many styles or simple needle nose pliers will suffice.

Venting Devices aid in the release of fish that have been pulled from deep reefs (50 feet or more) that suffer from barotrauma.

State Regulations

man holding small sheepshead fish on a boat in a bay with a woman watching

Fishing regulations vary from state to state and change from time to time. Many states have rule changes annually and some states, like Florida, change rules biannually. In large bodies of water bordering different states, you need to be aware of the regulations of both states if you plan to fish where their borders meet.

Species Regulations vary in each state mainly due to the seasonal movement of fish but also because a certain species needs protection to prevent it from being overfished. Some species are no-take where others have limits on how many you can take (bag limits) and what size they must be to harvest (size limits).

Gear Regulations are also in every state and vary due to the states unique circumstances. Regulated gear includes, but not limited to, nets (bully, frame, hand-held, cast, seine), spear guns, gaffing, sabiki rigs, explosives, and hook and line only species. Each state will specify the size, quantity and allowed use for any regulated gear.

If you fish in any public waterway you need to keep yourself updated by reading the annual fishing regulations catalog each state issues. You can read these catalogs online, pick one up at a bait and tackle shop or order a printed fishing regulations catalog online. It is always a good idea to have a current regulations catalog with you at all times while fishing.

For regulations catalogs for your state online visit


Federal Regulations

earth image of the usa showing state and federal boundaries

Regulations differ depending on whether you are in “state” or “federal” waters. Coastal states regulate the first 3 nautical miles (3.5 miles) from shore on the West Coast, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, 9 nautical miles in the Gulf of Mexico, and then federal rules apply out 200 miles. Federal regulations differ by region. Below are links to either the official brochure or NOAA's website.

PDF document iconGulf of Mexico Federal Waters Recreational Fishing Regulations

PDF document icon South Atlantic Coast Deepwater Marine Protected Areas

PDF document iconSouth Atlantic Snapper Grouper Complex

PDF document icon South Atlantic - Bringing Fish Back from the Bahamas

link icon New England/Mid-Atlantic Federal Regulations

link icon West Coast NOAA Fisheries Regulations

link icon Alaska NOAA Fisheries Federal Regulations

white marlin closeup in the water

Highly Migratory Species

Tuna, marlin, sailfish, swordfish, sharks and billfish are considered Highly Migratory Species (HMS) and are highly regulated. See the brochure below for details.

pdf icon Highly Migratory Species Compliance Guide: Recreational Fishing Atlantic

Federal regulations require reporting any catch of highly migratory species, for more information visit Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Reporting or Pacific Highly Migratory Species Reporting.

Marine Protected Areas

Marine protected areas exist in 26% of US waters, nearly 1,000 MPA's, including the Great Lakes. They are in both state and federal waters with varying degrees of regulations for their use. MPA's are areas where regulations are established to protect natural or cultural resources. MPA's are in open oceans, coastal areas, inter-tidal waterways, estuaries and the Great Lakes. MPA's are classified in different categories:

  • Uniform Multiple-Use
  • Zones Multiple-Use
  • Zoned Multiple-Use with No-Take Areas
  • No-Take - allow human access but prohibit the extraction of natural resources like fishing
  • No Impact - allow human access but most activities are prohibited
  • No Access - no human access

Your state regulations catalog and/or website will indicate what MPA's exist in your area and the regulations for fishing the area. Also GPS chartplotter maps will show these areas. It is up to you to look up the rules and regulations for fishing when entering MPA's.

pdf icon Marine Protected Areas Brochure

pdf icon Definitions and Classification System for US Marine Protected Areas

pdf icon The List of National System MPA's

link iconNational Marine Protected Areas Center

map of the florida keys marine zones

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

The most famous MPA in the USA is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). As you can see on the above sanctuary map, there is an extensive network of marine protected areas, each with their own separate set of rules. Fishing in the Keys requires knowledge of the rules for each site you will visit! The rules are extensive, made to protect the fragile reef track and organisms that inhabit it.

Our sister website has all the information you could need to learn about each area in the FKNMS with the accompanying rules and regulations. You can also buy our Fishing & Dive Sites memory card that contains GPS coordinates for all the reefs in The Keys along with RULES on each waypoint!

The Keys Fishing and Dive Sites Memory Card

Enforcing Rules and Regulations

sherrif boat stopping a boat

Rules and regulations on the water are enforced by either your state's marine patrol law enforcement or in federal waters by the US Coast Guard. You can get stopped on the water at any time. If stopped be prepared to show your vessels documentation, your fishing license and your catch. Often times they will board your vessel and inspect lockers to be sure you have not hidden fish from inspection. This happens more often in busy fishing states like Florida but can happen in any state. As much as this sounds inappropriate, it is necessary to ensure everyone follows the rules to protect our valuable fisheries.