Closely related to octopus and cuttlefish, squid are some of the ocean’s oldest and most intelligent inhabitants, proving their adaptive abilities and intelligence over millions of years of evolution. A member of the cephalopod class of mollusks, these invertebrates display incredible social and cognitive skills and continue to baffle researchers worldwide as new species continue to be discovered. While all squid are active predators, almost every inhabitant in the world’s oceans heavily preys upon them.
From the skinniest shallows to the deepest abyssal plains, there are approximately 300 species of squid that have been identified. While many of these species are extremely challenging to dissimilate, scientists believe there are still hundreds of specimens yet to be discovered.
While there have been sightings of giant and colossal squid in Florida waters, the most common squid that occur in our surrounding region are much smaller in stature and include Caribbean squid, and sub-species of longfin squid and shortfin squid. However, additional species occur in the surrounding waters and misidentification is common since they are morphologically similar and often occur together in significant numbers.
Bottom fishermen around Florida are accustomed to using squid typically sold in one, three and five pound frozen boxes. These California market squid don’t come from our waters, but fortunately our fish don’t care. Loligo squid harvested from coastal Pacific waters make up the bulk of our bait squid, and are primarily used as fish food here across the southeast because they only contain very small amounts of ink, which anglers and deckhands have learned to appreciate. There is a similar species of Loligo squid inhabiting Florida waters, but it’s a bit smaller, much darker in color and contains substantially more deck-staining ink. And in case you were wondering, the Loligo squid we use for snapper bait are actually high quality, edible squid not much different than those sold in markets and served at seafood restaurants all over the country. As a matter of fact, the nutrition information is often right on the box. The only difference is size and the fact that bait squid aren’t cleaned prior to distribution. However, they are all captured using the same methods, by the same commercial fishing fleets, and processed in the same facilities.
For Florida anglers specifically targeting swordfish and other big game species with exceptionally large squid, it’s all about the Argentine shortfin. Known throughout the scientific community as Illex argentinus, Argentine shortfin squid are an incredibly fast growing pelagic squid commercially harvested in the South Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Argentina from January through March. During peak season these squid double in size nearly every two weeks. As with most squid, the Argentine shortfin squid is highly sustainable due to its super fast growth pattern and rapid reproduction cycle.
There is a very similar species, the northern shortfin squid (Illex illecebrosus), which has as a wide range from the cold waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. They live, breed and migrate side by side with swordfish, so it’s no surprise they are a favored prey item and primary food source.
It is believed northern shortfin squid spawn off the coast of Florida during the winter months where they ride the current north, coinciding with the seasonal commercial squid fishery off the Mid-Atlantic in the summer and fall. The only reason northern shortfin squid are not used as big game baits is because they are slightly smaller in size and have thinner tube walls compared to the larger Argentine shortfin squid. If northern shortfin squid were permitted more time to grow before being captured, they would make ideal broadbill baits, but the commercial quota is always filled before they reach maximum size.
In any case, shortfin squid are voracious predators, gorging on various baitfish species, shrimp, fish and even juvenile longfin squid. They primarily feed under the cover of darkness in the upper third of the water column. We point this out because it is relatively easy for Florida fishermen to procure their own supply of fresh squid with only minimal effort. All one needs to do is head out to the baitfish grounds under the cover of darkness, look for scratches on the sounder indicating the presence of squid schools, and deploy a specialized weighted squid jig with a small glow light attached. By working the jig up and down through the water column at the targeted depth, it shouldn’t take long to load up.
While open ocean squid are very challenging to study and the data on their migration patterns and routes is limited, scientists know they have a very short lifespan lasting far less than a year. They also know squid are of vital importance to the entire aquatic ecosystem, and certainly to recreational anglers plying fertile seas worldwide.