Florida Freshwater Fishing – the Ultimate Guide!
This article will thoroughly cover Florida freshwater fishing. Florida offers both visiting and residential anglers a tremendous variety of freshwater fishing opportunities. Largemouth bass are obviously very popular, often driven by tournaments. Bluegill, crappie, and other panfish get even more attention from anglers than bass. Catfish are popular as well.
My name is Capt Jim Klopfer and I am a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida. While I make my living on the saltwater, and love it, on my days off I am apt to be found on local freshwater rivers and lakes. I really enjoy fishing for panfish (called “bream” in the South), often using a fly rod as well as ultralight spinning tackle.
Florida freshwater fishing
The environment in Florida is unique, and to a large degree that is what makes Florida freshwater fishing so good. Florida is a flat peninsula with little elevation change. This means that the lakes are, for the most part, shallow. Shallow lakes have more vegetation. Finally, the growing season is twelve months long.
The list of species available to anglers is quite long. While it is too warm for cold water species such as trout and pike, there are many warm water species that anglers can catch. Most are fun to catch and also good to eat. They include largemouth bass, striped and hybrid bass, bluegill, stumpknocker, redear sunfish (shellcracker), crappie, catfish and bullhead, gar, chain pickerel, bowfin (mudfish, grinnell), warmouth, redbreast, tilapia, snook, and even tarpon. These are a few other species that are caught in Florida by freshwater anglers, but there are the primary species that are the most widely distributed. Here is a link to the FWC website to help anglers with Florida fish identification.
Florida largemouth bass
Florida is often associated with largemouth bass, and for good reason. The largest bass in the world come from the Sunshine State. States such as Texas and California use Florida strain largemouth bass and grow them quite large.
Read my detailed article on largemouth bass fishing in Florida
The shallow, weedy Florida lakes, ponds, and rivers are perfect for largemouth bass. The vegetation offers shade and ambush points and also holds a tremendous amount of forage. Many lakes also have good populations of shad. Anglers catch them using a variety of techniques. Most of the largest bass are caught by anglers using live golden shiners.
Florida striped and hybrid bass
Striped bass were introduced into some of the larger lakes, especially in the northern half of the state. They are also found in the St John’s River system. They are an open water fish that feed primarily on shad and herring. Trolling is the most effective techniques as it allows anglers to cover a lot of water in search of them.
Many states have introduced a white bass/striped bass hybrid. These are called “wipers” and “hybrids” in other states. In Florida the term is “sunshine bass”. They school up in large numbers and are very aggressive. Anglers will often encounter them feeding on the surface.
While bass get a lot of attention, the bluegill may in fact be the most popular species for anglers freshwater fishing in Florida. They are abundant, aggressive, widely distributed, fun to catch, and fantastic eating! In many cases, taking some fish to eat can actually improve the fishery.
Check out my article on fishing for bluegill, panfish, and crappie in Florida
Bluegill can be caught using a variety of techniques. Live bait fished under a float is probably the most commonly used method. Crickets are the top bait, followed by worms. I prefer to use tiny artificial lures, I just think it is more fun to fish that way. A black 1/16 ounce Beetle spin is my favorite lure. Fly fishing is great fun as well.
Bluegill bed in the summer, and this is the best time to really catch a bunch. They are easily spotted as they make small nests in the bottom. Once located, the action can be fast and furious. While good to eat, anglers should be reasonable in the harvest and release the largest specimens to spawn.
Crappie are an extremely popular freshwater fish, and Florida has an excellent population. They call them “”specks” or “speckled perch”. Crappie feed primarily on minnows. Therefore, live minnows are the top bait. Small lures such as jigs and spinnerbaits will catch them as well.
Anglers often troll with both live minnows and lures in search of crappie. This is an efficient technique as anglers can present multiple baits at various depths in search of them. Anglers can certainly cast to weed edges and banks as well. Crappie are fantastic to eat!
Florida redear sunfish
Redear sunfish, also known as “shellcrackers” are the largest member of the sunfish family. They are found a bit deeper than other panfish. Redear sunfish feed on freshwater shellfish and shrimp, thus the nickname. A live worm drifted 4′ under a float will catch them. Redear sunfish will also take small lures and flies.
Florida catfish do not get a lot of attention, but the state offers some terrific fishing for these game fish. Channel catfish are the most widely available, as is the case in most states. They average 2-5 pounds. Blue catfish are available in the larger systems and they grow quite large! White catfish and several species of bullhead are plentiful as well.
Most catfish are caught using cut bait or live worms and nightcrawlers. They are fished on the bottom near structure. However, catfish are predators and will take lures and even flies. It is not uncommon to catch them on lures meant for bass. I even catch them fly fishing! Most catfish species are very good to eat.
Several species of gar are available to anglers freshwater fishing in Florida. While not specifically targeted by many, these fish do grow quite large and put up a terrific fight when hooked on bass tackle. Live minnows and shiners our top baits, but they readily hit artificial lures and flies as well. Soft plastic baits in particular are quite effective. Gar should be handled with care as I have a mouth full of sharp teeth. They are not considered good to eat.
Florida chain pickerel
Chain pickerel are smaller cousins to the northern pike. They do not grow very large, 3 pounds is a nice fish. However, they do share the same aggressive nature. Chain pickerel are almost always caught in submerged vegetation as their camouflage blinds and perfectly, allowing them to ambush prey. Most are caught accidentally while fishing for bass and other species using lures.
Very few anglers freshwater fishing in Florida are pursuing a bowfin. They are considered a nuisance, especially for anglers spending a lot of money on live shiners for largemouth bass. However, they do put up a very strong flight once hooked. Anglers do need to be careful when handling them as a are strong and have sharp teeth. They are not considered good table fare.
Warmouth are a feisty member of the panfish family. They have a larger than average mouth and along with their aggressive nature make them a natural to catch by anglers using artificial lures such as jigs, spinners, and plugs. They can also be caught on fly. Worms and nightcrawlers will catch plenty of fish as well. They are very good to eat.
Florida redbreast sunfish
Red breast sunfish are another popular Florida panfish. They do not grow very large, 6 inches is a decent one. They tend to be found more in slow moving rivers. They are a beautiful fish that fight hard and are good to eat. Most are caught by anglers using live worms, though they will certainly take small lures as well.
Florida spotted sunfish
Spotted sunfish, also known as stumpknocker, are one of my favorite Florida pan fish species. They look sort of like a cross between a red ear and a bluegill, with the faint vertical lines. They don’t grow quite as large, averaging 6 inches to 8 inches, but the meat is snow white and delicious. I do well casting small artificial lures especially a Beetle spin, but worms will catch plenty of fish as well. They tend to prefer wood cover, thus the name, especially in streams or rivers with slow-moving current.
Tilapia are a member of the cyclid family. They are not native to Florida and have become a problem as an invasive species. Tilapia are extremely prolific and wants they enter a system, they can quickly overwhelm it. Tilapia eat the vegetation that is needed to keep them bottom firm for spawning. They can be caught using worms, small lures, and dough balls. Anglers can also cast net, bow fish, and gig them. Many consider tilapia to be good to eat, though I find the flesh a little soft in texture.
Florida snook and tarpon
Anglers may be surprised to see snook and tarpon on the list of Florida freshwater fishing species. However, more than one angler has been surprised when a snook or juvenile tarpon took a top water plug meant for a largemouth bass. The fact is that both of the species can live and thrive in pure freshwater, and often do. During flood conditions, they can get up over dams and into any connected body of water.
Florida freshwater fishing techniques
Anglers have several choices when it comes to techniques to use when freshwater fishing in Florida. These basically come down to fishing with live bait, using artificial lures, and fly fishing. I will briefly cover each of the three here, though they have been covered in depth and other articles which I will provide links to.
Freshwater fishing in Florida using live bait
The simplest, and some anglers could successfully argue the most productive, freshwater fishing technique is using live bait. For the most part, this is an uncomplicated way to fish and will catch a variety of species. While the list of live baits that can be used is long, there really are only a few that most Florida anglers use when freshwater fishing.
Worms and nightcrawlers are effective freshwater fishing baits all over the world, and that certainly applies to Florida as well. A hole nightcrawler free lined, fished on the bottom, or fished under a float will fool catfish and bass. Smaller pieces of nightcrawler can be used when targeting panfish. Red wigglers and common earthworms are terrific baits for bluegill and other panfish. Nightcrawlers and worms can be purchased at many retail outlets and are easy to keep alive.
Crickets are considered by many to be the top live bait for bluegill fishing in Florida. They are very productive and tend to catch larger specimens. They are usually fished a few feet under a float in the warmer months are generally the most productive. Live crickets are available at most bait shops that cater to freshwater anglers. They are bit more of a nuisance to acquire and keep alive, but many experienced anglers consider them worth the trouble.
Anglers have been using small fish to catch big fish ever since fishing began, and that continues to this day. The number one bait by far for crappie is a 1 inch to 2 inch minnow. Anglers can catch their own in traps or nets, however most purchase them at bait shops. The commercially raised Missouri minnow is the most popular and is a hearty bait that is easy to keep alive.
Larger shiners are the number one live bait for largemouth bass in Florida. Wild or native golden shiners are much preferred and are fished a few feet under a float. They have a natural built-in genetic reflex action when a large masses around. This will often trigger a strike. Us fishing popularity has increased in Florida, obtaining while golden shiners has become quite difficult. Commercially raised shiners are the next option. While not as effective as native shiners, they still catch plenty of fish.
Freshwater fishing in Florida with artificial lures
While many anglers choose to do their freshwater fishing in Florida using live bait, artificial lures are very popular as well. This is especially true for anglers largemouth bass fishing. Artificial lures have the advantage of allowing anglers to cover a lot more water than they can using live bait. Also, the erratic action in many lures will trigger a strike even when fish are not in a feeding mood.
The top artificial lure types are soft plastic lures, plugs, spoons, and spinnerbaits. Northern anglers do well with in-line spinners, however in Florida the abundant vegetation makes them a less desirable choice.
Soft plastic lures are extremely effective for a variety of species. Plastic worms were introduced in the late 60s and have been catching bass ever since. In the late 70s curly tail jigs showed up, and revolutionized fishing with lures. Shad tail baits put out action and vibration. Soft plastic lures can be fished on a plane hook or on a weighted jig head. They can be cast out and retrieved, fished vertically, and trolled.
Tiny soft plastic grub on a light jig head are extremely effective lures for panfish and crappie. I use them a lot when targeting panfish. They will also catch plenty of bass as well, especially smaller ones. A 1 inch to 2 inch chartreuse twister tale on a 1/16 ounce jig head will catch just about every freshwater fish that swims.
Plugs are hard bodied lures that are usually made from plastic. Some float on the surface, these are called top water plugs. Others have a lip which causes them to dive down to a determined depth. Most plugs are built to imitate wounded bait fish. Plugs have a very erratic action that will draw strikes from game fish even when they are not feeding. I personally love fishing with plugs! They are expensive and do come with multiple treble hooks, so anglers need to be careful when fishing with them.
Spinner baits are extremely effective freshwater fishing lures all over the world. While they really don’t look like anything that swims, the combination of the flashing blades and pulsating or vibrating skirt realistically mimic a wounded prey. Tiny spinner baits are extremely effective on bluegill and other panfish. Larger versions catch bass and other species. Their design makes them relatively weedless, resulting in them being an excellent and popular choice for Florida anglers.
Spoons are not quite as popular fishing lures now as they once were. However, they are versatile lures that can be used in a variety of angling situations. Weedless spoons can be fished through the heaviest vegetation and cover. Jigging spoons are designed to be used vertically in deeper water. Other spoons are designed specifically for trolling.
Freshwater fly fishing in Florida
While fly fishing is more popular among saltwater anglers, plenty of freshwater fish are caught in Florida by anglers casting flies. This is particularly true for bluegill as they are aggressive and readily take a fly. Casting popping bugs for bass is great fun as well. Anglers can read more about fly fishing in Florida freshwater in the link below.
Article on freshwater fly fishing in Florida
Top Florida freshwater fishing spots
The list of productive Florida freshwater fishing spots is very long. I will list a few of the most popular and productive along with a sentence or two description. The reality is that just about every freshwater body in Florida, no matter how large or small, can offer anglers the chance to experience some excellent fishing.
Lake Okeechobee, also known as “The Big O”, is a worldwide famous body of water. It has produced countless largemouth bass over 10 pounds and has generated several fishing techniques. It has multiple marinas with good access and logic. Lake Okeechobee is located in the center of the state in the bottom third. Along with largemouth bass, it has an outstanding population of crappie and panfish as well as and under fished catfish fishery.
Lake Talquin is in the Florida Panhandle just outside of Tallahassee. While offering a decent largemouth bass population, this lake is more noted for its outstanding panfish and crappie fishing. Anglers come from all over the southeast to experience this excellent action. It is a deeper than average Florida Lake, and perhaps this explains its productivity.
The Harris chain of Lakes is legendary among tournament bass anglers. Located in the Orlando, Florida area, there is excellent access and accommodations. These lakes produce tremendous stringers of bass, especially in the winter when they are on the beds. Sight fishing in shallow water is the most popular way to catch them on artificial lures, while anglers fishing live shiners catch a lot of very large bass.
Rodman reservoir is located in Northeast Florida. It is famous for producing trophy largemouth bass, especially in the winter and spring during the spawning season. It has deeper areas where the river channel is along with large amounts of flooded timber and aquatic vegetation. It is a perfect environment for Florida largemouth bass. Rodman reservoir is a bit more isolated, with fewer options for launching and lodging.
St Johns River
The St. Johns River is unique in North America in that it flows from south to north. It begins in central Florida along the East Coast and flows north to Jacksonville. It is fairly deep in the best fishing is in the several lakes as well as the coves and creeks off of the main channel. It offers excellent fishing for every freshwater species found in Florida. There is good access all along the river. Anglers can rent houseboats in DeLand for a unique experience.
The Kissimmee chain of Lakes offers anglers some outstanding fishing for largemouth bass and every other species as well. At the top of the chain is world-renowned Lake Toho, which is legendary among tournament bass anglers for its large bags, especially in the spring and winter. All of the lakes offer decent bass fishing and outstanding fishing for panfish, crappie, and catfish.
The Butler chain of Lakes offers anglers excellent fishing and outstanding scenery. These are crystal-clear lakes that are deeper than some of the other Florida lakes. The clear water offers anglers the chance to see the strikes as well as viewing wildlife and catching fish in a pristine environment. There are 11 lakes in the chain in all of them offer decent fishing, especially for anglers seeking action.
In conclusion, this article on freshwater fishing in Florida will help anglers understand the many freshwater fishing options available in the Sunshine State.