As some of you are probably already aware, not every fish in Southwest Florida lives in salt water. The rivers that pour into Charlotte Harbor are full of fresh water, and full of freshwater fish.
In most years, late summer is a fine time to dip a line into fresh water. The warm water means that fishing in the upper Harbor, especially from the easily accessible piers, can be just plain lousy. Abundant rain makes fish in ponds, canals and creeks more active. Besides, freshwater fishing can be a whole lot of low-stress fun.
Now, I’m not really talking about going out to target 10-pound bass. I’m talking about basics here — panfish. It may not be the most “he-man” sort of fishing, but it’s a great way to unwind. If you have kids or grandkids that you want to get started with fishing, there are few better ways than dipping a pole for bluegills. You may even find yourself having a flashback to your own childhood, even though that may have been 40, 60 or even 80 years ago.
This kind of fishing is cheap, which is also part of its appeal. You don’t need high-dollar gear to get the most out of this sport. A cane or fiberglass pole, 15 feet of monofilament, a pack of light-wire Aberdeen hooks and a bucket of worms is really all that’s required. If you’re feeling froggy, you can go with an ultralight spinning outfit and throw Beetle Spins, crappie jigs or other tiny lures.
Most of the time, your main target is going to be bluegills. These fish are mostly small but pugnacious, and are usually more than willing to hit a bait or lure. You can specifically target the big ones if you want, but that adds a level of pressure back into it. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s sure a lot more relaxing to just be happy with whatever hits.
You may also find other sunfish attacking your baits. Shellcracker (redear sunfish) are a little thicker across the back, which means they’re a bit meatier. If you want to target them specifically, worms or grass shrimp will usually catch more of them than lures.
Warmouth, which are thicker yet (like a rock bass, for you transplants) have become uncommon through most of our area, but there are still some places where you can catch a few. They like minnows better than worms. Spotted sunfish are the smallest species you’re likely to catch — 6 inches is a big one.
While we’re talking about sunfish, it’s worth noting that largemouth bass are actually sunfish themselves. The only true basses are striped, white and yellow bass, none of which are available here. Crappie are also sunfish, but they’re much more a cool-weather fish here in the subtropics. The handful of other local sunfish species are quite small and unlikely to take a hook.
Of course, we also have Mayan cichlids and tilapia, both of which will happily eat worms (and Mayans really love to chase small artificials). These non-native have no bag or size limits, so if you’re looking to fill a cooler for fish fry, go right ahead.
There are lots of areas you can go freshwater fishing around Southwest Florida. Many longtime freshwater anglers have secret spots that they wouldn’t even tell their own mothers about (to be fair, Ma runs her mouth a lot). But there are plenty of other places you can have a good day fishing.
Lake Betty, off Conway Boulevard in Port Charlotte, is a great place to take small children because there’s a playground spitting distance from the dock. If they get bored fishing, they can hit the swingset. The Cocoplum Waterway, which runs parallel to Hillsborough Boulevard between Port Charlotte and North Port, offers miles of fine freshwater action.
Rotonda West is dotted with freshwater ponds, which are connected to the Harbor by a series of culverts and sometimes have tarpon, jacks, snook and redfish in addition to the sunfish. The drainage canals that flank Kings Highway in Port Charlotte rarely hold large bass, but the numbers of fish that you can catch on a good day might surprise you. Shell Creek has lots of fish, and Hathaway Park in Punta Gorda offers a nice little dock to catch a few from.
Webb Lake in Punta Gorda’s C.M. Webb Wildlife Management Area provides excellent shore access and is a good location for anyone who wants to try freshwater fly fishing. There’s a lot of other fishable water at the Webb — a few minutes spent on Google Earth might be highly worth your while.
The canals throughout Port Charlotte used to offer good fishing opportunities, but a few years back the county put up “No Trespassing” signs in the places where people used to stand to fish (why, I don’t know — makes no sense to me). If you have shore access, there are still plenty of fish in there.
Of course, there are also the Myakka and Peace rivers themselves, but there aren’t that many shore-accessible spots where you are likely to catch anything. But a kayak or canoe can be the ticket to finding all sorts of neat spots on the rivers.
In all of these locations, you’ll have your best luck where you find moving water. Spillways and flowing culverts are usually hotspots, because predators gather there to nab whatever comes tumbling in with the water’s flow. It should go without saying that you have to pay attention to where you are. If where you want to fish is private property, be sure to get permission first.
Some things to watch out for: Fire ants, alligators and snakes (that list is in order of most to least dangerous). Also, if you want to keep fish, skip the stringer. The water is too warm and gators are too plentiful. In the Florida heat, we put our fish on ice right away.
Lazing away a September day fishing for panfish is a great low-key way to waste a bit of time while waiting for the fall fishing in Charlotte Harbor to heat up. One final word of advice: Don’t forget that you’ll need a freshwater fishing license, unless you’re using a cane pole in your county of residence. Your shore license will not cover you in fresh water.
So round up the kids and head out for some panfish. The memories you’ll be making will last a lifetime, and that’s not a bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.