If you conduct a poll of local fishermen, you'll find that the overwhelming majority focus most or all of their attention on saltwater species. With so much coastal water to explore, that's not really a surprise. But the first recreational anglers that came to Florida weren't here for snook or tarpon — they came for the largemouth bass, the species that put our state on the angling map. Generations later, we still have an amazing freshwater fishery. Here are some ideas for those who would like to experience it.
There’s More To Life Than Bass
Florida is rightfully renowned for its bass fishery. But wait, there’s more. Local fresh waters also hold lots of other fish, including specks, catfish, bluegill, shellcrackers and swarms of exotics such as tilapia and Mayan cichlids — all of which are a blast to catch on ultralight tackle.
Go Slow, Slow, Slow For Bass
There are days that Florida bass will be turned on by rapidly worked lures, but there are more days when slowing things down works better. If you’re working topwater, try letting that plug sit still so long you can barely stand it. With flukes, senkos, worms, lizards and other soft plastics, try dead sticking them on the bottom for lengthy periods between hops.
Winter Time Is The Best Time
Here’s an interesting tidbit: Some of the best freshwater fishing in Florida occurs during the winter months. The fishing for bass and crappie (specks) peaks at exactly the time of year when the most people are in town to enjoy it. To sweeten the pot even more, this is also when inshore saltwater fishing for popular coastal gamefish such as tarpon, sharks, mackerel and snook is at its slowest.
Small Water, Big Fish
If you look around Southwest Florida, you’ll see that there is a lot of fresh water here. There are countless miles of canals and hundreds upon hundreds of ponds and small lakes. Big lakes such as Okeechobee, Istokpoga, Tohopekaliga and others in central and southern Florida are famous bass producers — but there are surprisingly large bass found in surprisingly small bits of water too. Small ponds in subdivisions, on golf courses and parking lots (some so small that you can cast all the way across them) can hold trophy-sized bass and large numbers of stout panfish.
Elephants Eat Peanuts
Lots of Florida bass fishing is done with large swimbaits, big plugs and foot-long worms and lizards. But finesse fishing with light tackle can be deadly. Try using small jigs hopped on the bottom, or drop-shot rigged soft plastics of only 2 or 3 inches in length and fluttered a foot or so off the bottom.
OMG, What Lures Should I Choose?
You can back a truck up to the loading dock of a big tackle shop and fill it up with all the different lures available for freshwater fishing. The endless choices are mind-numbing. But if you want a simple start, buy a handful of tiny Beetle Spins for panfish. For bass, get some flukes and 8-inch worms, along with the hooks and small weights needed to rig them, and choose one or two topwater plugs. With these few lures, you’ll catch fish 90 percent of the time. Want to make it 100 percent? Then go ahead and fill up the bed of that truck.
Are you a native, or are you a non-native who relocated to Florida? It turns out that Florida’s warm climate and abundance of water is attractive to lots of non-native fish, too. Some of these newcomers have established huge populations that provide great fishing fun. In Southwest Florida the exotic species that are caught most often are blue tilapia and Mayan cichlids, but a road trip just a bit further south and east into the Florida Everglades will produce other species, including chunky oscars and, depending on where you go, peacock bass, clown knifefish and snakeheads.
No Leader Needed
Most freshwater fish do not possess line-cutting teeth or line-shredding gill covers, so bite leaders are seldom used by Florida’s freshwater anglers. Bass guys routinely tie dark-colored braided lines directly to their plugs, and the bass don’t seem to mind.
Fly Guys Can Play Too
Some of Florida’s freshwater fisheries lend themselves really well to fly fishing. Areas of scattered lily pads are great places to work large poppers for bass. Fly fishing for panfish can actually be more effective at times than spin fishing. A 3 weight rod plus a few foam spiders and some woolly buggers can be all that’s needed for hours of fun.
To Boat Or Not To Boat
We’ve all seen them: Shiny, high-horsepower bass boats sitting atop paint-matched trailers. Those rigs can be a pleasure to play on, but aren't always needed to catch fish. The flats boats and bay boats used by coastal saltwater anglers will also do a good job in fresh water. Canoes and kayaks can be launched just about anywhere that it’s wet, and they do catch fish. But it’s also possible to catch fish without any boat at all. There are so many local places to fish canals and ponds from shore that it would take two lifetimes to explore them all. One word of warning: Make sure not to trespass while you’re spot-hunting.