Florida is called the “Fishing Capital of the World” for good reason. To date, resident and visiting anglers have set 4,925 world records in Florida waters, according to the Dania Beach-based International Game Fish Association. That is not only more than any other state in the United States but more than any other country in the world.
With approximately 12,000 miles of fishable rivers, streams and canals and about 7,700 freshwater lakes (of 10-plus acres), comprising 3 million total acres – all teeming with fish – anglers have a seemingly endless array of fishing opportunities.
Whether you dream of catching Florida’s legendary largemouth bass in the interior of the state, sailfish in the Atlantic Ocean, dolphin and wahoo off the Florida Keys or snook and grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, a once-in-a-lifetime angling experience is within reach.
Here’s how you get started:
What you will catch
Florida is a world-class destination for both salt and freshwater fishing. With the Atlantic and the Gulf within a two-hour drive from the interior of the state, it’s possible to fish for largemouth bass in the morning on spotted sea trout in the afternoon.
But most fishermen are not so ambitious.
Many come to Florida with one or two species in mind. For example, in the spring, anglers flock to Southwest Florida to catch tarpon in Boca Grande Pass. The silver king of game fish is prized for its fighting prowess and, as a result, top fishing guides are booked a year in advance.
Blue-water enthusiasts head to the Florida Keys during the summer in search of blue marlin in the same waters that Ernest Hemingway once fished. Dolphin, wahoo and swordfish are other summer staples of the island chain that is responsible for more world records than any other part of the state.
Falling temperatures in the autumn trigger the annual king mackerel run down both coasts of Florida. These open-ocean predators spend the warmer months prowling the waters off northwest and northeast Florida and then migrate south along the coastal beaches to their winter breeding grounds off the Florida Keys. Catching a big king on light tackle is memorable for even the most seasoned angler.
During the winter, when most northern anglers sit at home reading fishing magazines, Floridians work offshore shore waters for grouper and amberjack. Both species are excellent fighters, and as an added bonus, are highly prized as table fare.
Plan your trip
Spring and fall are the most popular seasons for Florida fishing. The weather, while good all year round compared to rest of the country, is most consistent during March, April, September and October. This will help in planning any trip, freshwater or saltwater.
Freshwater fishing in the state’s lakes and rivers is usually most productive during the morning and evening. In saltwater, time of day is important, but it’s not as crucial as the knowledge of local tides. Fish feed most actively when the water is moving, and this rule holds true even 10 miles offshore. Before planning your fishing trip, consult local tide charts to make sure you make the most of your day.
Lunar phases can also play a crucial role in your chances for success. Most species will feed at night on a full moon but stop when the sun rises. Most guides don’t like to schedule trips during peak lunar cycles (new or full moon) but instead try to head out a few days before or after.
Weather patterns should also be taken into consideration. If you’re in town for several days and know a front is coming, fish before or after it passes. Fish sense changes in barometric pressure and will feed knowing the water may soon get rough. Use this to your advantage.
Clearly, it pays to research tides, lunar phases and weather forecasts before heading out. Also, Florida law requires that non-residents and most residents between the ages of 16 and 65 have a fishing license. For more information on the state’s license requirements and bag, size and season restrictions on various species, go to www.MyFWC.com.
Go it alone
While hiring a professional guide will help increase your chances of success, it is not the only way to catch fish in Florida.
A well-prepared and properly equipped angler can travel from Pensacola to Miami, fishing every place in between.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s web site (see above) is an excellent place to begin your journey. Bob Wattendorf’s FishBusters bulletins offers excellent advice on where to fish in fresh water, including many public fishing piers. Saltwater anglers can check out the newest column, "Gone Coastal," for information and advice related to saltwater fishing.
Some larger saltwater piers rent equipment, but the best bet is to purchase a simple two-piece spinning rod, light-to-medium action, rigged with 12- to 15-pound test line, which will work in both fresh and saltwater on either coast. Anglers can buy live or natural bait at most tackle shops and pick up some local knowledge, including what’s biting and where to find it.
A basic assortment of artificial lures – topwater and sinking hard-bodied plugs, soft-bodied jigs and gold and/or silver spoons – will work in most coastal environments.
The leeward sides of most Gulf Coast barrier islands, with their oyster bars and seagrass meadows, are excellent places to wade fish. Many of these areas, especially around Pensacola, Clearwater/St. Petersburg and Fort Myers/Naples, also have sea kayak rentals, the best way to access the backcountry.
Be sure to pack sunscreen, a good hat and sunglasses, a rain slicker and plenty of water. You might plan to fish for only a few hours, but once they start biting, you will not want to go home.
Once an angler lives out the dream and catches a tarpon on a fly rod, it might be time for a new challenge. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the organization that keeps track of world angling records, publishes a book of World Record Game Fishes that can help even an average angler earn a place in history.
Believe it or not, many line-class records are still “open,” and anglers who want to make their mark in history can do so with proper planning.
If you aren’t interested in official records, make up some of your own. Try catching an inshore super grand slam – bonefish, tarpon, permit and snook – all in one day.
The IGFA has numerous categories, all within reach, for ambitious Florida anglers. It all starts with a dream.