Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Every state in the U.S. has its good and bad points. Florida is no different. While it may seem that we have more people than you can shake a stick at, we have tremendous opportunities for fishing. Quality-of-life issues aside, Florida still is one of the best places in the country for bream fishing. From Lake Ocheechobee north to Lake City and into the Panhandle, there are hundreds of lakes open to the public, not mention a number of good rivers that are rarely visited.
Let’s take a closer look at four excellent bream fishing destinations in the Sunshine State and some things you need to know to be successful at each on your next trip.
Just a stone’s throw northeast of Avon Park is 35,000-acre Lake Kissimmee. Kissimmee stretches in a rectangular fashion for a dozen miles from State Route 60 north along the western edge of Osceola County. As central Florida waters go, the lake is fairly shallow, with most of it less than 10 feet deep. The lake has a number of recognizable islands, such as Stern, Rabbit, Ox, Bird and, the largest of them all, Brahma Island.
There’s a dam on the south end of the lake near SR 60. South of the dam, the once-channelized Kissimmee River now flows through its old bed down to Lake Okeechobee. Fishermen who know the territory say the lake is where you want to fish if it’s bluegills and shellcrackers you are after.
One of those anglers who enjoy fishing Lake Kissimmee is Amos Morris. He lives in the Panhandle in the Alford community outside of Marianna. At 73 and retired from the logging industry, he has the time and energy to fish whenever he wants. Yet, each spring he makes a trip or two down to Kissimmee.
He likes to fish the lake in March and April but admits the weather can be unpredictable.
“We’ve been down and had it blow a gale, and when it does, you don’t go out on the lake,” he said. “When it’s nasty we fish the river, or stay where it’s protected.”
In April of 2003 Morris said he and some fishing buddies made the eight-hour drive to Kissimmee and had one of their best trips in years.
“I had Willard Henderson with me, and we went to this cove where the bluegills had bedded the year before. We anchored and I hadn’t even gotten my pole unwrapped before Willard had a bream on,” he said. “We were fishing in lily pads and probably lost more fish than we caught, but what we caught were good fish.”
Morris said they don’t employ any secret techniques or use special Panhandle baits. Instead, they use standard 12- to 15-foot fiberglass poles, 8- or 10-pound-test line, No. 8 hooks and small corks. They use crickets and earthworms for bait and usually fish shallow water, less than 6 feet deep.
“With that light tackle and a small cork, you can usually tell if one breathes on it,” he noted.
If there’s anything he’s learned about the lake, aside from how to fish it, it’s how dangerous the lake can be during bad weather. Like most other large, shallow lakes, 10- to 15-mph winds can kick up high waves and spell trouble for fishermen in small boats.
“On days like that, we stick around the camp,” Morris conceded.
Farther north, but having an equally good reputation for bream fishing, is Lake George. A hefty 46,000 acres, the lake is due east of Ocala. The mighty St. Johns River empties into the lake on its southern end and exits on the north end, to continue its journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries biologist Sam McKinney knows Lake George about as well as anyone. He said the lake has an abundance of shellcrackers and bluegills.
“Some bream fishermen like to fish the lake; others like to fish the spring-fed waters that enter the lake,” McKinney observed.
Those “runs” are clear streams of water spilling out of springs that lie mostly to the west of the lake in the Ocala National Forest. These include Juniper Springs, Salt Springs and Silver Glen Spring runs.
Juniper Springs Run has the most clouded water of the three. On the other hand, both Salt Springs and Silver Glen Spring runs carry clear flows, with sand and shell bottoms. McKinney said shellcrackers in particular love that kind of bottom. The only problem is both waterways, but Silver Glen Spring even more than Salt Springs, are heavily used by kayakers, float-tubers and swimmers on weekends.
“You can forget fishing then,” he said.
McKinney said shellcrackers seem to spawn earlier and later on Lake George than on some other area lakes. Shellcrackers begin spawning in March and bed again each month into the summer. Bluegills typically begin their spawning a month or so later.
Some anglers have different twists, but according to the biologist, most are what he calls “spat” fishermen. They use cane or fiberglass poles, many of them the so-called “bream buster” variety.
The two most common baits fishermen use are grass shrimp and wigglers.
“Everything from bream to bass eats grass shrimp. It’s probably the best bait you can use,” McKinney said and then added that grass shrimp are found throughout most North Florida lakes.
The crustaceans are small — usually only 1 to 2 inches in size — and fragile, but worth having in the boat.
Lake George is shallow. McKinney said the deepest spots he knows of are about 15 to 16 feet deep.
While many fishermen have favorite places they hit year after year, he said an overlooked area that has lots of bluegills and shellcrackers is a shallow ridge off the south and west shorelines of the lake.
“It comes up to 4 to 5 feet and is a good area to fish,” McKinney said.
One of the best lakes for panfish in the Florida Panhandle is Lake Talquin. The reservoir covers 8,850 acres and is south of Quincy in Gadsden County. Back in the 1960s, the Ochlockonee River near SR 20 was dammed, forming the impoundment. Streams that flow into the lake include Ocklawaha Creek, Rocky Comfort Creek and Little River.
Lake Talquin has some shallower areas, but the impoundment is deeper than your average Sunshine State lake. It is 20 to 30 feet deep in places, and because of its depth it does not have as much vegetation as some lakes. Still, it is a good destination for catching bluegills.
During the spring and summer when I was a young boy, my father quite often took my brother and me to Lake Talquin. It sounds dated and perhaps a bit dangerous now, but we fished out of Daddy’s 12-foot cypress-sided bateau. We almost always launched from Hopkins’ Landing on the lower end of the lake, fishing north for a mile or so. Like most fishermen of the day, we used 12- to 14-foot cane poles with crickets and wigglers as bait.
My father passed away six years ago, but in 2002 I went back to Talquin one summer afternoon, launching from our familiar old boat landing. Lake Talquin has grass shrimp in it, and I caught enough to last for two days of fishing. I had not fished long before a thunderstorm hit, driving me back to my truck. After the storm passed and the lake settled down, I motored up to the familiar cove we fished years earlier and resumed my fishing.
With my trolling motor set on slow speed, I eased along in water 6 to 8 feet deep, pitching two small grass shrimp on a No. 8 hook. Maybe it was the rain shower cooling things off, or the fact that I had grass shrimp and everything in fresh water loves to eat them . . . or maybe it was just God smiling on a fisherman revisiting his youth. I caught a couple of dozen bluegills and a handful of shellcrackers that afternoon before the sun touched the tops of the trees. The only thing that would have made the trip better is if my father had been with me.
One of the best bream fishermen I know and who also fishes Talquin is John Shouppe of Cottondale. The energetic 72-year-old still drives a white Toyota truck he purchased in 1988 and points with pride to the fact that it has 388,000 miles on it. Many of those miles were undoubtedly logged while driving to Talquin to chase panfish.
When you go fishing with John, you quickly realize you’re going to learn something about sport, whether you go after bream or other species.
While John has caught his share of bream on crickets and worms, several years ago he began to experiment with small spinnerbaits for panfishing. He tried an assortment of small spinners and flies before deciding on a combination that’s deadly on bluegills, shellcrackers and an occasional largemouth bass. He uses a tiny Hilderbrant No. 0 size spinner and a light brown Rainbow fly. The fly has a No. 8 hook. Even though his spinner-fly combination is light, he casts it on a 6-foot medium-action rod and light spinning reel. He uses 4-pound line and can cast the tiny bait a considerable distance.
“If I can, I always try to throw with the wind,” Shouppe said. “Sometimes I can throw it 80 to 90 feet. If bream are real spooky, or the water is clear, you’ve got to be able to throw it or they’ll see you and run.”
While some fishermen like to sit in one place, anchor and fish, Shouppe believes in moving until he finds fish. Two years ago, he and a friend made an April trip to Talquin and fished from early morning until noon without any luck. In fact, Shouppe said he was just about ready to go home when they began picking up a fish or two. When their luck changed, it really changed, and from a little after noon until 3 p.m. they caught 90 bluegills. Although he’s had plenty of good and bad fishing days, he said that three-hour period is one of the best he’s ever experienced.
According to Shouppe, there are two things he does to improve his chances of catching fish. One of them is putting on one or more small split-shot weights on his line to get the bait down. In addition, he said he’s always on the move looking for fish.
Anglers visiting Lake Talquin find plenty of boat ramps and camping facilities on the reservoir. Some are free to use; others are pay sites. Shouppe usually launches from High Point Landing on the lake’s northern shore.
The Choctawhatchee River rounds out the top bream fishing spots in the state. The Choctawhatchee actually begins in Alabama and then winds its way south to Choctawhatchee Bay at the Gulf of Mexico. The angling here is good enough that last year the FWCC Division of Freshwater Fisheries named the river among the top 10 fishing destinations in the state.
The Choctawhatchee has remained free of dams and dredging. More importantly, it has retained lots of snags and logs. You do not have to be a fisheries biologist to know that such debris equates to great fish habitat.
Fred Cross is a career FWCC fisheries biologist and oversees work on the Choctawhatchee. He said there are many good things about the river but one thing he wishes he could change.
“Three years ago we conducted an in-depth survey of the river looking at panfish, notably bluegills, shellcrackers, longear sunfish (river bream) and some other species, and we found that the river and fish communities are in really good shape,” he offered. “However, we also discovered that flathead catfish have made their way into the river, and as the flathead population grows, it’ll probably impact the bream population.”
Flathead cats, which can grow to 40-plus pounds, are notorious for feeding on other fish, particularly bream. However, this past year Cross and a crew were back on the river conducting surveys, and the bream they saw were again in excellent shape.
Cross said one thing fishermen need to understand is that the farther north they go up the river, the shallower it is. During normal water conditions, the lower section of the river is fairly deep. The more northern reaches of the river, particularly from U.S. Highway 90 north, are fairly shallow.
I started fishing the Choctawhatchee about 15 years ago and have grown to love the river. Sometimes I take my 15-year-old daughter and we fish with a pole and cork; other times, depending on river conditions and where we are, we “tight-line,” or fish on the bottom. I don’t think one method of fishing is any better than the other. Rather, it has everything to do with where the fish are and what they’re feeding on.
If you get tired of pitching live baits with a pole, the Choctawhatchee is a great river to fish with
a fly rod. For some reason, I’ve always had better success fishing the river from SR 20 in the northern edge of Bay County, upstream for seven or eight miles into Washington County. I like to drift along the deep banks early and late in the day, throwing a fluorescent green or orange floating bug or a floating mayfly nymph.
If you’re lucky while you’re out on the river, you may get to see a most amazing sight — leaping sturgeon! The Choctawhatchee has a healthy sturgeon population, and for some reason these holdover fish from prehistoric times rocket straight up out of the water, only to plop back with a huge crash. Some of the sturgeon in the river are 6 feet long and weigh 200 pounds or more. In fact, one unlucky Bay County bream fisherman was hit in the chest by one of these flying torpedo-shaped fish in 2002 and critically injured. Fortunately, man and fish both survived.