Florida offers plenty of great fishing waters, and most anglers have their favorite spots to cast for trophies. But with temperatures warming up and the school year winding down, this is the perfect time to focus on a different kind of destination: the best locations for a family fishing trip. The goal this month is to find waters where your kids can actually catch fish, and perhaps enjoy some fun diversions along the way. Here are a few places where you can make some memories.
When the last school bell rings and the kids are home for the summer, many parents lament how to keep kids occupied. One good, family friendly way to occupy kids' time is to take them fishing. Luckily, the Sunshine State has many places that offer a variety of fishing opportunities, including some well suited for young anglers.
BRIDGES IN THE KEYS
Fishing from the bridges in the Florida Keys can keep folks busy all summer, considering that there are more than 40 in the area. Even better are the number of species available, as many of the bridges let anglers get out into deep channels between the islands, providing access to species that normally require a boat; mangrove snapper can be caught on one cast, grouper on the next, and even sharks, barracuda and tarpon are occasionally caught.
The folks at Bud N' Mary's Marina on Islamorada have several bridges they suggest to anglers coming to the Keys. One is the Channel 2 bridge at mile marker 73. There's plenty of parking, and the bridge has fishing platforms on it. Although the bridge is open 24 hours a day, it's not lighted for night fishing, so plan accordingly. Some of the species that have been reported from this bridge include snapper, snook, barracuda, blue runners, sharks and mackerel.
One of the best places to fish is the Long Key Bridge at mile marker 65. Anglers can park at either end of the bridge, and there are fishing platforms available. Folks can fish on either side of the bridge, and the sheer amount of water (and fish) that move under this bridge means exceptionally good opportunities for fishing.
Along The Way
When tired of fishing, make a day trip to Key West. The kids will get a kick out of the free-range chickens that roam through the town. Set aside some time to visit the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory to stroll through a climate-controlled glass habitat that houses 50 to 60 butterfly species and more than 20 exotic bird species at any given time.
BROWARD COUNTY CANALS
Take a trip to Broward County to fish for a species generally thought of as requiring a South American adventure. Twenty-five years ago, there was — and there continues to be — a problem with people dumping exotic fish into the canals of south Florida. These fish include Oscars, Mayan cichlids and other species they're grown tired of having in aquariums.
In the summer, anglers can catch peacocks on topwater lures, such as Heddon Torpedoes, High Rollers 3.25-inch Rip Rollers, High Rollers and Chug Rollers. Subsurface baits may work as well; try fast-moving floating and suspending Rapala-type baits. In July, peacocks are starting a secondary spawn, which means folks can sight cast for them with a variety of lures, particularly in moving water around culverts.
Along The Way
Ft. Lauderdale has literally hundreds of things to do, but for a great family experience check out the Museum of Discovery and Science downtown. Folks can take a ride on the Everglades Airboat Adventure, watch playful river otters, experience hurricane force winds in the Storm Center and dig for fossils. The IMAX Theater provides an unforgettable moving experience.
JOE BUDD POND
There's a reason this fishery pops up on the list of family fishing vacations; it is simply one of the best places to take youngsters fishing in the eastern Panhandle. Joe Budd Wildlife Management Area, located between Tallahassee and Quincy, is open for fishing on weekend mornings. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) stocks Joe Budd Pond with catfish during the summer, so this is mostly a put-and-take fishery, and it's a great place for youngsters to catch catfish easily. Joe Budd Pond is open to fishing on Saturdays and Sundays, during daylight hours, beginning the first Saturday in July and ending the Monday of Labor Day.
Along The Way
Tallahassee has plenty of amenities for families. The Museum of Florida History is the state's history museum. It houses exhibits and artifacts that chronicle the history of the State of Florida. Exhibits include quilts, Civil War flags, Seminole basketry and clothing, and other items of interest.
If bigger water is desired, pay a visit to Lake Jackson, located northwest of Tallahassee. This 4,000-acre lake has a national reputation as a good bass fishery. The lake also contains a modest population of crappie and bluegill.
Lake Jackson has a high diversity of aquatic vegetation, but hydrilla, eelgrass and maidencane are the best habitats in which to fish for bass in this lake. The lake is shallow, with an average depth of about 7 feet and a maximum depth of 30 feet.
Lake Jackson is a natural lake, perched atop two sinkholes — Porter Sink and Lime Sink. The lake has no connection to the rest of the groundwater, and when the groundwater level drops it leaves a void between the bottom of Lake Jackson and the rest of the groundwater. Over short periods of time this usually isn't a problem. However, during prolonged dry periods, the water sometimes empties out of the basin.
Along The Way
North of Tallahassee, Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park contains unique floral architecture on the shore of Lake Hall. The gardens were planted in 1923 by Alfred B. and Louise Maclay. Folks can go canoeing or kayaking in Lake Hall, have a picnic and wander the nature trails of the park. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. One special event at the gardens is a Kids Fishing Day in June.
As long as anglers have been coming to Steinhatchee, they've known that seatrout are abundant, as conditions in the Steinhatchee area are ideal for trout. The area has lots of seagrass, shallow water and prey that trout like to eat.
The spawn generally takes place from May until September, with slight peaks at the two ends. Female fish spawn many times during this period. To help protect spawning fish during the summer, the first rule is to use barbless hooks. Also, anglers should release undersize fish without even taking it out of the water.
Fishing in the Steinhatchee area, folks are going to catch a lot of fish that are under the 15-inch minimum. Handling those fish carefully is just as important as handling bigger fish carefully, because even small fish can spawn. By the time females are a year old, 30 to 50 percent of them are spawning. They don't produce as many eggs as larger females, but they do contribute to making more trout.
A summer fishing excursion to Steinhatchee wouldn't be complete without a scalloping trip. This can be great fun for families with boats, or people can hire a guide. The only area in Florida where scallops can be taken is from the Pasco/Hernando County line up through the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County. That puts Steinhatchee squarely in the area where scallops can legally be taken. In fact, the Steinhatchee area is the best part of the whole region for harvesting scallops.
To harvest scallops, a saltwater fishing license is require, and harvest is limited to two gallons of whole (live) scallops per person per day, taken with a dip net; nothing else is allowed. A "diver down" flag is also required by law.
When looking for scallops, start around the edges of seagrass beds. Scallops can swim; they may try to get away, so be read scoop them up. Experts advise keeping them in a mesh bag rather then putting them into pockets; they can pinch.
Also, be sure to put harvested scallops on ice immediately; this makes them easier to open because the muscle that holds the two halves of the shell together relaxes. Once this happens, a teaspoon can be used to open the shell and get the white muscle free from the shell.
Along The Way
For a family friendly place to stay, take a look at Steinhatchee Landing. This resort offers an elegant taste of Old Florida, with cottages, an on-site restaurant and many family activities, including kayaking, shuffleboard, tennis, basketball, a jogging trail, a petting zoo and a playground. It can be used as a base to explore a number of state parks and other outdoor adventures in the area.
No discussion of family fishing is complete with a mention of urban ponds. The FWC's Division of Freshwater Fisheries manages about 80 water bodies throughout the state that are designated as fishing management areas. Many of these impoundments are stocked with channel catfish, largemouth bass and sunshine bass. Automatic fish feeders and fish attractors concentrate sportfish for bank anglers.
FMAs are located in every FWCC Region in the state. Not all of them are urban ponds, but a substantial number of them are located in urban areas. The best part of the Urban Ponds Program is that those FMAs are loaded with one of the most fun groups of fish in the state to catch — bream. Folks can pick up bluegill, redear sunfish and warmouth, with a side helping of catfish and even a few exotics, such as oscars.
Tampa has a variety of urban ponds. Al Lopez Park, located behind Raymond James Stadium, has a 10-acre pond. Two fishing piers offer good access to the water, and there are five fish feeders around the pond.
Bobby Hicks Pond is in south Tampa across from Robinson High School. Two ponds are connected by a narrow channel, totaling about 25 acres. There's good bank access around the south side of the pond, as well as a fishing pier.
Dover District Park is 14 acres, and is located in a multiple-use park. Bank access to the pond is excellent, with a mowed grassy bank around much of the lake. The lake also has five fish feeders.
Gadsden Pond is in south Tampa, on MacDill Avenue just north of MacDill Air Force Base. Bank access is very good around much of the lake, and a firm sand bottom provides good spawning areas.
Along The Way
Visit Lowry Park Zoo, one of the most popular zoos in the Southeast. The Zoo's collection comprises of more than 1,200 animals, including the most extensive collection of endangered Florida species of wildlife anywhere. Various areas of the Zoo are devoted to animals from Asia, Africa, Australia and Florida.