Anglers can catch diverse fresh and salty fish species throughout Florida, but some of the most ignored species also provide the most exciting action.
In some places, anglers can catch tackle-busting river monsters that rival most species found in salt water for much less than the cost of a trip offshore.
Many people probably started fishing by catching channel catfish, perhaps from a park pond shoreline, but forgot about whiskerfish as they turned to other species. One of the most numerous and widespread gamefish in North America, channel catfish occupy suitable freshwater habitat throughout the Sunshine State. Most range from one to five pounds, but some top 40 pounds. The state record stands at 44.50 pounds, a fish caught by Joe Purvis while fishing Lake Bluff in Lake County.
Primarily bottom feeders, channel catfish eat almost anything including other fish, insects, crawfish and anything else they can find. Easy to catch, channel cats don’t require much finesse or fancy tackle. Just bait a simple bottom or bobber rig with chicken livers, shrimp, night crawlers, cut fish and other stinky baits and wait.
“Catfish are scent oriented and frequently roam around the bottom looking for a meal,” advised Eric Johnson, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist in Lakeland. “Use a variety of scented baits, such as shad, shrimp, chicken liver or gizzards that give off a strong odor that attracts catfish. Beef liver is another good catfish bait. Many anglers also use commercial stinkbaits. In the summer, I recommend fishing at night – if anglers can stand the mosquitos.”
Probably the best Florida channel catfish action occurs in the St. Johns River between Palatka and Lake George and the many other lakes along its course. Also fish major tributaries like the Ocklawaha River, which flows into the St. Johns near Palatka.
“The St. Johns River and the Econlockhatchee River are very good for catfish,” explained Ryan Hamm, an FWC biologist in Ocala. “Where the two rivers come together near Geneva is a particularly good spot to catch catfish. These waterbodies are quality catfish fisheries because they are large river systems with abundant nutrients and quality habitat.”
Other prime channel cat waters include the Suwannee River, the Ochlockonee River, the Kissimmee, Clermont and Harris chains of lakes, Lake Talquin and Lake Seminole. The Ochlockonee River flows out of Georgia and passes through Lake Talquin near Tallahassee. The state placed four brush fish attractors near fishing piers on Lake Talquin and natural brush in Hurricane Lake and Lake Stone to enhance fish habitat.
“For the top catfish fishing in my area, I recommend Lake Manatee, Little Manatee River, Myakka River, Medard Reservoir, Lake Walk-in-Water, Lake Buffum, Saddle Creek Park, Tenoroc Fish Management Area and Mosaic Fish Management Area,” Johnson said. “In the summer, I recommend that anglers target catfish in deeper holes. In rivers, fish deeper bends with submerged logs. Also fish near riprap dams if lakes have these features since catfish like rocky structure. Try several locations to find the most productive areas.”
The state annually stocks about 300,000 channel catfish in public waters. Joe Budd Pond, a 20-acre impoundment in Gadsden County, holds a good channel cat population. For stocking information, click here.
“The FWC frequently stocks small community ponds with channel catfish,” detailed Katie Woodside, an FWC biologist in Panama City. “These ponds are usually located in city, county or state recreational areas and provide places for families to fish from shore. Many municipalities host youth fishing derbies in them.”
Other Native Cats
Like channel catfish, native white catfish also occur throughout Florida except in the Keys. White catfish closely resemble channel cats and eat similar foods. More tolerant of salinity, they thrive in many brackish systems like river deltas. White catfish seldom exceed three pounds, but Jim Miller landed the world record, an 18.88-pounder, while fishing in the Withlacoochee River. The Clermont Chain of Lakes also offers good white cat action.
Florida anglers can also catch two other native whiskered species — yellow and brown bullheads. Sometimes called “yellow cats,” “butter cats” or “mud cats,” bullheads typically live in shallow, weedy lakes and slow streams. They mostly eat minnows, snails, worms, shrimp, insects and crawfish. They hit a variety of natural baits.
Richard Clinton holds the brown bullhead record with a 7.02-pounder he pulled from Lake Iola in Pasco County. Tom Flynn set a yellow bullhead state record with a 5-pound, 0.75-ounce fish he tempted with a minnow in the Crystal River. Lake Victor can also provide some good bullhead action.
“Brown bullheads usually only weigh one to two pounds, so they don’t grow nearly as big as the channel catfish,” Johnson commented. “Brown bullhead populations are good in Saddle Creek Park, Tenoroc Fish Management Area and Mosaic Fish Management Area. Anglers sometimes catch 20 to 30 fish on a good day.”
For monster catfish, visit the Panhandle rivers. One of the largest and strongest North American freshwater fish, blue catfish can exceed 130 pounds. Originally found only in the Escambia and Yellow rivers of northwestern Florida, blues has spread to many other Panhandle streams from the Perdido to the Suwanee.
William Stewart holds the state record with a 69.5-pound blue he caught in the Choctawhatchee River in Washington County. The third largest river by volume in Florida, the Choctawhatchee drains about 5,350 square miles. The best catfish action on the Choctawhatchee occurs in the northern section between the Alabama line and West Bay. For the best action, fish the mouth of Holmes Creek and other tributaries.
“The Choctawhatchee River produces the biggest blue catfish including the state rod-and-reel record,” Woodside confirmed. “A 120-pound blue catfish was also caught on a trot line in the Choctawhatchee River in April 2018.”
Some of the most consistent catfish action in the state occurs in the Apalachicola River, the largest river in Florida by volume. In the system, anglers regularly catch blues and flatheads in the 30- to 50-pound range. On the Apalachicola, fish from the Jim Woodruff Dam south to Owl Creek. Anglers should also fish tributaries like the Chipola River looking for deep holes and tributary channels.
“The Apalachicola River has a lot of structure on the bottom like logs, treetops and other stuff,” explained Don Minchew, a catfisherman from Wewahitchka. “When fishing for blues on the Apalachicola, I like to look for current breaks. An intersection of two streams is a hot spot. The mouths of sloughs or creeks coming off the rivers are also good. Sometimes, blue cats congregate below a sandbar. I do a little bit of drift fishing in the oxbow lakes.”
Blue catfish eat almost anything. Bigger cats tend to eat more fish than other morsels. They prey upon live shad, mullets, sunfish and minnows. They also eat anything that might tempt channel cats or bullheads including worms, crustaceans, mussels, cheese, livers and almost anything else that gives off a scent.
Flatheads can also top 100 pounds. Then 13-year-old Charles Patchen, landed a 63.80-pound flathead while fishing the Chattahoochee River in Jackson County to set a new state record on May 15, 2016. The behemoth fish gulped a live bream.
“The best baits for large flatheads or blue catfish are live bream,” Woodside recommended. “The Apalachicola River and Choctawhatchee River typically hold the biggest flathead catfish, but the Yellow and Ochlockonee rivers traditionally produce the best catfish numbers.”
Not native to Florida, flatheads possibly came down the Flint River from Georgia into Lake Seminole during the 1980s. Near Chattahoochee, FL, the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers merge in Lake Seminole to create the Apalachicola River. Now flatheads thrive in several Panhandle rivers including the Escambia, Choctawhatchee and Ochlockonee river systems, which also provide good fishing for giant blue cats.
“We’ve caught several flatheads over 50 pounds on the Escambia River, but the river holds flatheads that weigh more than 80 pounds,” remarked Glenn Flowers with Cat Hunters Trophy Catfishing Guide Service (850-208-4667; cathunters.net) in Pensacola.
“In my opinion, the Choctawhatchee is second only to the Escambia for producing big flatheads. The Apalachicola has the highest flathead concentration per square mile in Florida, but it doesn’t produce as many big fish as the Escambia and the Choctawhatchee.”
The Escambia holds the biggest concentration of freshwater fish of any Florida stream with more than 85 native species, giving big catfish abundant prey to eat. The Escambia River changes its name to the Conecuh at the Alabama line. The upper portions of the stream in Alabama reach native flathead range. The best flathead fishing on the Escambia River occurs from the Alabama line to Interstate 10.
“Between the Alabama state line and Escambia Bay, people can fish 60 miles of the Escambia River,” Flowers said. “My favorite stretch would be around the Mineral Springs area. I look for wood, especially piles that have been there a long time. I also look for lines of willow trees hanging over the shoreline in front of deep holes, but where the water comes up to about five feet deep. Flatheads hunt along those willow lines.”
Flatheads generally like slow, somewhat stained waters with abundant logjams, weed beds, fallen trees, woody snags and other cover where they can ambush prey. Voracious predators, flatheads almost exclusively eat live fish. They readily devour shad, sunfish, bullheads and other fish.
To catch big flatheads, look for deep water with good ambush cover and drop down a live bait. A big flathead or blue can gulp down a very large panfish, mullet or gizzard shad. In Florida, anglers can use whole or cut panfish for bait when fishing with rod-and-reel tackle if they caught the panfish legally.
“I usually fish in water 10 feet deep or less with live bluegills or bullheads on a Carolina rig,” Flowers said. “With that rig, we also catch some big blue cats.” Rig live baits on a Carolina rig tipped with an 8/0 to 10/0 Kahle hook and a fluorocarbon leader. With line slipping through a sinker, live baitfish can swim more naturally on a Carolina rig and wily catfish can’t feel the weight. To keep baits out of bottom debris, many anglers attach a small cork to the leader, one just big enough to hold up a baitfish.
When fishing current, hook live baits just above the eyes or through the lips. With a fish hooked through the tail or back, current can flip it around backwards so that the water goes through the gills the wrong way. Held in the current backwards, a baitfish dies quickly.
In May and June, flatheads spawn and may become difficult to catch. After spawning season, however, hungry predators vigorously hunt for prey and typically feed heavily throughout late summer and into the fall until the weather turns too cold. Flatheads can become lethargic as water temperatures drop too drastically, but blue and channel cats generally remain more active during the winter.
Although often ignored by other anglers, catfish of any kind can provide outstanding action and fill a freezer with delicious filets. In the right place at the right time, any bait drop could produce the fish of a lifetime.