Bass fishing in Florida reminds most of paradise: Here's your rundown.
Whoever claimed the midwest or southwest as prime bass fishing area clearly hadn't been to Florida. The nation's shortest state--the highest point is only 345 feet above sea level--is filled with lakes, ponds, and slow rivers, all of them optimal for largemouth and black bass.
The subtropical environment supports water of ideal depth, consistent nutrition, and good structure. Here's a quick rundown for you, covering what you'll find, where to find it, and how to land it.
What You'll Find
Florida hosts largemouth bass up to impressive sizes, with state records in the 18 to 20 pound range, and spotted bass up to around four pounds. There's no smallmouths here, but you will find a selection of local, native black bass subspecies.
If you happen to be a collector, these include the Suwannee bass and the shoal bass. These fish are a little smaller, with the Suwannee bass maxing out around four pounds, and the shoal bass ranging up to eight pounds.
As the name suggests, shoal bass occupy shallow water, mostly in the rivers of the panhandle and other northern parts of the state. Suwannee bass also tend to prefer flowing, shallow water, and are native only to the Suwannee and Ochlokonee River in the northeastern part of the state. Successful introductions have established breeding populations in the rivers of the north-central parts of the state.
Several "bass" species related to white and spotted bass occupy the same areas, so you can fish them if you want. But as a different genus and a different kind of fishing, they're not the focus of this article.
Where to Go
Maybe the best reason to fish shoal and Suwannee bass is the beauty of their natural habitats. Because I grew up in Houston I picture coastal rivers as a flow of algae-colored sewage. That's not fair to north-central and panhandle rivers. The Suwannee is a leisurely, cypress-lined blackwater river, great for floating. In many places the deep tan color of the water is set off by white sand beaches. The Santa Fe River alternates between the same deeply tanned color of the water and shockingly clear courses near its several springs, which also hold bass. The Apalachicola River is home to shoal bass and offers largely similar water and scenery.
As for lakes, the primary destination for trophy largemouth bass, you'll want to head south. Lake Okeechobee is widely regarded as one of the best spots, in spite of its popularity and thick crowding. If you've ever looked at a map of Florida, you've probably seen Okeechobee--it's the big blue spot in the middle of the southern tip.
The lake is an excellent bass habitat due to the climate and the its shallow depth. With an average of nine feet from surface to bottom over its 730 square mile surface, the entire lakebed supports rich vegetation and feed for the largemouths. The shoreline is your best bet, especially Moonshine Bay at the northern edge. It's a catch-and-release fishery with a size limit of 22 inches, but 22-inch largemouth are more common here than you'd imagine.
Besides Okeechobee, the best largemouth territory is slightly to the north. Florida's midsection is riddled with big lakes and slow rivers, none of them a bad spot. A good place to start looking is the St. John's River drainage.
The river itself is a good spot on some stretches, but it also flows down a chain of lakes, starting just north of Orlando. Lake Monroe, Lake George, and Crescent Lake are frequently cited as good spots, and all of them lie in the northern half of the St. John's drainage. Lake George abuts Ocala National Forest on its western shore, offering good access. Monroe has the advantages of beautiful stretches of water and close proximity to Orlando.
How to Catch 'Em
This is a rare instance where I'd personally suggest spincast rigs over fly gear. I mean, this is basically what it's made for; rapidly working the bank, pitching juicy looking lures into weedy water to draw out a big bass. Most lakes will have fish concentrated on their heavily structured banks, though each is different.
As general tips go: practice your flip and pitch techniques. Get your hands on a good shallow-drafted bass boat, if you can. It will give you the best angle for casting to the banks.
More from Wide Open Spaces
Use a heavier line than you normally would in order to haul fish through the weeds. Lures vary too much by season to give a good overview, but as far as it goes; worms, top-water lures, and crayfish are nearly always good to have around, and good for casting into thick cover. Texas-rigging your hooks is also consider best practice much of the time.
For fishing shoal bass and Suwannee, keep in mind that their behavior will be fairly similar to that of a river-dwelling smallmouth. They're more likely to move into or close to riffles and other quick, shallow water. Spinner and crank bait with a little bit of flair often works well, and plastic worms are a good backup. In these northern rivers you can worry less about weeds. For getting around, the shallow draft and easy handling of a kayak makes it a very popular choice.
That should be enough to get you started. If any seasoned Florida bass fisherman wants to add something, we'd love to hear their comments!