FLORIDA'S TOP 12 PANFISH WATERS
February 12, 2004
CONTACT: Mark A. Trainor (850) 488-8842
Steve Crawford (352) 742-6438
Panfish can be found in almost any water body in
Florida, regardless of size or locale. Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission (FWC) fisheries biologists, anticipate
good catches of quality-sized panfish (bream) in 2004, following
high water most of Florida experienced last year.
In south Florida, redear (shellcrackers) begin to
spawn in mid-March. In central Florida, they will go onto the
beds during the full moon in early April, and they will begin
to concentrate in northwest Florida in late April to mid-May.
Bluegills will become active in late April and May for their shoreline
FWC fisheries biologist Steve Crawford said shellcrackers
bed well into August, while bluegills periodically spawn throughout
the summer months and, sometimes, even as late as November in
"Water depths for bedding bream range anywhere
from one to 10 feet, Crawford said. "However, bluegills
seem to opt for slightly more shallow depths than redear, and
it's not unusual to see shellcrackers and bluegills intermingle,
using the same beds at the same time."
Bluegills are easily the most popular bream in Florida
due to their availability, although shellcrackers appeal to many
anglers since they are often larger than bluegill. Found in lakes,
streams, rivers, ponds and canals, bluegills are caught on a wide
variety of live offerings with earthworms, crickets and grass
shrimp being the more prevailing. Anglers who use spinning gear
won't go wrong when tossing or trolling small spinnerbaits. Flyrod
buffs particularly enjoy this little scrapper because of its eagerness
to clobber both popping bugs and sinker flies.
Ounce-for-ounce, the bluegill is a strong
battler when not over-tackled, Crawford said. Those
caught will range from just a couple of ounces to an average of
6 to 8 ounces. Heavier fish in the 8- to 12-ounce range frequently
occur during bedding activities, and an occasional one-pounder
is not uncommon.
Florida's record bluegill scaled 2.95 pounds, while
the world record for this species was an impressive Alabama-caught
4 pound, 12-ouncer. To qualify for a "Big Catch" angler
recognition certificate, anglers need to land a bluegill that
is at least 11 inches long or 1.25 pounds.
The shellcracker is Florida's largest "bream"
and is easily identified by the red spot at the end of its gill
flap. The average size for shellcrackers is about 10 to 12 ounces,
but one-pounders are caught frequently on beds. Florida's record
is 4.86 pounds, while the world record for this species is a whopping
5 pounds, 3 ounces. The "Big Catch" angler recognition
program recognizes catches of shellcrackers that exceed 2.25 pounds
or 12 inches. Favored baits for redear include earthworms, crickets
and grass shrimp. Redear are seldom caught on artificial lures,
but flyrodders can occasionally connect with this hard fighter
casting popping bugs with a small sinking fly tied to an 18-inch
trailer. Shellcrackers prefer to hang around sandy areas where
snails are abundant, but may also be targeted near grass patches,
pads, reeds, snags and stickups.
Crawford said do not overlook Floridas many
rivers. These gems are teaming with redbreast sunfish, spotted
sunfish (stumpknockers) and warmouth. Although none of these fish
grow to the proportions of their cousins, they are worthy fighters
for their size. Spotted sunfish and warmouth will typically be
found near woody structure, while redbreast sunfish favor vegetation,
such as lily pads or eelgrass. Earthworms are the best live bait
for this trio, but small spinners and popping bugs work well.
Here are opinions from FWC fisheries biologists
based throughout Florida on which spots they think should be included
on our Top 12 panfish locales (in no particular order) for the
ST. JOHNS RIVER: One of the world's few rivers
flowing from south to north. Try fishing the stretch between S.R.
50 and Lake Monroe, especially for bluegill. In this area, look
for sandbars and try around grass points. The area from Sanford
to Astor is productive. Fish the edges, near drop-offs and around
lily pads or brush. Also, dont overlook spotted sunfish,
or stumpknockers, along the brushy banks.
LAKE KISSIMMEE: This 35,000-acre gem in central
Florida boasts the best bluegill and shellcracker populations
just about anywhere following a drawdown a few years ago. The
24 miles of improved shoreline, plus its enhanced open areas,
gives boaters and waders a super shot at spectacular catches.
Also, try around each of the islands and in open areas off of
the boat trails.
LAKE OKEECHOBEE: We are again expecting a
good year for panfish on the Big O. Hopefully, water
levels will be down by April. Try the Rim Canal for bluegill and
Indian Prairie, Fisheating Bay, West Wall, Bay Bottom and Pelican
Bay for bluegill and shellcrackers. There are a lot of good areas,
so look for two to five feet of water and firm, sandy bottom.
The best bait for both is grass shrimp, while worms will also
entice redear, and crickets will catch bluegill.
LAKE PANASOFFKEE: This lake is back on the
list this year after a better-than-expected fishing season in
2003. Now undergoing one of the nation's most expansive lake-
renovation projects, shallow Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County
has long been famous for its shellcracker and bluegill production.
Shellcrackers are particularly cooperative during spring full-moon
periods at Shell Point, Grassy Point and Tracy's Point. Also,
try the shell beds at the mouth of the Outlet River and in the
middle of the lake out from the Outlet. If water levels remain
good, get up in Little Jones Creek for some outstanding warmouth
LAKE TALQUIN: Anglers in the Tallahassee
area are advised to break out their flyrods, cane poles or light
spinning tackle this spring, because shellcrackers should be bedding
by early May and bluegills should be soon behind. What's more,
both species should continue biting well throughout the summer
months. Working the upper end of the reservoir and in the back
of various creeks in depths ranging from three to seven feet is
TENOROC: This nearly 7,300-acre fish management
area on the outskirts of Lakeland has 13 lakes ranging in size
from seven to 227 acres. Harvest statistics for bluegill and shellcracker
show a consistently higher catch ratio here than in any other
Florida water body. Call the Tenoroc office at(863) 499-2422 to
find the lake that currently offers the best opportunity and to
make reservations, because lakes are only open to the public four
days a week.
LAKE HARRIS: If you live in, or happen to
be visiting, the Leesburg area and have a hankering to tussle
with some heavier-than-usual bluegills and shellcrackers, both
Big and Little Lake Harris will be to your liking. Some of the
better locales include the grassy areas at the far end of Little
Lake Harris in four to six feet of water, plus the lily pads and
spatterdock tracts near the Ninth Street Canal out from Leesburg.
Bluegills also will be found in shallow waters tight to saw grass
LAKE MARIAN: Although this 5,740-acre "sleeper"
lake in Osceola County doesn't receive much notoriety, it's still
one of the best panfishing spots. In past years, shellcrackers
have been known to bed later than usual, while bluegills can be
gangbusters one day and just so-so the next. An angler's best
bet might be to tackle Marian during the month's full and new
LAKE ISTOKPOGA: Located a few miles southeast
of Sebring, this large, relatively shallow lake gets tons of "ink"
for its outstanding bass fishing. However, panfish anglers can
concentrate their efforts from April through June around the inshore
and offshore cattail and bulrush areas. In other months, likely
spots for bluegill and shellcrackers include Big Island, Grassy
Island, Bumble Bee Island, around various sandy bars and along
the edges of eelgrass.
LAKE JESUP: Near Sanford, Lake Jesup is widely
recognized as a top bluegill and shellcracker hotspot, especially
from April through July. Spring samples in 2002 revealed that
Lake Jesup has some of the biggest, heaviest sunfish of almost
any lake in Florida. Concentrate in sandy areas in or near cattails
during low-water periods. When levels are high, both species may
be found in and around all types of aquatic vegetation. Try grass
points along the south shore, the near-shore pilings of the expressway
bridge and around Bird Island for bluegill. Shellcrackers can
be located in the open water at the entrance of the lake just
south of the S.R. 46 bridge, near Bird Island and off the north
shore wherever hard, sand bottom can be found.
CHOCTAWHATCHEE RIVER: For river and stream
lovers in Florida's Panhandle, this river is ideal, particularly
for shellcracker aficionados. Shellcrackers usually bed in quieter
waters during April and remain active through the early-fall months.
If tooling around in smaller creeks off the main channel and sloughs
during the late spring and summer months, be sure to check out
redbreast bream, stumpknockers and warmouth perch.
SUWANNEE RIVER: Although bluegill and shellcrackers
can be readily caught in the Suwannee, this river is second to
none for spotted sunfish (stumpknockers) and redbreast sunfish.
These scrappy fish are good in the middle river and excellent
in the lower portion. Try near tree banks on deep shores, the
mouths of creeks and along water lilies. Use crickets, mealworms,
beetle spins or flyfishing tackle, such as popping bugs.
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