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 spawning ritual.

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 south Florida.

"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 Florida’s 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 year 2004:

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, don’t 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 action.

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 productive.

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 shorelines.

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 moon periods.

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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