Top Spots for Sunfish

Top Spots for Sunfish

Florida has more than 7,700 named lakes and ponds and over 10,000 miles of streams and rivers. All of these waterbodies are inhabited by sunfish, which includes bluegill, redear sunfish (shellcracker), redbreast sunfish, spotted sunfish (stumpknocker) and warmouth. Sunfish are often called "bream" (pronounced "brim"). Almost any waterbody in the Florida, regardless of size or location, contains the popular bluegill and, to a lesser extent, redear sunfish.

Sunfish concentrate to spawn in water depths that range anywhere from one to ten feet, but are usually found at the shallower end of this range. Bluegill seem to opt for slightly shallower areas, but it's not unusual to see redear sunfish and bluegill intermingle, using the same bedding areas at the same time. Redear sunfish typically begin spawning about one month before bluegill.

Seasonal advice for bluegill and redear sunfish:

In south Florida, redear sunfish may spawn as early as late February but more likely around late March. In central Florida, spawning begins around late March. If water temperatures remain low through March in central Florida, then expect redear sunfish to spawn early to mid-April. In the panhandle, they will likely begin to concentrate in mid to late May. Redear sunfish will bed well into August, while bluegill will periodically spawn throughout the summer months and sometimes even as late as November in south Florida.

Based on fishery surveys and local expertise, here are predictions from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists on which sites they think should be highly productive for bream (in no particular order) for the year 2017. All the sportfish Top Spots can be viewed on the Top Spots Map.

 

LAKE KISSIMMEE

(Osceola and Polk Counties)

Lake Kissimmee (34,976 acres), located in the heart of Osceola County, ranks among the best bluegill and redear sunfish (shellcracker) fisheries in the state. Harboring an expansive and diverse plant community, excellent spawning substrate and fertile water, Lake Kissimmee provides optimum habitat for both bluegill and shellcracker to thrive. Miles of vegetated shoreline provide both boat and wade anglers an excellent opportunity to locate good numbers of these scrappy fighters. Anglers often anchor in open water adjacent to main lake shoreline vegetation or edges of the four islands within the lake and use weighted crickets to lure bluegill off their spawning beds. Shellcracker anglers do best in these areas using red wigglers instead of crickets. Savvy anglers have known for years that some of the most consistent spawning areas within the lake, and hence where good concentrations of fish can be located, will consist of a mixture of water lilies or bulrush and native grasses. Boat trails cutting through these vegetation types also produce good numbers of fish. Areas of the lake that successful anglers frequent include Brahma and Grassy Islands and shoreline areas at 27-Palms, Jackson Slough, Philadelphia Point and Lake Kissimmee State Park. Historically, mid-February to late April is prime time for shellcracker fishing on Lake Kissimmee, while the warmer months (May-September) are ideal for bluegill.

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WEST LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA / LAKE TOHO

(Osceola County)

Aside from being one of the best bass fisheries in the country, Lake Toho, located adjacent to the City of Kissimmee, also supports one of the best bluegill/redear sunfish (shellcracker) fisheries in the state. Annual vegetation maintenance within shoreline areas enhanced a few years ago continues to provide excellent spawning habitat for these panfish. Yearly fish population surveys indicate that an abundance of large adult bluegill (up to 10 inches) inhabit offshore FWC fish attractors, as well as, within numerous shallower water areas of the lake. In fact, results of angler surveys conducted in fall 2013 revealed that anglers targeting bluegill/shellcracker were very successful, averaging 2.72 fish/hr. Local fishing hot spots include native grasses or hydrilla edges, water lilies, bulrush or open-water areas at Brown's Point, the mouth of Goblet's Cove, South Steer Beach and the eastern shore of Makinson Island. Of the wide variety of baits anglers use to catch bluegill and shellcracker, the most popular and most successful for bluegill would be crickets, while the “go to” bait for shellcracker is earthworms or red wigglers. As with most water bodies in central Florida, warmer months of the year (May – September) are prime times for anglers to try their luck on Lake Toho for bluegill, while mid-February through April is best for anglers searching for shellcracker.

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LAKE TALQUIN

(Gadsden and Leon Counties)

Anglers in the Tallahassee area are advised to break out their fly rods, limber bream poles, or light spinning tackle this spring, because shellcrackers should be bedding in Lake Talquin by late April/early May and bluegill won't be far behind. What's more, both species should continue biting well throughout the summer months. Local biologists recommend working the upper end of the reservoir and in the back of various creeks in depths ranging from three to seven feet. The standard fare-live worms and crickets, small jigs, beetle spins, and fly gear-will all provide good results.

Boat ramps and fishing piers are located off Hwy 20 (Coe Landing Road, William's Landing, etc) and Hwy 267 (Cooks Landing Road, McCall Bridge Road, etc). Check out the interactive map on our website for specific details on boat ramps and directions.

Check in at the Lake Talquin Lodge (231 Gainey's Road), Whippoorwill Sportsman's Lodge (3129 Cooks Landing Road), or Ingram's (354 Lois Lane) for more up-to-date information.

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LAKE MARION

(Polk County)

Both bluegill and redear sunfish are present in good numbers and sizes in this 3,000 acre lake. Fishing for both species begins in late spring (May-June) and lasts through the summer. Anglers use redworms or wigglers but the best bait is grass shrimp. The most successful will use a cane pole, with or without a float, and drop the bait among the lily pads located in the north end of the lake. This technique is particularly deadly when fish are congregated during spawning periods. Other areas to try are brush piles and stick-ups along the west shore from Bannon's Fish Camp Southward.

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LAKE ISTOKPOGA

(Highlands County)

Located a few miles southeast of Sebring, the large, relatively shallow Lake Istokpoga is outstanding for bluegill. FWC fish sampling on the lake has shown good numbers of 8 inch plus bluegill and redear sunfish. Bream anglers can concentrate their efforts from April through June around inshore and offshore cattail and bulrush stands. The thicker vegetation is difficult to fish but usually holds good numbers of large bream. In other months, productive areas to fish for bream include Big Island, Grassy Island, Bumble Bee Island, around various sandy bars, and along the edges of eelgrass. Anglers prefer crickets for bluegill and live worms for shellcracker. Fly fishing anglers can experience great action with small popping bugs.

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LAKE PANASOFFKEE

(Sumter County)

Located in the heart of Florida, Lake Panasoffkee is a panfishers dream. A true spring-fed lake, few other waterbodies in Florida can rival “Lake Pan” for its density of desirable native vegetation species and abundance of a variety of different types of panfish. Averaging only 4-5 deep, "Lake Pan" is home to large populations of bluegill, redear sunfish, redbreast sunfish and stumpknockers (spotted sunfish). Calcium deposits and old shell beds provide ample spawning areas for bream, and anglers with a keen sense of smell can clue in on these areas during the height of the spawn. Move around until you find the fish, and focus your efforts with live bait such as grass shrimp, earth worms and red worms. The adventurous angler can also try fly-fishing for bream when conditions allow. Use spiders or poppers.

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LITTLE ECONLOCKHATCHEE RIVER

(Orange County)

This is probably one of the best panfishing secrets in Orlando. Located in northeast Orlando, bank access can be found via Orange County's Blanchard Park located off Dean Road (SR 425). Canoes and kayak's can be launched and used in the channelized section located in the park but downstream of the dam (unchannelized section) there are too many blow-downs to effectively use any type of boat. For your best bet, fish behind the dam when the water is flowing after a big rain. Night crawlers, wigglers and grass shrimp fished beneath a split shot is all you will need to catch quality to trophy-sized panfish (bluegill, redear sunfish, redbreast sunfish). Don't be surprised if you hook into a large white or channel catfish as well

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WINTER HAVEN SOUTH CHAIN OF LAKES

(Polk County)

Tucked in and amongst the city streets of Winter Haven in north-central Polk County, the south portion of the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes offers some of the finest and most easily accessible bream (bluegill and redear sunfish) fishing in central Florida. Polk County is home to 554 named lakes and typically sells more freshwater fishing licenses annually than any other county in the state. That's because residents take their bream fishing seriously! The chain is comprised of 14 lakes ranging in size from 25 to 1,160 acres and totals just over 4,000 acres of fishable waters that offer a wide variety of habitats for both bream and bream anglers, from shoreline bulrush/cattail stands and cypress trees to open water beds of eelgrass and pondweed. FWC Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management personnel sample the chain's sportfish twice a year and routinely observe bream 10 inches in length or more with weights over a half-pound. A recent angler creel survey revealed success rates for bream in the 4 fish/hour range, well above the state average. Standard state regulations apply to the entire chain-50 panfish (bream) per person per day. Ample public access is available in the form of six boat ramps, two fishing piers, bank fishing at a half-dozen city parks, and public easements alongside the numerous canals that form the connecting links between lakes. Crickets, wigglers, or grass shrimp are best bets for live bait while small Beetle Spins and jigs lead the artificial arsenal. Guide services, fishing forecasts, and lodging may be found through Polk County's Outpost 27 Visitor Center, www.sunnycentralflorida.com.

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LAKE SEMINOLE

(Pinellas County)

Lake Seminole, not to be confused with the larger Lake Seminole in north Florida, is a 680-acre reservoir with a wide variety of habitat for panfish including stands of bulrush, eelgrass and cattails. Lake Seminole in Pinellas County is an excellent choice for Tampa and St. Petersburg residents looking for big panfish. Recent FWC fish surveys on the lake documented numerous bream 10 inches and larger which would be eligible for FWC’s Big Catch program if caught and submitted by an angler. Excellent public access is available for both boaters and bank anglers at the Lake Seminole County Park on the southeastern shore of the reservoir. Crickets and nightcrawlers along with beetlespins and panfish jigs are an excellent choice for seeking bream while at Lake Seminole.

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CHOCTAWATCHEE RIVER and HOLMES CREEK

(Walton, Washington and Holmes counties)

Redear sunfish

A hefty Holmes Creek redear sunfish.

For river and stream lovers in Florida's Panhandle, the Choctawatchee River and Holmes Creek are ideal, particularly for shellcracker (redear sunfish) aficionados. Shellcracker usually bed in quieter waters during April and remain active through the early-fall months. Multiple redear sunfish greater than 10 inches (several of which were greater than 1 lb each) were found in Holmes Creek during FWC electrofishing surveys in fall 2013. The presence of snags and log jams that often span the width of the river can make navigation in Holmes Creek difficult. A logjam spanning almost the entire width of the river in a bend below Culpepper Landing makes navigation downstream fairly hazardous at this time. Despite the increased river levels from the summer rains, Live Oak Landing boat ramp remains extremely steep and boaters should use caution. If boating around in smaller creeks off the main channel and sloughs of the Choctawhatchee River or Holmes Creek during the late spring and summer months, be sure to also try for some redbreast sunfish, spotted sunfish (stumpknocker), and warmouth. Worms, crickets, and grass shrimp are favorite baits.

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LOCHLOOSA LAKE

(Alachua County)

Lochloosa Lake is designated as a Fish Management Area and located 5 miles south of Hawthorne near the town of Lochloosa. Most of the shoreline is bordered by old-growth cypress trees, and knotgrass and spatterdock (bonnets) are the predominant aquatic plants in the lake. A public boat ramp provides access to the lake from U.S. Highway 301 in the town of Lochloosa, and at Lochloosa Harbor Fish Camp just north of the town of Lochloosa, also accessed from U.S. 301. In addition, a public pier is located south of the town of Lochloosa on Burnt Island and is a popular fishing site for those without a boat. Lochloosa Lake offers good bluegill, redear sunfish and warmouth (bream) fishing during April through September; however, some bream can be caught year-round. Anglers targeting bream should fish with grass shrimp in deep-water spatterdock or deeper grass patches.

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MOSAIC FISH MANAGEMENT AREA

(Polk and Hardee Counties)

This 1,000-acre cooperative Fish Management Area near the town of Ft. Meade in southern Polk County can provide some excellent bream fishing opportunities during the summer months. The dozen lakes on the area range in size from 10 to 200 acres and many have shorelines with an abundant supply of woody brush, tree tops, and vegetation that are perfect for placing a well-hooked worm or cricket under a float to entice bluegill or shellcrackers. Casting a small beetlespin or jig into the deeper areas of the lake can also produce fish at times. Try lakes SP12 South, SP11, Pine Lakes East, Pine Lakes West, and Haul Road for some of the better action. Angler catch rates for bream can be as high as 8 bream/hour when the fishing is really hot.

The FMA is only open to fishing four days a week (Friday - Monday) from 6 AM until 2 PM daily. No reservations are allowed, so it's first-come, first-serve but don't worry, you'll always have a spot somewhere. Please call (863) 648-3200 for more information about fishing at the Mosaic Fish Management Area.

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LAKE OKEECHOBEE

(Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades counties)

The bluegill and shellcracker populations in Lake Okeechobee are providing excellent fishing opportunities to anyone seeking a fight from the other end of a line. At 730 square miles, Lake Okeechobee is Florida's largest lake and the second largest body of fresh water in the contiguous United States. This vast expanse of water includes more than 150,000 acres of productive vegetation. A 100-yard wide rim canal circles the lake, and many secondary canals and cuts are linked to it, resulting in hundreds of miles of available fishing water. Big bream can be found in the grassy areas of the "Big O" during most times of year and in shallow, sandy areas while spawning in late spring and summer. Other excellent fishing areas are along the edges of the surrounding canals and the mouth of the Kissimmee River. Beetle Spins, grass shrimp, and crickets are the preferred baits for bluegill and shellcracker.

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EVERGLADES WATER CONSERVATION AREAS 2 AND 3

(Broward, Dade and Palm Beach Counties)

The Everglades Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) are south Florida marshlands intersected with over 200 miles of canals. They are collectively managed by FWC as Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. WCA 2 has 210 square miles of marsh, and WCA 3 covers approximately 915 square miles of marsh. Originally designed for flood control and water supply, the area provides some of the best largemouth bass fishing in the country, in addition to great opportunity for a variety of panfish (bluegill, redear, warwouth, and exotic species).

Over 25 public boat ramps provide access to the different segments of canals surrounding and intersecting the WCAs (some of them are mapped in our Water Conservation Area Brochure). The L-67A, L-35B and Alligator Alley (I-75) are three of the most popular canals in the area for fishing. The L-67A has two boat ramps, one on the northern end at Holiday Park and one on the south end at the S-333 structure off of Tamiami Trail (state road 41). Holiday Park also offers camping and boat rentals. The L-35B canal boat ramp is located off of state road 27 at the sawgrass recreation area. Numerous boat ramps for alligator alley are located throughout Interstate 75 on both the north and south side of the road.

Bluegill can be targeted along canal edges. Crickets and worms suspended on a bobber below the spatterdock edge of the canals is an effective tactic. Along with live bait, beetlespins and small jigs can also be effective. Expect the best bites to occur from February to May. Some of the best catch rates biologists observe for bluegill in the Water Conservation Areas are small poppers on a fly rod. Live bait anglers typically anchor along the spatter dock edge, and fly anglers and artificial lure anglers typically drift down the canal casting down, or into the spatterdock edge. Anglers are able to cover much more ground drifting the spatterdock edge as opposed to anchoring.

Along with bluegill, anglers can also expect to run into Oscars and Mayan cichlids. These two aggressive nonnative species are excellent fighting fish, and can be best described as fighting like a bluegill on steroids. There are no limits for these nonnative species and anglers regularly fill coolers full of these species when the bite is strong.  Oscars and Mayan cichlids can be caught using the same tactics for bluegill. Oscars also tend to be a loosely schooling fish, so if drifting down the canal and one is caught, it is recommended anglers keep fishing that same spot to try and pull out a few more before returning to drifting. The Oscar and Mayan cichlid bite is best with warmer water temperatures. If we have a mild winter, expect the bite to start picking up by March, and last throughout the summer and into the fall. If coming from out of town, it is recommended that you contact south Florida’s regional biologists before planning your trip to check on the fisheries status.

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NOTE:  For more information about these lakes and rivers, contact the following FWC biologists:

Lake Kissimmee and West Lake Toho - Kevin McDaniel 407-846-5300
Lake Panasoffkee - Jeff Shelton 352-620-7339 

Econlockhatchee River - Jim Sweatman 407-846-5191
Lake Talquin - Andy Strickland  850-717-8730
Choctawhatchee River and Holmes Creek – Katie Woodside 850-265-3676
Lake Bryant - Marty Hale  (352) 732-1225
Lake Harris Chain - John Benton  (352) 742-6438
Lake Istokpoga - Eric Johnson 863-648-3200

Lake Marion - Eric Johnson 863-648-3200

Choctawhatchee River - Chris Paxton  (850) 819-3456

Lochloosa Lake - Patrick Kroboth 386-754-6252
Suwannee River - Allen Martin  (386) 758-0525
Mosaic Fish Management Area - Eric Johnson 863-648-3200

Winter Haven South Chain of Lakes - Eric Johnson 863-648-3200

Lake Seminole - Eric Johnson 863-648-3200
Lake Okeechobee - Andrea Dominguez 863-462-5190

Everglades Water Conservation Areas - Josh Wilsey 561-625-5122

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