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Freshwater Fishing Tips

Top Freshwater Species

Freshwater Fishing Tips

Male fisherman holding a fish in the water over the side of a boat

How do I properly release a freshwater fish?

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages anglers to release any fish that they are not going to use. Moreover, fisheries conservation laws require some fish to be released based on bag (creel) limits or size restrictions. Whether you are releasing fish voluntarily or to comply with the law, knowing how to do so properly will greatly increase the fish's chance for survival. Please remember that if you are going to release your catch, it is very important the fish be properly handled and released as quickly as possible.

  • Plan ahead before you remove the fish from the water: have your dehooker, measuring devices and camera ready—remember the fish should not be out of the water longer than you can hold your breath.
  • Strike quickly when a fish takes your bait or lure to reduce the chance of it swallowing the hook.
  • Play fish rapidly, the longer and harder it fights the greater stress on the fish.
  • Placing the fish back in the water between photos or measurements can be a good idea, especially if you have a live well*.
  • Do not use gaffs or knotted nets, and if lifting the fish by the jaw be careful not to bend the lower jaw down. If you need to hold the fish horizontally grasp it firmly by the lower jaw and gently under the stomach with a wet hand. Minimize disturbing the slime coat, which protects the fish from infection.
  • Use barbless hooks or mash the barb down. Circle hooks can be especially beneficial. Do not use stainless steel hooks.
  • Use de-hooking tools and, if necessary heavy cutters, to cut and remove hooks. Today’s hooks do not rust out.
  • Learn new methods to back hooks out. Cut line, gently pull shank to reverse hook and remove with pliers.
  • Keep the fish out of the water for as short a time as possible—no longer than you can hold your breath.
  • If the hook does not come out easily, use a dehooking tool.
  • When releasing the fish, place it gently in the water head first. If necessary, move the fish in a gentle figure eight to pass water over the gills (do not pull it backwards).

Check out our TrophyCare page for more information best fish handling and measuring techniques.

* Note: taking photos and measurements allows you to submit your fish to Florida's Angler Recognition programs, including TrophyCatch and Big Catch, for certificates and much more.Register now to learn more and for a chance to win great rewards.
** Note: most non-native fish should be harvested and not released, the exceptions are peacock bass and triploid grass carp.

Fish Measurements: Total Length and Girth

All freshwater Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations and the Big Catch program depend on total length.

This image depicts the most commonly used measurements for fish.  For freshwater fish, the measurements that you need to use are total length and girth.

Total Length Measurement

The total length is the maximum length of the fish, with the mouth closed and the tail fin pinched together. The best way to obtain this length is to push the fish's snout up against a vertical surface with the mouth closed and the fish laying along a tape measure, then pinch the tail fin closed and determine the total length. Do NOT pull a flexible tape measure along the curve of the fish. Prior to getting a final measurement the caudal (tail) fin will be pinched shut.

1. Lay fish flat
2. Pinch mouth shut and align with front of tape
3. Pinch tailfin together to get the total length

Conversely, most marine (saltwater regulations) refer to the "fork length", and scientists often use "standard length" which is to the end of the fleshy part of the body. "Standard length" has the advantage of not being affected by minor damage to the tail fin, nor does it give too much credit to a fish for the relatively light weight tail when calculating a fish's condition.

 

Girth Measurement

Girth is best measured with a fabric ruler, such as tailors use. It can also be determined by drawing a string around the fish at its widest point marking where the string overlaps and then measuring the distance between the overlapping points on a conventional ruler. The measurement should be taken perpendicular to the length of the fish.  This measurement is analogous to measuring the circumference of someone's waist.  Knowing the girth is important when trying to certify a fish for a record, and provides useful information to biologists about the relative condition of a fish.

1. Gently lift fish up and slide a piece of fishing ine or a flexible tape measure under fish.
2. Lay fish flat with line or tape under deepest part of fish. Wrap it around, fold fins down if needed, line should be perpendicular. Mark where line crosses.
Girth Measure Step 3

How to estimate a bass' weight

Bass Weight Calculator

Although it cannot be used to certify an official weight, the length and girth can give you a good estimate of a bass' weight. Use the FWC's Bass Weight Calculator to estimate the weight of bass when you cannot obtain a scale weight.

SAFETY TIP!

Make sure to always work the knife away from you to avoid injury.

How to Fillet a Black Crappie

If using a traditional fillet knife, ensure your blade is good and sharp. Begin by laying the fish flat against the cutting surface. To start, make a vertical cut just behind the gills. Once you reach the midpoint of the fish, turn your knife at a 90-degree angle and run the blade along the backbone all the way to the tail. Then cut around (and remove) the ribcage. Finally, use your blade and separate the fillet from the skin starting at the tail and working towards the wider portion of the fillet. Gently wash your fillets with cold water to wash away any blood or scales. Keep fillets cold prior to cooking.

Care of Your Catch

If not eating immediately fillets can be kept in a refrigerator, at 40 degrees or below, for up to 2 days. To store, pat fillets to remove excess water and place in a sealable plastic bag. For long-term storage, vacuum sealed freezer bags are recommended and can be kept for 3-6 months in a freezer. For more information on keeping your catch, check out the resources offer by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Loop Knot

A Loop Knot can be tied very easily under various circumstances, and attached to swivel and hook. It is a simple starting point for fishing knots.

Clinch Knot

One of the most basic knots for adding end tackle, such as hooks, lures, or swivels.

  1. Pass the line through the eye of the hook, or swivel.
  2. Double back and make five turns around the line.
  3. Pass the end of the line through the first loop, above the eye, and then through the large loop.
  4. Draw the knot into shape.
  5. Slide the coils down tight against the eye.

Palomar Knot

Palomar Knots provide another very simple knot for terminal tackle. It is considered to be the strongest knot for this application. It can be tied in the dark with a minimum of practice.

  1. Double about 10 inches of line, and pass through the eye.
  2. Tie an Overhand Knot in the doubled line, letting the hook hang loose. Avoid twisting the lines.
  3. Pull the end of loop down, passing it completely over the hook.
  4. Pull both ends of the line to draw up the knot.

Uni-Knot Version of Hangman's Knot

A join between two lines of equal diameter can be made using one of the Hangman's Knots also known as a Uni-Knot.

This is a knot used for attaching the line to the spool of the reel.

  1. Overlap about 6-7 inches of the two lines.
  2. Using one end, form a circle that overlies both lines.
  3. Pass the end six times around the two lines.
  4. Pull the end tight to draw the knot up into shape.
  5. Repeat the process using the end of the other line.
  6. Pull both lines to slide the two knots together.

Surgeon's Knot

Surgeon's Knots may be used with two unequal diameter lines. It may be necessary to have one line on a spool to help pass it through the loop.

  1. Lay the two lines against each other, and overlap about 8-10 inches.
  2. Working the two lines as one, tie an Overhand Knot. It will be necessary to pull one line (say the leader) completely through this loop.
  3. Pull the leader through this loop again.
  4. Pass the other end through the loop.
  5. The formed knot can now be worked into shape.

Spider Hitch

A double line can create an easier handle for a long fishing line and may be tied by means of a Spider Hitch

  1. Form a loop of the desired length, say 3-4 feet.
  2. Twist a section into a small loop.
  3. This is the only tricky part - hold this loop with thumb and forefinger, the thumb extending above the finger, and with the loop standing up beyond the tip of the thumb.
  4. Wind the doubled line around the thumb and the loop 5 times.
  5. Send the rest of the long loop through the small loop, and pull gently to unwind the turns off the thumb.
  6. The knot is now formed and worked into tight coils.

Swivel Knot

This knot is used for attaching a swivel to a double line.

  1. Put the end of the double line through the eye of the swivel.
  2. Rotate the end half a turn, putting a single twist between the end of the loop and the swivel eye.
  3. Pass the loop with the twist over the swivel. Hold the end of the loop, together with the double, with one hand, and allow the swivel to slide to the end of the double loops that have formed.
  4. Continue holding the loop and the lines with the right hand. Use the left hand to rotate the swivel through both loops 6 times or more.
  5. Keep pressure on both parts of the double line. Release the loop. Pull on the swivel and loops of line will start to form.
  6. Holding the swivel with pliers, or (better still) attaching it with a short length of line to the rigging, push the loop down towards the eye while keeping pressure on the double line.

Surgeons End Loop

Loops are made for the purpose of attaching leaders, traces or other terminal tackle. They have the advantage that they can be tied quickly even in the dark.

The Surgeon's End Loop is an easy way to go.

  1. Take the end of the line and double it to form a loop of the required size.
  2. Tie an Overhand Knot at the desired point, leaving the loop open.
  3. Bring the doubled line through the loop again.
  4. Hold the line and the end part together, and pull the loop to form a knot.

Blood Bight Knot

Another end loop can be tied quickly and easily using the Blood Bight Knot.

  1. Double the line back to make a loop of the size desired.
  2. Bring the end of the loop twice over the doubled part.
  3. Now pass the end of the loop through the first loop formed in the doubled part.
  4. Draw the knot up into shape, keeping pressure on both lines.

The Blood Bight Knot is often used for attaching a dropper when fishing deep water with several hooks.

Some anglers attach the hook directly to the end of the loop, which should be at least one-foot from the end of the line.

However, this is not a productive practice when the fish are apprehensive. Far better to attach a single strand of nylon to a short Blood Bight Knot, using another Blood Bight Knot, or a Surgeon's Knot.

Dropper Loop

Another method of forming a loop, or loops, in the line above the sinker is to use a Dropper Loop, which stands out at a right angle to the line.

The loops can be made long enough to have a hook set on them, but that isn't necessarily the best presentation for many fish.

  1. Form a loop in the line.
  2. Take hold of one side of the loop, and make 6 or more turns around the line itself.
  3. This is the tricky part - keep open the point where the turns, or twists, are being made.
  4. Take hold of the other side of the loop and pull it through the center opening. Use a finger in this loop so that it is not lost.
  5. Hold this loop between the teeth. Pull gently on both ends of the line, making the turns gather and pack down on either side of the loop.
  6. Draw up the knot by pulling the lines as tightly as possible. The turns will make the loop stand at right angles to the line.

Tucked Sheet Bend

Usually employed by fly fishermen, the Tucked Sheet Bend is commonly used for joining the backing line to the tapered line. It is not an especially compact knot, but has a very strong attachment, which cannot be said for the more aesthetically pleasing Perfection Loop.

  1. Make a Blood Bight (see above) at the end of the backing line.
  2. Take the end of the tapered line. Pass it through the Blood Bight and make a simple Sheet Bend.
  3. Now pass the end of the tapered line back through the closed loop of the Sheet Bend.
  4. Hold both ends of the tapered line to tighten and draw into shape.

Float Stop

The float fishermen who use a running float for casting use the Float stop to prevent the float from running up the line. This knot will move readily over the rod guides, but grip a monofilament nylon so tightly that it will not slide over the line.

It should be made with about 6 inches of nylon, usually the same diameter as the line itself.

  1. Take 2 turns (3 if necessary) around the main line at the chosen point.
  2. Bring both ends around to form a Surgeon's Knot (see above).
  3. Tighten into shape bringing the coils close together.

Turle Knot

The Turle Knot is very simple to tie but is very weak.

It should not be used for light lines, there are better knots for use with heavy ones. At least consider using the double turle trick listed below to enhance it, if you choose this simple knot.

  1. Pass the line through the eye of the hook.
  2. Make a simple loop.
  3. Carry the end of the line on to make a Simple Overhand Knot upon the loop.
  4. Pass the loop over the hook.
  5. Draw up into shape.

Double Turle Knot

Tied in monofilament nylon, the Turle Knot may slip unless another Simple Overhand Knot is made at the end of the line.

It is improved substantially by using the Double Turle Knot.

  1. Pass the line through the eye of the hook or swivel.
  2. Make two simple loops and carry the line on to make a Simple Overhand Knot around both loops.
  3. Pass both of these loops over the hook or swivel.
  4. Pull on both parts of the line to draw the knot up into shape against the eye of the hook or swivel.
External Fish Anatomy

The following illustration of a largemouth bass shows some of the common external features that are used to describe the differences between fish that are explained in more detail below.

Fish are animals that are cold-blooded, have fins and a backbone. Most fish have scales and breathe with gills. Approximately, 22,000 species of fish began evolving 480 million years ago. The largemouth bass illustrated above has the typical torpedo-like (fusiform) shape associated with many fishes.

Fins are appendages used by the fish to maintain its position, move, steer and stop. They are either single fins along the centerline of the fish, such as the dorsal (back) fins, caudal (tail) fin and anal fin, or paired fins, which include the pectoral (chest) and pelvic (hip) fins. Fishes such as catfish have another fleshy lobe behind the dorsal fin, called an adipose (fat) fin that is not illustrated here. The dorsal and anal fins primarily help fish to not roll over onto their sides. The caudal fin is the main fin for propulsion to move the fish forward. The paired fins assist with steering, stopping and hovering.

Scales in most bony fishes (most freshwater fishes other than gar that have ganoid scales, and catfish which have no scales) are either ctenoid or cycloid. Ctenoid scales have jagged edges and cycloid ones have smooth rounded edges. Bass and most other fish with spines have ctenoid scales composed of connective tissue covered with calcium. Most fishes also have a very important mucus layer covering the body that helps prevent infection. Anglers should be careful not to rub this "slime" off when handling a fish that is to be released.

In many freshwater fishes the fins are supported by spines that are rigid and may be quite sharp thus playing a defensive role. Catfish have notably hard sharp fins, of which anglers should be wary. The soft dorsal and caudal fins are composed of rays, as are portions of other fins. Rays are less rigid and frequently branched.

The gills are the breathing apparatus of fish and are highly vascularized giving them their bright red cover. An operculum (gill cover) that is a flexible bony plate that protects the sensitive gills. Water is "inhaled" through the mouth, passes over the gills and is "exhaled" from beneath the operculum.

Fish can detect color. The eyes are rounder in fish than mammals because of the refractive index of water and focus is achieved by moving the lens in and out, not reshaping the lens as in mammals.

Paired nostrils, or nares, in fish are used to detect odors in water and can be quite sensitive. Eels and catfish have particularly well developed senses of smell.

The mouth's shape is a good clue to what fish eat. The larger it is, the bigger the prey it can consume. Fish have a sense of taste and may sample items to taste them before swallowing if they are not obvious prey items. Most freshwater fishes in Florida are omnivorous (eating both plant and animal matter). Some are primarily piscivorous (eating mostly other fish). The imported grass carp is one of the few large fishes that are primarily herbivorous (eating plants). Fish may or may not have teeth depending on the species. Fish like chain pickerel and gar have obvious canine-shaped teeth. Other fish have less obvious teeth, such as the cardiform teeth in catfish which feel like a roughened area at the front of the mouth, or vomerine teeth that are tiny patches of teeth, for example, in the roof of a striped bass' mouth. Grass carp and other minnows have pharyngeal teeth modified from their gill arches for grinding that are located in the throat.

The lateral line is a sensory organ consisting of fluid filled sacs with hair-like sensory apparatus that are open to the water through a series of pores (creating a line along the side of the fish). The lateral line primarily senses water currents and pressure, and movement in the water.

The vent is the external opening to digestive urinary and reproductive tracts. In most fish, it is immediately in front of the anal fin.

Internal Fish Anatomy

The following illustration of a largemouth bass shows some of the common internal features that are used to describe the differences between fish that are explained in more detail below.

As different as a man may be from a fish, both creatures share some fascinating similarities in basic structure and function. And the closer one looks, the more complex life becomes. The smallest units of life are microscopic cells, and some organisms--such as an ameba--are no larger than a single cell. In larger multicellular creatures, individual cells that are similar in structure and perform a specific function are grouped into tissues, and tissues may be grouped into even more complex and specialized structures called organs. These organs perform the basic bodily functions such as respiration, digestion, and sensory reception. Man and fish share such organs as the brain, stomach, liver, and kidneys. Other organs appear in different forms in different organisms; for example, the lungs in humans and the gills in fish are very different but both provide the same basic function of respiration. Finally, some organs (such as the fish's swim bladder) are simply not present in man. Below are descriptions of some of the organs identified on the above diagram, along with their functions. A number of other vital organs, such as the spleen and pancreas, may also be present but are smaller and more difficult to locate. A largemouth bass destined for the frying pan makes an excellent specimen because this species is large enough for easy examination. For anglers brave enough to do some investigating while filleting their next fish, a fascinating learning experience awaits! Don't forget to examine the stomach content, as this can give clues to what the fish was feeding on, where in the water column and what lures to present. For instance, small shad probably came from open water and a shad-imitating lure may be your best bet; crayfish would suggest working a soft plastic along the bottom.

Spine:

The primary structural framework upon which the fish's body is built; connects to the skull at the front of the fish and to the tail at the rear. The spine is made up of numerous vertebrae, which are hollow and house and protect the delicate spinal cord.

Spinal Cord:

Connects the brain to the rest of the body and relays sensory information from the body to the brain, as well as instructions from the brain to the rest of the body.

Brain:

The control center of the fish, where both automatic functions (such as respiration) and higher behaviors ("Should I eat that critter with the spinning blades?") occur. All sensory information is processed here.

Lateral Line:

One of the fish's primary sense organs; detects underwater vibrations and is capable of determining the direction of their source.

Swim (or Air) Bladder:

A hollow, gas-filled balance organ that allows a fish to conserve energy by maintaining neutral buoyancy (suspending) in water. Fish caught from very deep water sometimes need to have air released from their swim bladder before they can be released and return to deep water, due to the difference in atmospheric pressure at the water's surface. (Most freshwater anglers in Florida need not concern themselves with this!) Species of fish that do not possess a swim bladder sink to the bottom if they stop swimming.

Gills:

Allow a fish to breathe underwater. These are very delicate structures and should not be touched if the fish is to be released!

Kidney:

Filters liquid waste materials from the blood; these wastes are then passed out of the body. The kidney is also extremely important in regulating water and salt concentrations within the fish's body, allowing certain fish species to exist in freshwater or saltwater, and in some cases (such as snook or tarpon) both.

Stomach and Intestines:

Break down (digest) food and absorb nutrients. Fish such as bass that are piscivorous (eat other fish) have fairly short intestines because such food is easy to chemically break down and digest. Fish such as tilapia that are herbivorous (eat plants) require longer intestines because plant matter is usually tough and fibrous and more difficult to break down into usable components. A great deal about fish feeding habits can be determined by examining stomach contents.

Pyloric Caeca:

This organ with fingerlike projections is located near the junction of the stomach and the intestines. Its function is not entirely understood, but it is known to secrete enzymes that aid in digestion, may function to absorb digested food, or do both.

Vent:

The site of waste elimination from the fish's body. It is also the entry to the genital tract where eggs or sperm are released.

Liver:

This important organ has a number of functions. It assists in digestion by secreting enzymes that break down fats, and also serves as a storage area for fats and carbohydrates. The liver also is important in the destruction of old blood cells and in maintaining proper blood chemistry, as well as playing a role in nitrogen (waste) excretion.

Heart:

Circulates blood throughout the body. Oxygen and digested nutrients are delivered to the cells of various organs through the blood, and the blood transports waste products from the cells to the kidneys and liver for elimination.

Gonads (Reproductive Organs):

In adult female bass, the bright orange mass of eggs is unmistakable during the spawning season, but is still usually identifiable at other times of the year. The male organs, which produce milt for fertilizing the eggs, are much smaller and white but found in the same general location. The eggs (or roe) of certain fish are considered a delicacy, as in the case of caviar from sturgeon.

Muscles:

Provide movement and locomotion. This is the part of the fish that is usually eaten, and composes the fillet of the fish.

If you would like more information, Sea World has a nice site about bony fishes, their anatomy and physiology. The Florida Museum of Natural History also has an outstanding site.

The Moon

What is the Solunar theory about, and how can you use it to improve your catch?

Credit for the Solunar Theory goes to John Alden Knight, the author of "Moon Up...Moon Down" (Solunar Sales 1972), "The Modern Angler: Including the Solunar Theory" (C. Scribner's Sons, ltd. 1936) and "The Theory and Technique of Fresh Water Angling" (Harcourt Brace and Company New York 1940. In 1926 , he considered some folk lore that he picked up while fishing in Florida and decided to evaluate 33 factors which might influence behavior of fresh or saltwater fishes that caused them to be periodically more active. Of those, three seemed to merit further examination: sunrise/sunset, phase of the moon and tides. From that effort, this avid fly fisherman created the Solunar Theory (Sol = sun, and Lunar = moon).

Tides had long been known as an important factor in saltwater fishing success and the connection with moon phase was well understood. Knight then supposed that the relationship of the sun and moon, rather than actual tidal stages might be the determining factor. As his research continued, he determined that in addition to the time of moon up - moon down there were intermediate periods of fishing activity that occurred midway between the two major periods. So he coined the phrases 'major periods' and 'minor periods' to describe them respectively.

Knight used this information to publish the first Solunar Tables in 1936. These tables are still widely published and numerous programs, some on digital watches, emulate them. To be accurate the precise times from each table must consider the geographic location and be adjusted for Daylight Savings Time, if appropriate.

The periods of greatest animal activity (not only fish are influenced) last from 1.5 to 3 hours depending on the moon's relationship to the sun. Minor Solunar periods are indicated during the rising and setting times of the moon, and major periods are indicated during the two transits. You can roughly calculate these times for yourself by adding six hours to the rise and set times for the moon.

To substantiate this theory, Knight attempted a systematic inquiry by considering the timing of 200 'record' catches, more than 90 percent were made during a new moon (when no moon is visible). This is the time when solunar periods appear strongest, and they were made during the actual times of the solunar periods.

Because of the interaction between the many lunar and solar cycles, no two days, months or years are identical. June has a greater combined solunar influence than any other month. During a full moon, the sun and moon are nearly opposite each other and given the length of the day, one or the other is nearly always above the horizon. During a new moon, both bodies are in near-perfect rhythm traveling the skies together with their forces combined.

Other factors can greatly affect the predictive ability of solunar tables. For instance, you should also consider local weather patterns. Barometric changes, especially a downward trend, can often ruin fishing. Fish and wildlife have an innate ability to predict weather and react accordingly. Cold fronts tend to drive fish deeper and make them active. Conversely, If the barometer is steady or rising, and the air temperature is approximately 15 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the water temperature a more active response to a solunar prediction can be anticipated. Temperature is also associated with spawning times and can be a key factor in the seasonal patterns with which freshwater fish are sought.

Another thing to remember in dealing with Solunar Periods is that solunar influence will vary in intensity according to the position of the moon. The times of new moon (the dark of the moon), and full moon are the times of maximum intensity. Ocean tides reflect this intensity in their magnitude. This maximum will last about three days, and wildlife respond with maximum activity. Thereafter the degree of intensity tapers off until it is at its minimum during the third quarter phase of the moon.

Some salt-water anglers argue that tides have more influence on fish feeding habits than the moon itself. It must be understood that the tides are governed by the phases and transit of the moon. Certain marine phenomena occur with precise regularity during the lunar month and solar/lunar cycle.

Research has shown that a natural day for fish and many other animal species is based on a diurnal (twice daily) 'biological clock' that appears to coincide with lunar time. In other words its is based on the time that it takes the moon to complete one rotation of the earth (an average of 24 hours and 53 minutes). This is also called a 'tidal day' and explains why ocean tides are about an hour later each day - and why most fish, fresh water species included, will feed up to an hour later (in relation to our solar clock) each day.

Remember ... the BEST time to go fishin' ... is whenever you can safely!

Note: This article is derived from a variety of online sources including the Naval Observatory and www.solunar.com

Angler Recognition Programs

TrophyCatch

TrophyCatch transforms and activates the angling community into becoming “Champions of Conservation” by having anglers photo-document and submit pictures of their largemouth bass catches that weigh eight pounds or heavier to TrophyCatch. This catch-and-release program rewards anglers for their catches by placing them into a prizing category based on the weight of the fish.

The benefits of participating in TrophyCatch include collecting valid citizen-science information about trophy bass to help the FWC better enhance, conserve and promote trophy bass fishing.

Big Catch

To help commemorate your outstanding catches, Big Catch is Florida's family-friendly, freshwater angler recognition program with 33 different fish to choose from. Simply catch a fish that exceeds the qualifying length OR weight, take a photo and submit. Special youth sizes invite their participation. Qualifiers receive a digital full-color certificate illustrating the species of fish you caught, personalized with your name and details about your catch. Advanced anglers can continue the challenge by seeking Specialist, Master and Elite Angler recognition.

Boating As A Gateway logo

Stash the Trash!

No matter where you fish or what you're fishing for, let's work together to protect our fish and wildlife! Find out how at MyFWC.com/StashTheTrash.