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Top Spots Sunfish

What is a bream? Pronounced, “brim”, this is a convenient, if vague, term to collectively refer to a variety of sunfish species. The trouble is, it doesn’t mean the something everywhere or to everyone. Some people use it to mean only Bluegill, while others use it to mean any or all of Bluegill, Redear Sunfish (shellcracker), Warmouth, Redbreast Sunfish, Longear Sunfish, Spotted Sunfish (stump knocker), and other sunfish species. That is a frequent struggle with common names.

Because it is perhaps just another way to say panfish, for our 2021 list of top spots for Bream we have included both these definitions and exotic species (Oscar and Mayan Cichlid) which have similar body shape and are caught with similar techniques. Regardless of what you call them, whether you’re looking for light tackle fun or tasty eats, panfish or bream should be able to deliver at these waters.

NORTHWEST REGION

Holmes Creek (Tributary to Choctawhatchee River)
(Holmes, Walton and Washington counties)
A pristine Florida waterway with high catch rates of panfish, multiple species, and home to the unique Choctaw Bass. Holmes Creek is a 16-mile tributary to the Choctawhatchee River and is a designated Florida canoe trail easily accessed in Vernon, Florida. Fifteen springs along this scenic tributary provide diverse habitats for a rich variety of fish and mollusks. Holmes Creek is also a major summer aggregation area for the federally protected Gulf Sturgeon, as well as, thermal refugia for the Gulf Striped Bass.

Choctawhatchee River
(Holmes, Walton and Washington counties)
A Monster trophy catfish fishery for Flathead and Blue catfish (State Record location for Blue Catfish) and high catch rates of panfish and multiple species. The Choctawhatchee River boasts the Florida State record for Blue Catfish was caught in 2015, weighing in at 69.50 lbs. A 120 lbs. Blue Catfish was also documented by the FWC but was not caught by rod and reel an eligible for certification. There are true 100 lbs. Blue Catfish leviathans lurking in the river! Anglers will have the best results fishing when water levels are low, and the river is within its banks. The numerous small lakes along the backwaters offer great fishing opportunities offering a variety of species such as bluegill, shellcracker, largemouth bass, hybrid striped bass, and mullet. The Choctawhatchee River is accessible from numerous locations such as the public access area in Ebro, Florida.

Yellow River
(Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties)
A Monster trophy catfish fishery for Flathead Catfish (State Record location for Flathead Catfish) and high catch rates of panfish and multiple species. he Yellow River is home to monster Flathead Catfish and currently boasts the location of the new Florida State Record Flathead Catfish caught in August 2020. This behemoth weighed in at 69.9 pounds. The upper Yellow River provides anglers an assortment of largemouth bass, spotted bass, redear sunfish (shellcracker), bluegill, spotted sunfish, warmouth and shadow bass. Sixty-one miles of the Yellow River flows in a southwesterly direction into Blackwater Bay, an arm of Pensacola Bay, through Florida’s Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties. The Yellow River’s one major tributary, the Shoal River, joins the Yellow near Crestview, Florida.

Apalachicola River
(Jackson, Gadsden, Calhoun, Gulf, Liberty, and Franklin counties)
A Monster trophy catfish fishery for Flathead Catfish and high catch rates of panfish, multiple species and a hot spot destination for Striped Bass. The 160-mile Apalachicola River in Florida is a wide, winding river rolling down to Apalachicola Bay through nationally significant forests, with some of the highest biological diversity east of the Mississippi rivaling the Great Smoky Mountains. This river has the highest diversity of freshwater fish species in the state including both freshwater and saltwater species, leading to some of the best fishing in Florida's Panhandle. The numerous creeks and tributaries feeding into the Apalachicola offer scenic runs with deep, quiet pools. These pools are also home to monster Flathead Catfish. The Apalachicola was at one time the reigning home to the Florida State record for Flathead Catfish until recently broken by a fish caught in the Yellow River. The Apalachicola is still a monster Flathead Catfish destination for anglers, as well as, an assortment of fresh and saltwater species.

 

NORTH CENTRAL REGION

Orange Lake
(Alachua County)
At nearly 13,000 acres, Orange Lake is the largest public lake in the North Central Region. This shallow lake is designated as a fish management area (FMA) and is located roughly 20 miles southeast of Gainesville. Public boat ramps at Heagy-Burry Park and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Park provide easy access. Heagy-Burry also has a fishing pier. The large open water area is surrounded by shallow, heavily vegetated areas and extensive marsh. Diverse habitat is abundant and this fishery is presently thriving. Periodic drought and subsequent refilling at Orange Lake can ultimately result in tremendous growth in both numbers and size of fish in the lake. This is what we’ve been seeing the last couple years. For example, one bass collected in March of 2017 weighed 9.5 pounds and when recaptured 8 months later weighed a whopping 13 pounds! Of the many eligible bass submitted to FWC’s TrophyCatch program in 2020, 4 qualified as Hall of Fame (>13lbs) fish. In 2019, the largest TrophyCatch bass of Season 7 and the second largest TrophyCatch bass ever (15 lbs 13 oz) came from Orange Lake. If stable water levels persist on the lake, the habitat and fishing should be even better this year. Bass anglers on Orange typically do well flipping soft plastics in and around emergent pads and floating vegetation mats, especially during the springtime spawn. Anglers should also target submerged vegetation such as coontail and hydrilla beds with spinnerbaits, lipless crankbaits, soft plastics, and topwater lures.

Anglers are catching good numbers of really nice black crappie (“speckled perch”) measuring between 10 and 14 inches, with some fish even larger. Most of the anglers are fishing in the northern and southern ends of the lake with a lot of folks using minnows and grass shrimp as bait. Biologists captured on average 1 quality-sized bluegill every minute and it’s not unusual to find a near dinner-plate size bluegill or redear (“shellcracker”) in Orange Lake! While fishing at Orange Lake, you may have the opportunity to participate in the management process. Creel surveys take place on random days throughout the entire spring on Orange Lake to collect information on the fishery and ask anglers their opinions about management.

Lower Suwannee River
(Columbia, Hamilton, Madison, Lafayette, Gilchrist, Alachua, Suwannee, Levy and Dixie counties)
The lower Suwannee River not only provides good fishing for several panfish species throughout the year, but some of the best fishing can be had during the coldest part of winter. Stumpknockers are the target species during this time, and it is not uncommon to catch some of the largest stumpknockers in the state! The best action can be found by fishing the outer bends of creeks with undercut banks (look for trees leaning out over the creek) during a falling or low tide. The low water can corral fish into deeper holes making some excellent fishing. Use beetle spins or small jigs tipped with little pieces of shrimp. Use ultra-light spinning gear to cast right up against the bank and let it sink to the bottom before retrieving. During cold spells, spring entrances will be the warmest spots in the river and will attract fish as well. What’s unique about this area is that it is located within the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Other than the houses in the town of Suwannee, you will not see any signs of human development unless you run up the river to the town of Fowlers Bluff. The best place to access the lower Suwannee River is from the town of Suwannee. There is a free public ramp (Demory Creek Ramp) right along Hwy 349 and there are fee ramps at Suwannee Marina and Gateway Marina. Boat ramps can be located using FWC Boat Ramp Finder. Bait shrimp and other supplies can be found at the marinas and fish camps in town. If you are coming from the east side of the river, you might want to consider launching at the free public ramp in Fowlers Bluff and running down the river to save on drive time to the ramp.

 

NORTHEAST REGION

Lake Panasoffkee
(Sumter County)

The 4,460 acre Lake Panasoffkee is a shallow lake that feeds into the Withlacoochee River. There is abundant vegetation, consisting of coontail, eelgrass, Illinois pondweed, hydrilla, fragrant water lily, and cattails. The bass population has rebounded significantly since Hurricane Irma in 2017. During Season 8 of TrophyCatch, there were 17 approved submissions, more than quadruple the number of submissions from 2017-2019. There were also several bass tournaments in 2020 with winning weights over 30 pounds. The northern end of the lake is popular with bass anglers. With the abundant vegetation, the best lures are soft jerkbaits, topwater baits, and vibrating jigs.

The main panfish caught are bluegill, redear sunfish, and spotted sunfish providing variety in high numbers. The angler catch rate from the 2020 creel survey for bluegill was calculated at 1.54 fish per hour. Look for bedding areas in late spring into the summer for large redear sunfish. A Panasoffkee Kid’s Fishing Derby is held each year at the lake as well.

Turkey Lake
(Orange County)

Turkey Lake (339 acres) is located just minutes from Orlando attractions near International Drive. Public access is possible through the city of Orlando’s Bill Frederick Park. It is managed as a quality largemouth bass and crappie fishery, but also boasts a good bluegill fishery. When the park was built there was a deed restriction that did not allow for a public boat ramp, therefore, a partnership between the city of Orlando, Bass Pro Shops, and FWC was established to provide a boat loaner program. Four aluminum boats are rented through the city of Orlando for four hours, Thursday through Sunday. While bank fishing has unlimited hours, boat fishing hours are restricted to limit effort and maintain a quality fishery.

Analysis of the angler creel survey from 2020 indicated that the bass catch rate was 0.8 bass per hour, and the crappie catch rate was 0.7 crappie per hour. Turkey Lake consistently produces good catch rates for bass year after year. In early 2020, an angler fishing from one of the piers caught a 16 pound bass. Bass and crappie anglers will regularly catch some quality size bluegill while fishing as well.

 

SOUTHWEST REGION

Tenoroc Fish Management Area
(Polk County)
Tenoroc Fish Management Area is an 8,300-acre former phosphate mine in Lakeland, Florida which provides a special opportunity to catch several species of fish. Tenoroc is located on Highway 659 (Combee Road) and can be accessed from Highway 33, just south of Interstate 4. Call the Tenoroc Headquarters at 863-303-0093 for more information or to make fishing reservations. The area is open to public fishing four days a week, Fridays through Mondays. All anglers must check-in and out at the Tenoroc Entryway Building, deposit their valid fishing license if applicable and pay $3 for a daily fishing permit unless exempt.

With thirty lakes to choose from on the property, these seven to 227-acre waterbodies were created years ago by draglines during phosphate surface mining operations. As a result, lake bottoms have irregular contours with depths up to 35 feet. Most Tenoroc lakes have ADA accessible boat ramps and facilities. Numerous bank fishing opportunities are also present for anglers who don’t have a boat and a few lakes even have picnic pavilions and restrooms.

Bass anglers who want to catch good numbers of fish should cover lots of area, probing deeper waters with chrome-colored lipless crankbaits and chartreuse ("Firetiger" color) diving crankbaits. Once anglers catch a few fish in a general area, it’s time to slow down and fish the area thoroughly. Plastic worms are often the best all-around lure for fishing slowly. Red shad and junebug are great worm colors. Anglers who fish submersed islands or sandbars off points will often find good concentrations of bass. In addition, many of the lakes are connected with water control structures. When in operation, bass are often concentrated in areas of flowing water and can be caught using crankbaits or plastic worms. During the spring, flipping plastic worms or crawfish imitation baits in thick cover will often produce some bigger largemouth bass.

Anglers who want to catch panfish (bluegill, shellcrackers) at Tenoroc will have several good lake choices to try. Anglers should look for shorelines with an abundant supply of woody brush, tree-tops or vegetation that are perfect locations for panfish to hide out. Anglers should also look for signs and buoys pointing out underwater gravel beds or other fish attractors on several Tenoroc lakes. Presenting natural baits (crickets, night crawlers, red wigglers, grass shrimp) under a cork and bobber or free lining them with a split shot weight on light tackle will entice a bite around structure, submerged timber, pockets in vegetation, underwater humps and deeper holes. Fishing artificial lures (rooster tails, road runners, beetle spins) can also be productive in deeper areas or near any type of structure.

Fishing for catfish in Tenoroc lakes is also popular and rewarding as channel catfish are stocked annually by FWC in several lakes. Some lakes have good naturally reproducing populations of brown bullhead as well. Fishing with a piece of chicken liver, cut bait with high oil content like gizzard shad, commercial stink baits, cheese balls and night crawlers around the deeper holes and fish feeders, if available, will produce the best action at the height of the day. Fishing with family or friends for catfish from one of the many lakes with open shorelines is a favorite pastime for many Tenoroc anglers.

Winter Haven Chain of Lakes
(Polk County)
The Winter Haven Chain of Lakes consists of 26 waterbodies, tucked in amongst the city streets of Winter Haven in Polk County. These lakes offer some of the finest and most easily accessible fishing for multiple species in central Florida. Lakes in the Winter Haven Chain range in size from 25 to 2,654 acres, totaling just over 9,000 acres of fishable waters. Ample public access is available in the form of 14 boat ramps, 5 fishing piers, shoreline fishing at a half-dozen city parks and public easements alongside the numerous canals which connect the lakes.

The Winter Haven Chain is known for excellent bass fishing throughout the year. The cattail stands on Lake Haines and Lake Rochelle are great for bass angling and when cypress trees are your favorite target, Lake Eloise is packed with plenty of large, beautiful ones to fish a plastic worm around. Lake Winterset has deep crystal-clear water and open water beds of eelgrass which are perfect to run spinnerbaits and gold/silver spoons through. Lake Hartridge also provides excellent bass fishing with plenty of Illinois pondweed (aka peppergrass) that is often loaded with baitfish. Lake Shipp has two public boat ramps and some great flipping opportunities for bass in the cattails along its shoreline. Nearby Lake Eloise has numerous docks, often surrounded by peppergrass, which are a bass angler’s dream to fish. Regardless of what lake is fished, they all offer high quality bass fishing opportunities and the chance of a lifetime to land a trophy-size bass. Live shiners, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and plastic worm presentations all work well in these lakes. Bass will begin to spawn as early as January and continue through April, depending on water temperatures. During spawning season, anglers should fish shallow areas near cattails, bulrush and Kissimmee grass while using lizards, crawfish and other soft plastics such as the Zoom Z-Craw in Junebug, red shad and tilapia colors.

If black crappie is your target, the Winter Haven Chain has plenty of fishing opportunities for them (or specks as the locals say) as well. Lake Eloise and Lake Shipp are excellent spots for crappie on the south part of the chain while lakes Rochelle, Haines and Hartridge are good locations on the north section of the chain. During cooler months, crappie are taken by drifting or trolling live Missouri minnows or bladed jigs tipped with minnows around offshore submersed vegetation. When waters start to warm in the spring, crappie migrate to shallow waters to spawn and can be caught by dropping jigs tipped with minnows near bulrush, cattails and lily pads.

The Winter Haven Chain also has an awesome panfish fishery for bluegill and redear sunfish (aka shellcrackers). These waters offer a wide variety of habitat for both fish and anglers to choose from including bulrush and cattail stands, cypress trees, open water eelgrass beds and pondweed stands around docks. Crickets, wigglers or grass shrimp are the best live baits when fished under a float with small hook and split shot weight while small beetle spins and jigs can be productive when fished along vegetation.

Lake Istokpoga
(Highlands County)
Lake Istokpoga (27,700 acres) is a large, relatively shallow lake which is located a few miles southeast of Sebring, Florida. It’s a popular winter-time destination for nonresident and local anglers due to its productive fisheries. There are several public boat ramps around the lake, in addition to numerous ramps located at private fish camps, which also have fish cleaning stations. Water levels on the lake are controlled by the South Florida Water management District and fluctuate around 2-3 feet on a set schedule during the year. The lake also boasts four vegetated islands (Big, Bumble Bee, Grassy, Long) and a few incoming creeks which are great locations to catch several species of fish.

Lake Istokpoga has long been known for its trophy largemouth bass fishing. Since 2012, over 550 bass greater than eight pounds, have been documented from the lake and submitted into the FWC’s TrophyCatch Program. Anglers fishing for bass on this lake basically use either live wild shiners or some type of artificial bait. Both types of baits can be very productive depending on the time of year. Bass begin to spawn in mid- to late January depending on moon phases and often move into shallow areas around bulrush (buggy whips), cattails or lily pads on the northern shoreline and around Big Island and Bumblebee Island. Fishing these areas with soft plastics, weightless speed worms and swimbaits will be the best bet during the spawning season. When water temps increase after the spawn, try targeting bass around dense vegetation such as bulrush or cattail while flipping soft plastic baits like crawfish, lizards or worms. Fishing spinnerbaits, spoons or jerk baits around submerged vegetation like eelgrass or hydrilla can also be productive throughout the year.

Lake Istokpoga is also well-known for its black crappie or speck fishery. Anglers come from all over the United States to fill their coolers with this tasty fish on Istokpoga during the cooler months of the year. Most anglers drift live Missouri minnows and grass shrimp in open water or troll with Napier deer hair jigs, tube jigs and Hal flies for schooling fish. Anglers should look for areas with sandy bottoms around bulrush and cattails while fishing minnows or grass shrimp under a cork for spawning fish. Henderson’s Cove and the north end of the lake usually produces good numbers of specks on the outside edge of the pads and grasses near deeper water while open water areas around Big Island and west of Long Island are also good speck fishing spots. The key is to keep moving around until you locate an area with concentrated numbers of fish.

Istokpoga’s panfish fishery is also tremendous and not widely known. The lake boasts nice bluegill and redear sunfish (shellcrackers) which often approach a pound. The fishing gets really good during late spring and throughout the summer when a lot of the seasonal anglers have left for the year. The best method is to use crickets and grass shrimp under a cork for bluegill and red wigglers on or near the bottom for shellcrackers. If you catch a fish, there are likely more in the area, so stay put and be patient for another bite. Fly fishing can also be rewarding for anglers who prefer this fishing method. Locate areas with dense bulrush, Kissimmee grass or cattails for the best action but don’t forget to try the lily pads too. Fishing the shade around cypress trees on the southeast side of the lake can also be productive at times.

 

SOUTH REGION

Everglades Canals
(Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties)
Over 100 miles of canals run along and through the Everglades providing excellent fishing opportunities. When conditions are right, and low water in the marsh concentrates bass in the canals, catch rates can be phenomenal, with catches of 50-100 bass per angler not uncommon. Soft plastics, like stick worms, flukes, and creature baits, are top producers. Incredible catch rates of exotic panfish, Mayan Cichlid and Oscar, are also possible. Angler use surveys have recorded catch rates approaching 20 fish per hour – just how fast can you put a cricket on a hook? Bluegill and Redear sunfish are also add to that panfish catch.

Urban Canals
(Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties)
The canals of southeast Florida, particularly those in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, provide excellent fishing opportunity. In many of them, exotic species like Butterfly Peacock Bass, Mayan Cichlid, and Jaguar Guapote dominate the catch. For some this is a fascinating niche fishery, for others it “just” good local fishing opportunity. Canals, particularly smaller ones, can be sensitive to pressure – if the bite slows after catching a couple fish, move on down the canal. A series of Angler Guide brochures describing some popular and productive canals are available. “Bank hopping” is also common approach in the area – fishing multiple canals in a day by foot.