Freshwater Fisheries Habitat
Where Fish Live
Florida's 11 million acres of freshwater is home to a diverse variety of aquatic communities, freshwater fish habitats, and angling opportunities. Florida is home to more than 7,800 freshwater lakes, over 1,700 rivers, and 700 springs, each playing an important role in our aquatic ecosystem. From the waters of the St. John's River, south to the open waters of Lake Okeechobee, lies a vast network of freshwater habitats essential to the health and productivity of our aquatic species.
How You Can Help
Without healthy freshwater habitats, Florida’s world-renowned fishing industry and iconic freshwater fish species wouldn’t be able to thrive. Maintaining healthy freshwater habitats start with you. There are lots of things you can do to help enhance or maintain marine fisheries habitat. Remember: No Habitat, No Fish!
- Volunteer to help with a habitat project
- Stash your trash and dispose of it in a proper receptacle ashore
- Recycle your monofilament fishing line or cut line into small sections before disposal to avoid entangling wildlife
- Properly dispose of chemicals, oils and other hazardous materials in designated locations or receptacles
- View Boating and Angling Guides to see what marine habitats might be near you and how you can access them without damaging them
- Learn to navigate waterways you’ll be traveling to avoid damage to your vessel and submerged habitats like oyster reefs and seagrass beds
- Pole, paddle or use an electric trolling motor to avoid damaging shallow seagrass beds with a vessel's propeller
- Set anchors securely so they do not drag
- Report fish kills, exotic species and trapped or injured wildlife to the FWC
Freshwater Fisheries Habitat
Lakes and Ponds
More than 8,000 named lakes and ponds dot Florida’s landscape, and nearly all of them can provide fishing. Ponds are smaller than lakes, but both can contain similar freshwater habitats including shallow or deep-water marsh, open water and floodplain. Shallow water marsh habitat, typically two feet deep or less, can contain a mix of woody species such as wax myrtle and aquatic species such as spikerush, pickerelweed and arrowhead. Deep water marsh, usually 2-6 feet in depth, may contain bulrush, water lily, eelgrass, hydrilla, pondweed and maidencane. Open water habitat is usually the center area of a lake or pond, typically six feet deep or more, and can be vegetation free or contain submersed vegetation such as eelgrass, pondweed and hydrilla. Floodplain habitat surrounds a lake or pond and is only temporarily inundated during rain or high water. Floodplains are very important since this habitat often serves as the “kidney” of a lake or pond, cleansing the water. Additionally, it can serve as spawning and nursery habitat for fish when flooded, which later translates to better fishing opportunities as young-of-the-year fish grow to adult sizes.
Largemouth bass are Florida’s most popular freshwater sport fish and inhabit nearly every pond and lake. Good lures include artificial worms, minnow imitations, topwater lures, spinnerbaits and crankbaits. Live shiners or shad are excellent baits. Sunfish including bluegill (bream) and redear sunfish (shellcracker) are common and can be taken on baits like live worms, crickets and grass shrimp. Good lures include tiny jigs or beetle spins, and small flyrod poppers or flies. For both bass and sunfish, if you are not getting any bites, then fish deeper. Black crappie (specks) are less common and usually restricted to larger, deeper lakes where they prefer deeper holes and brushpile structure. The best live bait is Missouri minnows, with small marabou or curlytail jigs also working well. With crappie it is especially important to fish different depths and keep moving until you locate a school.
Rivers and Streams
Florida is home to over 1,700 rivers and streams spanning more than 98,000 river miles, offering anglers diverse fishing opportunities to target various riverine sportfish species including, Suwannee bass, redbreasted sunfish, striped bass, white bass and numerous catfish species. River and stream habitat can be classified into several categories. Riffles are shallow sections of the river or stream where the riverbed is normally hard and made up of sand, gravel and rock creating some surface turbulence. Runs are long and relatively straight sections of the river and can have various woody (oaks, cypress, willows) and aquatic plant species (spatterdock pads and eelgrass). The substrate generally consists of sand or rock. Pools are deep, low velocity sections that have sand, silt and mud river substrates and are commonly found on outside bends of rivers and streams systems. Backwater habitat such as sloughs and oxbows consist of limited or no water flow, and unlike floodplains are permanently flooded. Habitat usually consists of silty, muddy bottom and mainly woody habitat (cypress, oak, willow) and some herbaceous aquatic plants (spatterdock and eelgrass). Floodplains occur outside of the banks of a river or stream during high water events (e.g., rainy seasons and storms), and can have positive impacts to fish populations as a crucial component of the productivity of some river systems. Similar to lakes and ponds, floodplains can serve as a spawning and nursey habitat and in turn help increase sportfish populations creating better fishing opportunities.
Current is the biggest difference compared to fishing lakes and ponds and can determine where fish will be found. Fish will often position themselves directly downstream of stumps or other submerged structure for protection from the strongest current, or in slower-moving pools or deeper runs where forage may also collect. Fish usually face into the current, so keep this in mind as you cast and present your lure or bait to where you think a bass or school of sunfish may be lurking. Most bass species can be caught with minnow imitations, jigs and crankbaits, with the black bass species also taking artificial worms. All bass can be taken on live shiners and shad. Sunfish species can be caught on small jigs, beetle spins and flies, with live worms and crickets being the best baits. Catfish will readily take chicken liver, beef liver and commercial “stink baits”.
Springs are naturally occurring places where water flows from the aquifer beneath the ground to the surface, featuring crystal clear water, unique rock formations, low sedimentation, stable channels, and steady temperatures. Florida is home to the largest concentration of freshwater springs on the planet, with over 700 across the state, including 32 first magnitude springs, each discharging at least 100 cubic feet of water per second. An aquifer is an underground layer of water stored in permeable limestone and the Floridan Aquifer spans the entirety of the state of Florida, including parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Springs play an incredibly important role in our ecosystem by providing fresh drinking water to Florida’s residents, groundwater to our rivers and estuaries, and habitat for Florida’s native wildlife. The steady temperatures of our springs provide essential habitat to a wide variety of endemic species such as manatees, some species of fish, and submerged aquatic vegetation. Wild rice, tape grass and giant cutgrass are among the common submerged aquatic vegetation that can be found in our springs. Fish species that inhabit Florida’s lakes and rivers can also be found in their headwater springs, and fishing techniques for popular targets including black bass and sunfish are like what river anglers would use.
Wetlands are usually shallow, well-vegetated habitats that are covered with water for most or all of the year. They can be among the most productive of freshwater habitats and as a result usually offer good fishing. The best-known wetland on Earth is Florida’s unique Everglades. Known familiarly as the “River of Grass,” the Everglades marsh is characterized by its shallow and slow-moving water across a vast abundance of emergent plants. Spanning nearly 8,000 square miles, this system contains the largest extent of freshwater marsh in the United States. Typical plants here include spikerush, maidencane or beakrush in the wetter prairies and sloughs, often surrounded by a matrix of dense sawgrass or cattail. In place of the submersed vegetation common in lakes or rivers, an abundance of periphyton – a complex assemblage of algae, cyanobacteria, micro-invertebrates and detritus – covers much of the bottom. Responsible for over half the primary production of the Everglades, this yellowish-brown material plays a crucial role at the base of the food web as a major source of energy for small fish and invertebrates.
The Everglades marsh supports a rich community of fish year-round. Small-bodied fish, like Eastern mosquitofish, sailfin molly and many others can be incredibly abundant. Larger fish such as largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, chain pickerel, Oscar and Mayan cichlid tend to reside in the marshes adjacent to deeper water. Largely dependent on rainfall, the Everglades marshes are typically inundated with more water throughout the wet season, May through November, and less in the dry season, December through April. This seasonal inundation of water plays an important role in the habitat use of sportfish throughout these marshes. When water levels are high, many fish will be spread across the vast marsh system for foraging, cover from predators or spawning substrate. When water levels are lower, the lack of space tends to push fish out of the marsh and concentrates them in the deeper pools or bordering canals. During these times, angler catch rates of largemouth bass in canals of the Everglades Water Conservation Areas can be among the highest in the state.
Florida’s man-made canals are part of an extensive, interconnecting network that were primarily constructed in the early 1900s for drainage, flood protection and water storage purposes. Most of Florida’s freshwater canals are concentrated in coastal southeast Florida. Canal structure can vary. Many are box-cut into a coral rock substrate, more than 10 feet deep, with little littoral (shoreline) zone, and have much subsurface water flowing into them. The amount of groundwater flowing into some canals is sufficient to dramatically increase water clarity. Other canals may be shallower, more bowl-shaped, have sugar-sand substrate and little water groundwater intrusion.
Despite being man-made, canals can offer excellent fishing for both native and exotic fish species. Largemouth bass and butterfly peacock bass are favorite targets and can both be caught on minnow imitations, brightly colored jigs and topwater lures, with live shiners being the best live bait. Bridge pilings, canal intersections, water control structures and culverts are all top locations to try. Flipping in thick vegetation lining the canal banks can be a particularly effective technique for largemouth bass. Panfish species including bream (sunfish), oscar and mayan cichlid are also very popular and are usually found along the canal edges in available vegetation. Tiny jigs, live worms, Missouri minnows and crickets are all top baits. Just keep moving until you locate a school, and particularly for Oscars fish deeper into the submerged vegetation if you are having no luck.
A reservoir is an enlarged impoundment created using a dam to store water. Reservoirs can be created in several ways, including controlling a stream that drains an existing body of water, interrupting a watercourse to form an embayment within it, through excavation, or building any number of retaining walls or levees. While these aquatic ecosystems are formally defined as lakes, reservoirs are greatly influenced by tributary inflows and their water quality conditions reflect geographic, climatic and watershed characteristics.
A variety of freshwater game fish species can be targeted when on a reservoir fishing trip. Largemouth bass, bluegill, black crappie and other game fish species are often found in reservoirs. There are different types of fishing techniques that can be used when reservoir fishing. Often old river and creek channels remain in reservoirs that can provide deeper water and underwater paths that fish will tend to follow as they move seasonally throughout the reservoir. These deeper waters, offshore areas in old channels and near the dam often provide areas of cooler water which fish will favor in hot Florida summers. These channels will also provide points and other structure which will concentrate fish as water flows through the system. These deeper features can be fished with a variety of soft plastic baits, jigs or crankbaits. Additionally, some reservoirs have standing wood and/or downed trees that were flooded when the reservoir was built. These areas provide good habitat for fish and good areas for anglers to target.