April Brings Great Fishing Before the May Flowers

From FWC Fish Busters Bulletin

By Bob Wattendorf

April showers bring May flowers, but in Florida there is already an abundance of blooms and a great bonanza of freshwater fishing opportunities that began earlier this spring. All across the state, anglers have reported great catches of a wide variety of freshwater fish. Innumberable anglers enjoy targeting sunfishes that move into the shallows to spawn this time of year.

Typically, black crappie (specks), redbreast sunfish and largemouth bass (the largest sunfish) begin spawning when water temperatures get over about 62 F. Crappie will stop spawning before bass, which continue to work the beds until it warms up to about 75 degrees. They are followed by redear sunfish (70-80 F) and bluegill (75-85 F). There is quite a bit of research and angler lore that say the fish key their peak activity to a few days before and after the full and new moons during spring.

Louie Echols with a huge bluegill that not only qualified for a Big Catch certificate but helped him to become Florida’s youngest elite angler (documenting Big Catch submissions from ten different species). Photo by Dan Echols

April is a favorite time of year for freshwater anglers, not only because fish congregating in the shallows provides great catch rates with lots of quality-size fish, but also because temperatures tend to be comfortable for an outdoor expedition. Another reason is that the first Saturday in April each year (April 6, this year) is a license-free freshwater fishing day across the state. People are exempt from having a license that day, so it is a great opportunity to reach out to people who don’t have a freshwater fishing license and show them how much fun a day on the water can be. Or, perhaps you have children who have been bugging you to go, and you haven’t wanted to buy a license to accompany them. Now is your chance.

Tom Champeau, director of the FWC’s Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, points out that dedicated saltwater anglers may want to take this opportunity to see what they are missing a little closer to home. Freshwater angling provides a chance to expand fishing skills without having to travel far, as everybody lives near freshwater sites.

Florida has 7,700 named lakes and 12,000 miles of fishable rivers, streams and canals, so nearly everyone is within 30 to 45 minutes of a fishing hole. If you want some help finding a location or seek fishing tips and seasonal fishing forecasts, check out MyFWC.com/Fishing (under “Freshwater Fishing,” choose “Sites & Forecasts”). Quarterly forecasts by fisheries biologists are supplemented with links to local bait-and-tackle shops, marinas or guides, for even more timely updates.

Bob Williams shows off the first Hall of Fame Bass certified by the TrophyCatch Program. The 13 lb, 14 oz bass was caught, weighed on certified scales and released back in Rodman Reservoir after taking a fin clip for genetic sampling. Photo by Sean Rush/Trophy Bass Expeditions

Florida’s Big Catch Angler Recognition Program provides an opportunity for anglers to commemorate their memorable freshwater catches with a certificate and having their photo posted online. Thirty-three different species are included in the program, and all it takes to participate is a photo of a fish that exceeds either a specified length or weight. It’s a great incentive for youth, who can qualify by catching fish that are roughly 25 percent smaller than the qualifying measures for adult anglers. Visit MyFWC.com/BigCatch for more details and to enroll.

However, the ultimate challenge is the race for the biggest trophy bass of the year. Florida’s fame as a bass fishing destination lies in an abundance of lakes and rivers that consistently produce trophy-size bass. To document locations and frequency of bass catches over eight pounds, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched TrophyCatch (TrophyCatchFlorida.com) in October with the support of more than 20 industry partners. The goal is to enhance and sustain trophy bass fisheries and to promote Florida as the Bass Fishing Capital of the World, based on documented catches.

To participate, catches must be verified by FWC for the angler to earn awards. For Lunker Club (8 to 9.9-pounds) and Trophy Club (10 to12.9-pounds), verification requires photos of the entire bass clearly showing its length and weight, and then the bass must be released. Photos are submitted via the website. For Hall of Fame bass, which earn for the angler a free replica valued at $500 and an additional $500 in other prizes, the fish must be caught before the end of April and weighed on certified scales by an FWC representative. If you catch one, keep it alive and call 855-FL-Trophy. From May through September, bass over 13 pounds can still be photo-documented as Trophy Club bass, but won’t be entered into the Hall of Fame, to prevent undue stress when water temperatures are too warm.

Tony Stewart, Tom Champeau and Johnny Morris all delight in Champeau’s catch and release of this 11 lb, 8 oz Florida largemouth bass caught in the vicinity of the Three Forks Marsh Conservation Area, off the St. Johns River. Photo by Richard Gibson/for Bass Pro Shops

The biggest bass of this season (ending Sept. 30) verified by TropyCatch will earn a $3,000 championship ring provided by the American Outdoor Fund. The biggest bass caught in Osceola County and verified by TrophyCatch will take home $10,000, courtesy of Explore Kissimmee. If a registered guide helped (see website for details), the guide earns a $2,500 bonus. So register now, check out the rules, grab a rod-reel, camera, scale and tape measure, and go catch yourself a lunker, document it and then release it. By the way, just registering gets you into a drawing for a Phoenix bass boat powered by Mercury.

The biggest fish of the year currently is a 13-pound, 14-ounce monster caught by Bob Williams. It became the first Hall of Fame fish entered into the program. He was fishing wild shiners on Rodman Reservoir, with guide Sean Rush (Trophy Bass Expeditions). Check out YouTube.com/TrophyCatchFlorida to see a video of the current leaderboard, including Williams’ catch.

Another truly awesome fishing story from this spring was Champeau’s catch and release of a Trophy Club-level bass weighing 11 pounds, 8 ounces. At the time, Champeau was giving a tour to Bass Pro Shop founder John L. Morris and NASCAR Champion Tony Stewart. Champeau explained how the area near Three Forks Management Area is being reclaimed through a partnership with the St. Johns River Water Management District and the FWC. Marshes that were drained for agriculture are being reclaimed to protect water quality in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Johns River. The famous Stick Marsh, which opened for fishing in the 1980s, was the first of these. Within the next five years, an additional 47,000 acres will be thriving with trophy bass, and the FWC is taking measures to ensure these fisheries continue to produce decades into the future.

“We estimate the economic impact, once the project is completed, will be around $20 million to local businesses,” Champeau said.

While on their tour in the vicinity of the Three Forks Marsh Conservation Area, Morris, Stewart and Champeau, led by fishing guide Capt. Mike Tipton, caught 36 bass in a few hours.

“Catching and releasing a trophy bass while fishing with the founder of our major sponsor was incredible,” said Champeau. “The only way I could have scripted it better would be for either Johnny or Tony to catch her,” he added Morris was ecstatic himself remarking, “What a way to promote this great conservation program!”

Champeau’s catch is posted on on the TrophyCatch website; however, as an FWC employee, he is not eligible for rewards.

“Catching the bass of a lifetime, with Johnny Morris and a racing legend like Tony Stewart, was the best reward I could ask for,” said Champeau.

Now it’s your turn! Enjoy the great freshwater fishing Florida has for you this spring. Make memories and memorialize them through Florida’s angler recognition programs at TrophyCatchFlorida.com, and if you release a lunker bass, you’ll be able to say “My Trophy Swims in Florida!”