Catch bass, bluegill, crappie, exotic cichlids and more.
County park pier on Lake Trafford, which has seen excellent bass and crappie fishing in recent years.

Why bother with largemouth bass in the land of giant tarpon, exotic snook and big sharks? If you’re one of the droves of anglers visiting or relocating to Southwest Florida, it’s a question worth asking. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re even aware of the excellent bass fishing in the region. Sure, you’ve heard of Lake Okeechobee. But in between the big lake and the saltwater flats, there are countless small lakes, canal systems and even some substantial rivers which hold good populations of bass, not to mention other freshwater species.

You should know, for starters, that Florida’s largemouth bass grow so big that our fish have been exported to other states in the hopes that a dose of Florida bass DNA will help populations elsewhere to grow like ours. Florida might just be the best place on the planet to best a bigmouth that exceeds 10 pounds. Among anglers who routinely fish for big bass in Southwest Florida, many would say the best fishing occurs during the spawning season which runs approximately December through March, arguably the toughest months for inshore saltwater fishing in the region. When the winter wind is whipping whitecaps along the coast, and you just know that catching a redfish is going to be tough, conditions can be great for bass fishing on small ponds and in protected canals.

Byron Stout caught this largemouth on Webb Lake in Charlotte County using a lipped plug.

Bass are not the only popular freshwater fish found in Southwest Florida. There is a large winter fishery for specks (speckled perch, a.k.a. black crappie) which draws hundreds of anglers to big lakes such as Trafford and Okeechobee. Panfish, including bluegill and shellcrackers, are popular light tackle targets with peak action usually occurring during the spawning season in late spring and early summer. Freshwater catfish, unlike their saltwater cousins, are highly regarded and are great on the table. We’ve got exotic species here, too. Blue tilapia inhabit just about every bit of year-round water in the region and can be found in some astonishingly small and unlikely-looking places. Tilapia are often finicky about biting, but they can be caught and they’re good to eat. Mayan cichlids, called fireballs by some anglers, and oscars are found in the southern portion of the region and are great sport and great on the plate.

(Not) Bass Boats

We’ve all seen them. Bass boats are highly technical craft which run fast, are at home in shallow water, have tons of rod and tackle storage, and are equipped with powerful electric motors, multiple livewells, advanced electronics and cool paint jobs. Bass boats are plenty sexy, but you don’t need to buy such a specialized vessel if you want to sample the freshwater side of Southwest Florida. Almost all the flats skiffs and many of the smaller bay boats found along the coast can do just about anything a bass boat can do, so you may already have a usable craft. Most boat ramps that will handle bass boats will handle flats skiffs and bay boats and, as a bonus, trailers, hulls and motors that are regularly used in saltwater will benefit from the occasional freshwater rinse. Paddlecraft such as canoes and kayaks are another good freshwater fishing option, especially when fishing creeks, canals and small ponds. Not only are these vessels relatively inexpensive, but since they can be launched without need for a boat ramp they offer access to water that is never fished by most anglers. Kayaks can certainly be used in fresh water, though their low profile and close-to-the-water seating makes some yakkers nervous when alligators are around. Higher freeboard and the elevated seating on canoes puts more distance and more hull between anglers and any potentially aggressive reptiles. As a bonus, the addition of a clamp-on electric motor or a small gas outboard greatly expands the range and ease-of-use of canoes.

For the ultimate in low-complexity, low-cost and low-hassle freshwater fishing, you can simply walk. You’ll find that there tends to be more shoreline access for Southwest Florida’s freshwater fishermen than for our coastal saltwater anglers. You do have to be careful not to trespass on private property, but there are so many public accesses on freshwater canals, retention ponds, swales, wildlife management areas, state parks and county or city parks that it would take two lifetimes to explore them all.

Tackle

Pretty much any rod, whether it be fly, spin or conventional, that can catch a redfish or a snook can also be used to land a bass. Sure, there are times when a specialized tool such as a flippin’ stick spooled with 50-pound braid will give a bass fisherman an edge, but most of the time your standard mid-range inshore tackle will do just fine. You may already own lures that’ll work too; after all, many of our most popular saltwater lures were originally designed for bass fishing anyway. Soft plastic jerkbaits like the popular Zoom Flukes, walk-the-dog topwater plugs such as Heddon’s Zara Spook series, Johnson spoons, Rat’L Traps, L&M MirrOlures, and many other lures that you may already have in your arsenal all started life as bass lures. If you’re going to target specks or other panfish you will want to scale down the tackle. Many anglers find that targeting freshwater panfish on 4- or 6-pound tackle is as much fun as any fishing in Florida.

Locations

You might think that water is water, but fresh water in Southwest Florida takes many forms. There are big lakes. There are canal systems that include miles and miles of deeply dredged manmade waterways. There are meandering creeks and dark backwater sloughs where you just know that there’s a gator lurking behind every cypress knob. There are countless retention ponds, stock tanks and culvert outflows, some that are so small that a fisherman can fan-cast the whole thing while standing in one spot on the shoreline, and some that are big enough to warrant launching a canoe or a skiff. Following are some suggestions on places to get you started fresh water fishing in Southwest Florida.

Haul-out at a Cape Coral Bass Club tournament on the Caloosahatchee River.

Lake Trafford

At 1,500 acres, Trafford is the largest lake in Southwest Florida, and this is an exciting time for the big lake. The FWC recently completed a massive restoration project which involved removing tons of muck, planting beds of native vegetation, and stocking half a million fingerling bass. Ski Olesky, the colorful proprietor of Lake Trafford Marina on the lake’s northeast corner, proudly proclaims, “The lake is back!” He says that the winter crappie fishery has been going great, bluegill fishing is strong, and bass fishing is getting better and better. He’s seeing lots of bass in the 2- to 6-pound range and he’s witnessed a couple of eights and one 9-pound fish so far. Some of the fishing here is along the shallow shorelines, but most of the fish hold around weed beds and stands of emergent vegetation.

Caloosahatchee River

The Caloosahatchee River is usually overlooked by bass fishermen, according to Lee County Sheriff’s Department officer and Cape Coral Bass Club member Sylvester Smalls. “Most anglers drive right past the Caloosahatchee on their way to Okeechobee or Trafford,” says Smalls, who organizes club tournaments to benefit the sheriff’s Youth Athletic League. “The Caloosahatchee produces heavy stringers whenever we hold tournaments there.

“It’s primarily a winter fishery, and it seems like the colder the weather, the better the fishing in the river. Many northern anglers like fishing the river because a lot of it is fishing submerged ledges and other structures in relatively deep water using techniques similar to those they apply back home. There are miles and miles of river to fish and it’s easy to find a section that you can have to yourself.”

Webb/Babcock Wildlife Management Area

“The Webb,” as it’s known locally, is a huge, 66,000-acre chunk of public land which offers a wide variety of fishing opportunities. Webb Lake is a five-mile-long lake that’s located near the WMA entrance on Tucker’s Grade and the lake’s three paved ramps offer easy access to the long, narrow impoundment. It’s catch-and-release only for bass, and since the use of internal combustion motors is prohibited you’ll want to leave the outboard tilted up and use the electric. There are also dozens of smaller ponds at The Webb, none of which are big enough to warrant a powerboat so shoreline fishing or the use of canoes or kayaks is the way to go. The three ponds near the WMA entrance are also designated as catch-and-release for bass, but all the other ponds on the property fall under statewide regulations. A new open-gate policy that has been in effect on The Webb in recent years has resulted in easy road access to huge portions of the back country on a year-round basis, greatly expanding the fishing opportunities.

Shell Creek

Shell Creek Park on Washington Loop Road in Charlotte County is a little-known county facility at which there’s a paved ramp and a parking lot which affords access to a truly beautiful waterway. Much of the winding watercourse is flanked with moss-adorned cypress trees which provide countless photo ops, and the fishing is good, too. Go upstream from the ramp and you can travel for miles as the stream slowly narrows. Go the other direction and a few miles travel downstream will bring you to Shell Creek Reservoir, a large, shallow, lily-covered impoundment that holds a bunch of bass and panfish.

If you go to the reservoir, either take a GPS or keep looking behind you for landmarks since it’s easy to get turned around in the many braided channels of this portion of the creek. Also, you’ll want to be on the lookout for no wake zones and for submerged logs, both of which are good reasons to go slow.

Canal Systems

Patti Allen with a pasture pond bluegill.

Waterfront homes sell for big bucks, which is why the early developers of Southwest Florida created huge networks of canals. There are nearly endless miles of fishable canals spread along the coast from Naples to North Port. For example, the City of Cape Coral boasts over 400 miles of canals, of which approximately half are fresh water.

Wayne Dutton of the venerable Cape Tool & Tackle says that the Cape Coral canals represent a tremendous and largely
overlooked fishery. “In general, the canals in the northern and northwestern parts of the Cape offer the best fishing. Bass from two to eight pounds are caught here regularly, and we’ve also got lots of bluegill, shellcrackers, tilapia and Mayan cichlids. There are also golden Midas cichlids in the canals, a really beautiful exotic species.”

Asked about the best advice that he could offer to a newcomer to fishing this canal system Dutton says: “Buy a Waterproof Charts #7E titled ‘Cape Coral Canals’. It shows the canal grid, the streets and the locations of all the boat ramps and will keep them from getting lost in the maze of waterways. Topwater plugs and dark-colored worms take the most bass here.”

Odd Bits Of Water

It’s the way nature works: If there’s water somewhere, sooner or later there will be fish in it. In Southwest Florida, fish can often be found in surprising places and part of the fun can be in discovering spots where no one else has bothered to try. These spots don’t have to be large; it’s sometimes amazing what can be caught from a culvert outflow or from some other glorified puddle that’s less than a cast in diameter. One caveat: Some of the region’s smaller bits of water are seasonal and may disappear during the winter dry season. Sometimes these seasonal waters will hold fish during the summer, but generally your results will be much better if you fish year-round water.

Many county and city parks have ponds, and most of these public waters offer nearby parking and manicured shorelines that are easy to fish. Conversely, retention ponds surrounded by asphalt parking lots or alongside busy roads may not seem like such appealing places to fish, but this can mean that the fish in such places receive little pressure. Golf course ponds, and there are a bunch of these, are notoriously fishy but make sure you have permission from management.

If you think about it, you probably know someone who lives in one of the many gated communities in Southwest Florida. Almost all of these neighborhoods are designed around lakes and ponds, and many of them rarely see anglers. Cozying up to your friends who live in such a community can result in an invitation to fish ponds where your only competition occurs when someone’s grandkids arrive in town for a visit.

Close to Home

Southwest Florida’s freshwater fishing is world-class, it’s located right in our backyards (sometimes literally!), and the very best time of year to try it is during the toughest time for inshore saltwater fishing. Give it a try and you might just find yourself with a new favorite fish. FS

First published Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2015

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