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Catch Your Fill of Panfish on the Panhandle

Tasty bluegills and other bream are familiar statewide, but northern Florida's Gulf Coast rivers have all the flavors.

Catch Your Fill of Panfish on the Panhandle

The best fishing for bigger bream in the Panhandle will be found in the larger rivers and backwaters of the main flows.

No matter an angler’s age or experience level, we can all agree that bream are just plain fun to catch. For their size, there are few freshwater fish that can pull as hard as bream. They are easy to rig for, easy to tempt to bite, and are some of the best dinner-fare that swims. These fish can be found in most parts of peninsular Florida, but the Panhandle may be the most exciting place to fish for them. Numerous varieties of bream, some of them in gorgeous color patterns, inhabit the diverse natural waters between the Apalachicola River and the Florida/Alabama state line. In particular, the unique river systems of Panhandle Florida are some of the best bream fishing waters to be found anywhere.

Where to Look

While nearly every year-round pond or creek can and will hold bream, the best fishing for bigger bream in the Panhandle will be found in the larger rivers and backwaters of the main flows. There are several first-rate rivers an angler ought to consider in this area. Biologist Chris Paxton, administrator for the northwest region Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, provides us with some good advice. “The Apalachicola River, the Yellow River, and the Choctawhatchee River—especially Holmes Creek—a tributary to the Choctawhatchee, are all top spots for Panhandle bream fishing,” said Paxton.

fs-panfishmap
Panfish hotspots on the Florida Panhandle.

From west to east along the Panhandle, here are the classic bream fishing rivers.

  • The Escambia River, shared between Alabama and Florida, is the fourth largest river in Florida, and it has a rich variety of river species. One of the better-known access points on the Escambia River is Quintette Landing, on the east side of the river south of CR 184. There is a boat ramp in good condition here. Molino Landing, on the west side of the river, has a boat ramp. There is also a boat ramp at McDavid Park, and Mystic Springs Landing, on the west side of the river off State Road 29.
  • Blackwater River flows from the Alabama border to Pensacola Bay. Lots of sandy bottom and sandbars. The stretch from Kennedy Bridge near Munson, Florida to Deaton Bridge is a designated canoe trail. Past Deaton Bridge, the river is not navigable due to many logjams. This flow is very subject to flood and droughts, with severe changes in water level. Check to make sure it is accessible. Both bridge access points provide good boat launching. This river can have heavy loads of non-fishing paddlers in summer.
  • Yellow River flows from the Alabama border to join Blackwater Bay near Pensacola. Yellow River has a consistently sandy bottom, and a major tributary, the Shoal River, which joins near Crestview, Florida. Lots of access points in the lower river. Look at Brown’s Landing and Lindsey’s Landing south of Milton.
  • Choctawhatchee River is the third largest river system in Florida. The Choctawhatchee is a river bream anglers need to explore. Low water levels are best. Look at the many confluences where smaller streams enter the main river. Holmes Creek, a large spring-fed tributary of the Choctawhatchee, is a reliable producer of big bream of all species and is a gorgeous place to fish. Anglers should look for shellcrackers around the many lily pad beds. Good access points include Cypress Springs Adventures at Snaggy Bend (850.535.2004), Holmes Creek Canoe Livery in Vernon (850.210.7001) and Old Cypress Canoe (850.388.2072).
  • Apalachicola River is Florida’s largest river in terms of flow, and it offers miles and miles of great bream fishing habitat. Anglers can fish many backwaters and deep drop offs in the main river for all species of Florida bream. There is good access to the lower river at the city dock under the U.S. Route 98 bridge, and there are good access points at Wewahitchka which also lends access to Dead Lake—a river backwater which is famous for big bream.

No matter which Panhandle river system an angler chooses to fish for bream, one won’t go wrong by fishing stumps, lily pads, weed beds, cypress knees, blown-down tree tops and old logs which have fallen in the water. Bream love cover, and they will almost always be found near stuff in the water.

What Kinds of Panfish Can We Catch?

There are a number of bream species found in Florida river systems, and it is not at all uncommon to catch mixed bags of the various species. One trait all bream share: They are great eating when fried up right.

Bluegill | Lepomis macrochirus
bluegill
Bluegill

This is Panhandle Florida’s classic bream and is found in all kinds of water, but the big rivers are prime places to locate good concentrations. Look for a long dorsal fin and slightly forked tail and blotch at the dorsal fin’s back bottom edge. Bluegills eat just about anything, but they prefer insects and their larvae. In springtime, bluegill congregate over shallow sandy bottom to create massive spawning beds, which produce very fast fishing. The state-record bluegill weighed 2.95 pounds and was caught in Crystal Lake, Washington County.

Shellcracker | Lepomis microlophus
shell cracker
Shellcracker

Also known as redear sunfish, this species holds the distinction of being the largest member within Florida’s bream family, exhibiting substantial size particularly in certain river systems within the Panhandle region. A bright red edge of the gill cover is distinctive in this fish. Shellcrackers prefer harder bottoms, and they are most commonly found in deeper water than most other bream species. Shellcrackers, as their colloquial name suggests, love to eat snails, clams and other invertebrates. Small shrimp can be very effective with shellcrackers. Redears are often caught, especially the larger ones, on bass anglers’ soft-plastic lures fished around deep structure. This is a whopper of a bream. The state-record redear, from Merritt’s Mill Pond in Jackson County, went 4.86 pounds.

Red Belly | Lepomis auratus
fs-redbreast-sunfish
Red Belly

This very attractive bream, also called redbreast, is an almost exclusive river resident. These bream prefer flowing water and they congregate in backwaters with sandy bottoms. Red belly bream in the Florida Panhandle exhibit a broader dietary range compared to other bream species. Insects, larvae, snails, shrimp, crawfish and even small fish will be consumed by this bream. State record is 2.08 pounds, caught on the Suwannee River.

Spotted Sunfish | Lepomis punctatus
Spotted Sunfish
Spotted Sunfish

Also known as stumpknocker, this smaller bream has no strong identifying characteristics except for the even rows of small spots along the sides. This bream often appears fatter than others in the family. The usual size of this bream in Panhandle rivers will be about a quarter to half pound. Even though it is smaller than the other bream found here, stumpknockers put up a good fight, and they are very aggressive strikers of bait or lures. This is a great fish to tempt on fly rod with popping bugs. The Suwannee River also produced this species’ state record, a fish weighing .83 pound.

Warmouth | Lepomis gulosus
Warmouth
Warmouth

Commonly known as goggle eye, warmouth have stout, deep bodies and a red eye and larger mouth that distinguishes this bream from its relatives. Warmouth like swamps and backwaters off the main river flows. Warmouth orient to structure even more than the other bream species, and they are often found around stumps, cypress knees, and other underwater structure. The state record is 2.44 pounds, a catch from the Yellow River in Okaloosa County.

How About Hybrids?

While hybridization is not uncommon among panfish species, Chris Paxton indicates, “We see little of this in Florida wild populations, but we will occasionally find this in biological surveys submitted by anglers for identification of naturally occurring hybrids. The species of the Genus Lepomis commonly called bream, that most readily hybridize with other species of Lepomis is the green sunfish, which is often used in commercial production for private pond stockings. One common hybrid such as this is the ‘Georgia Giant.’ Green sunfish are a prohibited species in Florida.” Paxton adds, “I would not agree that they are common, but one type of hybrid we do see is bluegill-redear sunfish cross.”

Red Belly sunfish
Red belly is one of the most gorgeous bream found in the Panhandle rivers. Angler at left has a spread of cane poles with worms.

Best Panfish Rigging

First and foremost, live bait will always be more productive for Panhandle bream. Whether it’s live crickets, live redworms, catalpa worms—bream of all kinds cannot resist a juicy live bait put before them. And here’s a hint: If an angler can obtain some live grass shrimp—those tiny 2-inch long shrimp that live in the grass beds and other inshore cover—these are deadly for all kinds of bream. Big redears especially love them.

Recommended


Whether fished on ultralight spinning gear, or the traditional cane pole or modern fiberglass versions, live bait presented near shoreline cover can guarantee a mess of Panhandle panfish. Live bait leaders should be kept very simple. A tiny splitshot—just enough to take the bait down—a mini bobber if desired and a long-shank hook are all that’s needed. The depth of the bait will change to match the depth the fish are holding at, but a 3-foot distance from surface to bait is a good place to start.

bluegill
Rubber-leg popping bug fished with light monofilament leader gets the spring bluegills going. Rod shown is a 12-foot telescoping tenkara pole, which collapses to 24 inches for travel.

Many times, Panhandle bream will be so eager to eat that a wide range of mini lures designed for panfish will be just about as productive as live bait. An ultralight spinning rig loaded with 6- or even 4-pound line will allow these mini lures to do their thing. Small crankbaits, spinners, and even micro soft-plastic lures will tempt river system bream and at times, the bigger bream will hit bass lures.

For maximum Panhandle bream fun, there’s no beating a 4- or 5-weight fly rod rigged with a small popping bug. Big Panhandle bream can’t resist a popping bug which lands gently on the water above them. At times, sinking flies work better than poppers, and a dark, buggy-looking fly will often tempt the largest bream in an area.

Bream species in the Panhandle river systems are tough little characters and tend to maintain or increase their populations through natural spawning. But sometimes things happen which can severely harm their populations.

Chris Paxton tells us, “Changing water use patterns within our watersheds from development, increased turbidity, and poor water quality are just a few of the man-made threats to fish populations. Naturally occurring events such as hurricanes and floods can also negatively impact fish populations of all kinds, but over time and through enhancement stocking by the FWC Freshwater Fisheries Management fish hatcheries, those populations can rebound.”





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