Spring is the best time of year to catch bass, when fish move into shallow water to spawn. Spawning may occur as early as January in extreme south Florida and as late as May in the panhandle, but March and April are peak months. Most large bass are taken at this time; after spawning, many large females move to offshore areas.
A variety of panfish, or bream as they are popularly known, is available throughout Florida. Bluegill, the most common panfish, thrives in lakes and ponds, but good populations are found in rivers, particularly below dams. Bluegill eat mostly insects and their larvae, but worms are the best bait, either fished on the bottom or suspended below a float. Bluegill spawn throughout the summer, congregating in large 'beds,' Anglers may find 30 - 40 shallow nest holes scooped out in shallow areas. Crickets, grubs, sand maggots or grass shrimp will all catch bedding bluegill. Use a small hook, #6 or #8, with a split shot sinker about six inches up the line, and concentrate on water less than six feet deep. For artificial baits, a 1/8-oz. 'beetle spin' with a white or chartreuse body on ultralight tackle is an excellent choice.
The redear sunfish, or shellcracker, is another popular panfish. Although they prefer snails and clams, redear sunfish are caught most often on earthworms around the full moons of March and April when their spawning activity peaks. Redear prefer hard bottom, congregating in deeper water than bluegill. Shellcracker grow larger than bluegill, with fish over 1 pounds common.
STRIPED BASS, WHITE BASS AND SUNSHINE BASS
Striped bass are found primarily in the Apalachicola and the St. Johns rivers and their tributaries, and to a lesser extent in Lake Talquin and the Ochlockonee, Blackwater, Nassau and St. Marys rivers. Striped bass need long stretches of flowing water to reproduce successfully, and these conditions are rarely found in Florida. Stripers do not tolerate water temperatures over 75oF for long; during Florida summers, striped bass become less active and must find cool water springs or canopied streams to survive. Because of this, striped bass populations are maintained only through annual stockings from Commission and federal hatcheries.
The best striper fishing occurs from fall through spring, when fish are actively feeding. Live shad are very effective, particularly below Jim Woodruff Dam on the Apalachicola River. Stripers may weigh up to 60 pounds; use heavy tackle with 3- to 4-oz. weights in high flow areas. In the St. Johns River, the Croaker Hole and the jetties at the south end of Lake George are good fall and spring striper areas, and the first few miles of the Wekiva River have several locations where stripers congregate. Live menhaden, golden shiners, croakers or eels are good choices as bait. Lures, like rattletraps, that resemble baitfish also produce impressive strikes, including heavy jigs, as well as sinking and floating lures in white, chrome or chartreuse.
Catfish may be one of the staples for anglers who enjoy eating their catch. Channel catfish are abundant throughout Florida, spawning in holes and crevices in flowing water. Channel catfish may exceed 40 pounds, although the typical size is less than five pounds. White catfish, yellow bullheads and brown bullheads usually range from one to two pounds, and readily spawn in lakes and ponds where they also provide good fishing. Most catfish prefer many of the same food items as bream, although they are opportunistic and will rarely pass up any meal. The 'whiskers' are loaded with sensory cells that enable catfish to locate their food by smell. Take advantage of this by using baits with strong odors: chicken liver or gizzards, shrimp, cut mullet and commercial stinkbaits. Other baits work well too, especially earthworms, and occasionally freshwater clams. Many catfish become active just before dusk and at night, and fishing success is best during these times. Fish on the bottom with a sturdy #2 to #4 hook and a heavy split shot sinker. Catfish spines may cause a painful injury, and anglers should take care when handling these fish. The Commissions Richloam Hatchery produces 200,000 - 300,000 channel catfish annually for stocking in urban lakes.