The Best of Florida Sportfishing
Story & photos by Dave Houser
“One fish. Two fish. Redfish. Blue fish…This one has a little star…Say! What
a lot of fish there are.” Dr. Seuss
It could be that while penning this imaginative phrase in his best-selling 1960 children’s book – a rhyming book for young learners – Dr. Seuss had Florida in mind. After all, the Sunshine State is literally swimming with fish — and with millions of anglers who choose to chase their finny prey on Florida’s bountiful rivers, lakes and ocean waters.
A case could be made, in fact, that Florida reigns as the Fishing Capital of America. According to the latest statistics posted by the American Sportfishing Association, Florida ranked number one among all states with 2.1 million visiting fishermen. The state also topped the list for most resident anglers – 3.1 million – far outdistancing second place Texas with 2.5 million.
The reason is simple. Florida anglers are blessed with 12,000 miles of fishable steams, rivers and waterways, more than three million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs, and 1,350 miles of ocean coastline. All that water provides habitat for 40 species of freshwater fish and more than 80 saltwater species – so Seuss wasn’t just imagining all those fishes.
Statistics, however, simply don’t speak to the pure joy of escaping the grind, getting out on the water and ultimately feeling the resounding strike of a big bass, tarpon or sailfish. Which serves to remind us of that popular old saying: “A bad day of fishing is always better than a good day at work.”
Seeking out the best places to fish in my home state of Florida, I began musing over that familiar mantra, asking myself why couldn’t a good day at work also be a good day of fishing? So I’m going to work here to pinpoint some of the Sunshine State’s fishing hot spots. Problem is, there’s so doggone many of them that it’s hard to decide where to begin. But let’s start at the top to get things rolling.
Destin is a name familiar in fishing circles the world over. Located on the Emerald Coast in Florida’s northernmost Panhandle region, this town lives by its nickname as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” The waterfront here is chockablock with charter boats ready to take you into the Gulf of Mexico for an opportunity to catch game fish from a list that seems unending – blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, swordfish, tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, snapper and grouper to name the most popular.
Unless you happen to own a boat capable of offshore cruising, equipped with the gear needed for big game fishing – not to mention the knowledge necessary to find the fish – you’ll be destined (no pun intended) to book a charter. A reputable source for such arrangements is VIP Fishing Charters (888-965-7410, www.vipfishingcharters.com). This Fort Lauderdale-based marketing/brokerage firm arranges charters state-wide and handles bookings for a pair of Destin’s most outstanding sportfishing vessels, the 57-foot, 11-passenger Back Down II and S/F Relentless, a 65-foot beauty that also accommodates up to 11 anglers. Before you balk at the cost of such an undertaking – which ranges for the aforementioned craft from $800 for a half day to about $1,600 for a full day charter — there are a number of things you should consider.
Assemble a group, including family members or friends who might like to go along simply for the fun of it, and the cost per person drops accordingly – probably to no more than one would spend for a day of golf or an outing at Disney World. Consider too the ease and convenience of having everything taken care of for you – licenses, bait, tackle and equipment – plus the benefit of having a skilled and experienced captain who knows where to find those denizens of the deep. You’ll also come to appreciate the hard working crew who keep you baited up, gaff and land your catch and later filet and pack your fish on ice. Add all this up and you’ll see the value inherent in booking a charter.
Let’s head down south now to the Florida Keys, that 125-mile-long string of 800 sparkling islets extending from the mainland to Key West. Many piscatorial pundits will argue that the Keys offer Florida’s, in not the world’s, finest fishing.
The waters of the Atlantic and Gulf converge here in a warm swirl attracting huge numbers of game fish including marlin, sailfish, tuna, swordfish, kingfish, mahi-mahi, grouper and a variety of sharks for those who choose to target the toothy creatures.
Key West is homeport to a couple of excellent sportfishing vessels that also can be booked through VIP Fishing Charters. Absolute is a nimble 40-footer that welcomes up to six people and goes out fully equipped at $650 for a half day charter and $950 for the full day. Then there’s the Garlington, an ultra-luxurious 61-foot fishing yacht decked out in leather, teak and granite that commands considerably more dollars. Let’s put it this way: if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.
On another note, the Keys offer some of the best inshore fishing anywhere in the country, thanks to its myriad islets surrounded by shallow water flats dotted with stands of mangrove that provide ideal cover for bonefish, tarpon, permit and snook.
I can tell you from personal experience that this is one of the most exciting and demanding kinds of fishing you’ll ever undertake. Standing barefoot on the bow of a miniscule 16-18-foot skiff and fly-casting for tarpon that you can see in the gin-clear water no more than 40-feet away is challenging enough but when you hook one of these big – and I mean BIG monsters (state record is 243 pounds) — you hit the water and hang on for a long hard fight that will leave you arm-weary and exhausted. I guarantee you it’s a thrill of a lifetime. If you’ve a mind to try it ask VIP to put you in touch with flats fishing expert Yancy Perkins, a guide they describe simply as “awesome.”
A couple of guides I know tell me that Charlotte Harbor and the Boca Grande Pass, over on the Gulf side near Ft. Myers, is another great place for inshore angling. It’s often billed, in fact, as the “Tarpon Capital of the World.” A reputable local guide is Roger Crafton (941-270-1528, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Florida’s wave swept 450-mile-long Atlantic coastline is rife with great angling possibilities. Due to space limitations, however, I just can’t elaborate on them. So once again I suggest you go to VIP’s info-packed website to review your choices. VIP books charters out of a half dozen marinas from St. Augustine down to Miami.
I can share one Atlantic offshore experience of my own, going back to last March when I was invited to join a group from Minnesota onboard the sportfisher, Lo Que Sea. We were under the command of Captain Glen Cameron, a decorated skipper with a long list of pro tournament wins, for an offshore foray out of Ft. Pierce Marina. Roiling seas made the 16-mile trip out to the fertile fringe of the Gulf Stream somewhat uncomfortable (Bonine to the rescue!) but thanks to Cameron’s skillful read of the water, and some help from circling seabirds, we managed to tie into several schools of mahi-mahi and extricated eight 20-25 pounders of the species, sometimes referred to as dolphin fish.
Cameron owns a share of Lo Que Sea but normally captains his pride and joy, Flo Rider (772-332-1155, www.fishingftpierce.com), an immaculate 43-foot Torres, custom-built for offshore duty, which was undergoing maintenance on the day of my charter. Flo Rider commands a rate of $1,250 a day for up to 6 passengers.
For all the excitement surrounding saltwater angling, I’ve always favored freshwater fishing — for bass in particular – and have found no better place than Florida to kindle my passion. So in saving the best for last, I’ll take you to a pair of my favorite locations — both legendary landmarks in the annals of bass fishing – Lake Okeechobee and the St. Johns River.
Measuring 731 square miles, “Big O” is the nation’s largest lake contained within the boundaries of a single state and is second only to Lake Michigan overall. More to the point, it is one big bass factory. Searching for a guide, I contacted Todd Kersey at Bass Online (888-629-2277, www.bassonline.com), an organization like VIP that markets and coordinates fishing trips through a hand picked network of the state’s best bass guides. Kersey put me in touch with veteran guide and tournament pro Capt. Mark Shepard in Clewiston on the lake’s southern shore.
I met Shepard at Jolly Roger Marina at zero-dark-30 on an April morn in the company of my ladyfiend Melinda Renner, visiting from her home in New Brunswick, Canada. Melinda’s a lawyer and not at all into fishing but she seemed eager to give it a try. We dumped a couple of dozen wriggling shiners — the live bait of choice here on the Big O – into the live well on Capt. Mark’s 20-foot Ranger bass boat and motored out onto the lake – just as the sun was peeking up over the water. We’d hardly had time to marvel in the beauty of it when Mark eased the boat to a halt next to a stand of Kissimmee grass, a spot he described as his favorite “honey hole.”
Thus the stage was set for an action-packed fishing spree. In little more than two hours we’d netted and released 20 largemouth bass, most in the 3-5 pound range (on 24 shiners!). Under Shepard’s patient tutelage, Melinda soon joined the fray, landing well more than her share of fish. Shepard says he’s found that women often make better anglers than do men. “They’re more patient,” he notes, “and they listen better.” It must be said, however, that it was yours truly who netted the big one – a 7½-pound largemouth – a lunker weighing in just shy of an 8-pounder that recently won a Big O pro tournament for Shepard.
It was a great day of fishing that veritably repeated itself a few days later on the hidden backwaters of the St. Johns River near Deland. Nestled on 30 cypress forested acres next to Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and connected to the St. Johns River system by a canal, Highland Park Fish Camp (800-525-3477, www.hpfishcamp.com) stands at the heart of a backwoods fantasyland — hardly more than a stone’s throw from Orlando with its gaudy aggregation of theme parks.
A rustic reminder of “old Florida,” the camp has been owned and operated by the Rawlins family for 51 years, and it takes due pride in its reputation as the foundation of fresh water fishing in Central Florida.
Melinda and I had the good fortune to join elder statesman and lead guide, Capt. Ron Rawlins, to test our developing skills against the St. Johns’ wily bass. Crappie, bluegill and other panfish are plentiful here as they are at Okeechobee, but it is the largemouth that remains the favorite of most sportfishers. HP’s rates – half day at $275 and full day for $375 – are right in line with those of Mark Shepard at Okeechobee and most other Florida freshwater guides.
Weaving our way along a network of backwater byways, gliding through a misty mélange of primeval forest, marsh and swamp, we were so hyped by the scenery and countless sightings of birds – heron, egret, spoonbill, osprey – and ‘gators by the dozen, that fishing almost seemed a sideshow to this parade of nature.
We soon focused on our quarry, however, anchoring about 10 yards off a mat of lily pads fringing the river’s bank, where Ron gave us the lowdown on casting our baitfish (wild shiners again) right up next to the pads. He added just a bit of weight to the leader so as to prompt the shiner to swim in under the pads – and into the waiting grasp of hungry bass.
It worked for me as I netted several nice 2-5 pound fish in quick succession. Melinda soon latched onto the technique too, earning top fish of the day honors with a fat 6-pounder. It wasn’t long before we’d filled a rather large cooler — with the notion of hanging onto these fish as we’d soon be heading home – where a nice mess of fillets would serve as a succulent reminder of our memorable morning on the St. Johns. A lasting reminder as well that Florida rules the nation as First in Fishing.
During his 33-year freelance career, Dave Houser has established himself as one of America’s most widely published travel journalists. More than a thousand of his articles and tens of thousands of his photos have appeared in leading magazines, newspapers and online publications worldwide. He has received nearly 40 awards for his work, including three Lowell Thomas Awards He currently devotes most of his attention to offbeat/adventure, RV and auto travel, cruising, fishing, travel health, environmental issues and senior lifestyles. He’s journeyed to 167 countries and all 50 states — but says there’s plenty left on his bucket list of places ripe for discovery.