With over 200 species inhabiting its bait-laden waterways, Tampa Bay fishing is rightly revered as the crown jewel among Florida anglers.
But why is that exactly? What is it about the greater Tampa Bay area that makes it one of the nation’s most prolific fish traps? Well, as it turns out, being the largest open-water estuary in all of the Sunshine State definitely comes with its perks.
Extending over 400 square miles and fed by the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the entire bay and its tributaries act as a reliably diverse game fish nursery. This alone is already a feat in and of itself. As any seasoned angler will attest, most top-tier fisheries struggle with maintaining the variety of its celebrated fish stock.
Tampa Bay’s massive ecosystem, on the other hand, plays host to pretty much all of the state’s favorite bruisers. When locals say there’s something in these waters for everyone, you better be sure they mean it.
Be it Tampa, St Pete, Clearwater, Bradenton or Sarasota, there’s no shortage of hotspots that fish well throughout the calendar year. Here, we’ll cover some of the area’s most popular species and dominant fishing techniques. We also might just give you a reason or two to put Tampa Bay fishing at the top of this year’s bucket list.
Species and Seasonality
If it swims, it’s in these waters. The Bay provides such a wide variety of aquatic life, it’s not uncommon to bag more than a dozen species on any given outing. The mighty Snook prowls the mangrove shorelines. Schools of tailing Redfish rest on the glassy grass flats. And the notorious Florida Tarpon roam the Bay’s endless passes. Whatever you’re after, it’s never more than a cast away.
However, these grounds are home to much more than just the traditional heavy-hitters. The local species also include Trout, Jack Crevalle, Grouper, Snapper, Cobia, Lady Fish, Mackerel, Flounder, and a variety of sharks. All of these and many more call Tampa Bay their home throughout different parts of the year.
This is also how the area manages to cater to anglers of virtually all ages and skill levels. Anything from a 2lb Pompano to a 200lb+ trophy Tarpon can be caught on the local waterways. It all depends on the type of experience you’re after.
Move over, Boca Grande. Over the years, Tampa Bay has repeatedly proven its reputation as one of the richest Silver King habitats along Florida’s West Coast.
The traditional Tarpon season spans from April all the way to August. However, the Bay is usually considered a strong late summer Tarpon fishery as well, with multiple hook-ups recorded well into October.
On a particularly good year, the season can last up to 7-8 months. As any angler half worth his bait knows, that’s hardly standard for any Tarpon fishery. Does someone you care about suffer from a seemingly unbreakable ‘Tarpon curse’? Bring him to Tampa Bay. He should be completely cured within a day or two.
Throughout peak migration (May-July), most Tarpon range between 80 and 140 pounds. Still, you’ll probably hear of folks joining the coveted ‘200 club’ every now and again. If you’re specifically booking a Tarpon charter, expect an average of 2-7 hookups per trip. Days with more than 10 hookups are certainly not unheard of, though. In the end, it all depends on your own expertise and a lil’ bit of luck.
If you ever battled a Tarpon before, you know this is one durable trophy fish. Most fights last from 20 to 40 minutes, although you should try and end the struggle as soon as possible. Other than ensuring the fish’s survival, this also helps in avoiding the sharks. The toothy critters are hardly scarce around here.
All Tarpon fishing is Catch and Release, unless you’re in pursuit of an IGFA record (which does require a special tag). If you are – good luck!
Redfish (Red Drum)
Nobody does Redfishing quite like Florida.
Undoubtedly a skinny-water favorite, the resident Redfish is happy to chase down a plug any day of the year. With unparalleled stamina and a reel-smoking tenacity, Redfish is certainly the king of Tampa Bay flats.
Throughout most of the year, the species are caught in very shallow grass flats, up to 3ft. deep. Even though most fisheries go in deep hibernation during the winter months, the tailing Reds of Tampa Bay remain very much active. That said, they usually migrate to deeper waters at this time, normally between 4 and 8 feet.
Most Reds caught in the Tampa Bay area calibrate at 15-35 inches (the legal size limit is 18-27 inches.). Due to the species’ prevalence, the season stays open all year round!
There are plenty of captains willing to clean and fillet the fish for you following the trip. Unlike Tarpon, Reds make for a delicious table fare. In fact, many of the local restaurants will be more than happy to cook your catch. How’s that for a fresh lunch?
Red Drum typically congregate in many of the same places as Trout and Snook. If you’re looking for monster Reds though, they usually rally a few miles off the beaches or near the various ship channels. Happy hunting!
Another one of Florida’s staple game fish, this backcountry brawler thrives in virtually all parts of the Bay. The elusive Snook is caught anywhere from beaches to docks, mangroves, jetties and seawalls. Safe to say, it is uniquely flexible in finding itself a nourishing habitat.
To get the most out of Snook fishing in Tampa Bay, you’ll want to target the beaches, residential docks and mangrove shorelines. Stocking the livewell with pilchards or scaled sardines (their favorite) is always a good choice. If you prefer artificials, plugs and jigs typically do the job just as well.
Although readily available year round, spring thru fall gives anglers the best chance to limit out on Snook. Their metabolism tends to slow down significantly during the cooler months. While they’ll still blast your plug every now and again, winter is typically better spent pursuing other species (see above!)
For Snook enthusiasts that would rather avoid the summer heat, night fishing is a highly-productive alternative. Snook are nocturnal and generally prefer to feed at night anyway. You’ll typically find them scouting for dinner underneath the dock lights.
Other inshore species
It’s no secret that the ‘Big 3’ garner the most attention from the visiting angler eager to explore Tampa Bay’s inshore fisheries. Still, there’s plenty of other line-melting game fish scavenging the Bay to break the monotony.
First up on the list, Spotted Seatrout is quite likely the most abundant sport fish in all of Tampa Bay. Not unlike Redfish, Trout is great to eat and can be found rummaging the shallow flats all throughout the year. They also like drifting to deeper waters (up to 15ft) during the cooler months.
Raising Seatrout is made easy with greenback or shrimp, although they’ll typically jump on any well-presented bait. According to the FWC, keepers must be more than 15 and less than 20 inches in total length. There is a daily bag limit of 6 per harvester.
Sheepshead, another winter bruiser, are best targeted January through March. They can be found underneath the bridges, docks or even on the nearshore reefs. Ranging anywhere from 1-5 pounds, what they lack in size they more than make up for in being positively delicious.
Perhaps one of the most underrated Bay fish, Black Drum are incredibly fun to catch. Also, as they can be anything from a few pounds to 90lb+ monsters, you never know what you may find on the other end of the line. Typically found in larger concentrations throughout the winter months, they’re a sucker for shrimp and gather around docks and in shallow waters.
Everyone’s favorite bycatch, fishing for Flounder is a year-long festival. This is one species where double digit hook-ups are often considered the norm on a good day. Often joining them on a dinner plate, Pompano is considered a worthy opponent by most veteran fisherfolk. They’re usually scouted along the beaches or near the bridge pilings, depending on the season.
Finally, it wouldn’t be Tampa Bay fishing without some spectacular shark action. Bull Shark, Hammerhead, Blacktip, Tiger Shark and several other species dominate the local waterways.
Why should the party stop when you step outside the Bay?
Offshore fishing charters typically depart from St Petersburg and Clearwater. These trips offer a unique opportunity to leave the coastline behind and explore the notorious Gulf of Mexico. Game fish aplenty in the waters of the Gulf, with its countless wrecks, reefs, ledges, hard bottoms and copious weed lines.
Each year, the bait-rich waterways of the Gulf attract a wide roster of pelagics and other predatory fish. Surface feeders such as Kingfish, Barracuda, Permit and Dorado all prosper throughout the summer months. Although live bait is preferred, these drag-stripping machines will rarely resist a fine-looking ‘topwater’ either.
Bottom fishermen are likely to have their hands full as well. These waters are home to the likes of Red Snapper, Gag Grouper, Cobia, Amberjack, Flounder, Goliath Grouper and plenty of other rock dwellers.
It’s worth noting that the open season for some of the Gulf species tends to be very limited. It’s always a good idea to check with your captain or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission before making the charter arrangements.
Tampa Bay fishing methods and techniques
Although primarily a light tackle fishery, there are plenty of novelty fishing styles to explore in the Tampa Bay area. Starting with:
For whatever reason, Tampa Bay is often unjustly overlooked as a premier fly fishing destination. It can certainly be hard to compete with the traditional heavyweights such as Homosassa and the Florida Keys. However, the relatively-untapped potential of the Bay should make it incredibly appealing to real fly enthusiasts everywhere.
Almost all of the area’s most popular species can be targeted on fly. This includes Tarpon, Redfish, Snook, Sea Trout, Cobia and more. The water clears up significantly Fall thru Spring, allowing for an unparalleled sight fishing experience. While mainly an inshore activity, there’s no shortage of nearshore fly fishing opportunities either. Among others, Mackerel and Albacore are well known to take an inviting fly.
Naturally, Tarpon tops the list for most fly fisherfolk. Most captains recommend using 10-12 weight fly rods, just in case you come across a trophy-sized ‘Poon. If you prefer to use lighter rods, Snook and Seatrout are definitely the go-to species.
As summer heats up, night fishing quickly becomes one of Floridians’ favorite pastimes.
Not only is fishing during the night convenient, it also makes sense. Most species are nocturnal and prefer to feed when the sun comes down. This rings especially true during the hottest months of the year.
Night fishing is great for targeting Tarpon around bridges or chasing after Snook underneath the dock lights. Either way, a demand for this fishing niche has been welcomed by light tackle and fly fishermen alike.
No archery experience required! You’ll be ‘fishing’ for Mullet, Sheepshead, Mangrove Snapper, Flounder and of course, rays.
To truly experience bowfishing in all its glory, many Captains recommend opting for a nightly excursion. While daytime trips average around 50 shots per ‘angler’, that number can as much as double once it goes dark.
Sightseeing and nature exploration
At the end of the day, fishing in Tampa Bay is always more than just the sum of its parts. The bay supports a vibrant ecosystem abundant with wildlife, endemic species and all sorts of unique natural wonders.
A fishing trip along these back bays, white sandy beaches and mangrove shorelines always doubles as a premier nature tour. Don’t be surprised if your charter gets briefly interrupted by curious dolphins, hungry manatees, or flocks of exotic birds. Top that off with some of the most magnificent sunrises and sunsets anywhere on the West Coast, and you’ve got yourself a one-of-a-kind fishing experience, bar none.
Want to know more about the thrills of Tampa Bay fishing? Let us know in the comments below!