Clearwater, FL is a prime example of what makes Florida’s west coast great: white sandy beaches, warm seas, and an endless mix of productive fisheries. While fishing in Clearwater, you can explore shallow bayous or visit remote reefs. Choose between the Gulf Coast and Tampa Bay. Wherever you go, you’ll find plenty of fish waiting to take your bait.
This article breaks down the many ways to fish around Clearwater so you can pick the one for you. We’ll cover the top species, spots, and styles of fishing, as well as tournaments, regulations, and more. By the time you’re done, you’ll know what to target and how and where to do so – without breaking any rules.
Clearwater’s Top Fish Species
You can catch dozens of different fish out of Clearwater. However, the vast majority of anglers go after just a handful of them. Here’s a quick introduction to the best of the best, and what makes them special.
Snook are Central Florida’s signature game fish. Aggressive, strong, and unpredictable. They’re a prized catch for every Clearwater fly fishing enthusiast and can be just as fun on spinning gear. The best time to target Snook is the middle of summer. They usually hang out in bayous and mangroves but may also hunt along beachfronts or around shallow pilings.
Sadly, Florida’s Snook have had a tough few years. Severe cold snaps and major red tides wreaked havoc on the Gulf’s inshore fisheries. Fish numbers are still recovering, so Snook fishing in Clearwater is currently catch-and-release only. Don’t worry, it’s still an awesome place to target them.
If any inshore fish can outdo Snook for drama, it’s Tarpon. These shiny giants are the undisputed kings of the shallows – hence their name, “The Silver King.” Hooking one is tough. Reeling it in is a whole new level. They’re known for their aerial acrobatics and crazed head shakes. Even experienced anglers will struggle to get one to the boat.
The best time to target Tarpon in Clearwater is summer. This is when big fish fill the bays and passes. The easiest way to hook them is with live baits (crab and shrimp are popular options). However, the ultimate goal for many people is to land a Tarpon on the fly. Anglers visit Clearwater for this exact reason each year.
Goliath Grouper are one of the largest fish in the Gulf. They grow to 800 pounds and over 8 feet long. Even “small” catches can be in the triple digits. That isn’t just big, it’s laughably oversized. Why? Because these grumpy giants tend to hang out inshore – you can even catch them from piers, although we wouldn’t recommend it.
Hooking a Goliath Grouper is more a matter of luck than skill. They take pretty much any natural bait and don’t really mind how you present it. Your best bet is to drop live baits that match the local forage. Bring the heaviest rod and the thickest line you can find and get ready for a tough fight. Use circle hooks for an easy release, as Goliaths are strictly protected.
Finally, a fish you can eat! For many people, Red Snapper is the tastiest meal in the sea. It produces large fillets of flaky white meat that are delicious any way you cook them. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people want to catch these guys. Because of this, Red Snapper season is very short – only a few weeks in June and July.
If that’s when you’re in town, lucky you! It takes a while to get to them (20 miles or more) but it’s worth it for a slice of this premium table fare. Snapper aren’t just good for eating, mind you. These are large predators that know how to throw their weight around. They’re also good at breaking your line on the rocky reefs they call home.
There’s a lot to love about Florida’s “Kingfish.” They grow big, fight hard, and look cool. What’s more, they come reasonably close to shore. King Mackerel are the perfect catch if you want a taste of deep sea fishing without the long travel times. This also makes them a popular target in Clearwater’s tournaments – but more on that later.
King Mackerel migrate up and down the Gulf Coast each year, passing Clearwater in the spring and fall. The best way to fish for them is by trolling. A common tactic is to troll back from the reef once you’ve caught your fill of bottom fish. Mackerel have an oily meat that can be tasty barbecued or smoked. This is how they got their nickname, “Smoker Kings.”
The Gulf of Mexico is home to a huge mix of Sharks. From kid-friendly species like Bonnetheads to heavy tackle monsters like Hammerheads, you’ve got a Shark for every type of angler in these warm waters. The best time for Shark fishing around Clearwater is summer. How you catch them depends on the species.
If you’re going after small Sharks, you can get great results fishing from jetties. A lot of charter captains also run specialist Shark trips that are a huge hit with kids. After something bigger? Surf fishing for Bull Sharks is a challenge for any angler. It’s even more exciting at night, when the fish are most active.
Types of Fishing in Clearwater
Your main choice isn’t what to catch while you’re in Clearwater, it’s how to reach it. In general, the three main ways of wetting a line here are on a charter boat, on a kayak, or from shore. Here’s a brief explanation of what to expect from each option.
Charters are the only way to reach offshore species like Kingfish, Red Snapper, or Tuna. They’re also great for targeting inshore game like Tarpon and Snook. You can fish more remote areas and stay on top of your target once you find it. And that’s just the boat itself. Charters also come with quality tackle, not to mention a local guide who knows all the best spots.
There are two main types of charters: shared and private. On private charters, the captain adapts to your goals and is on hand to help you during the trip. Shared “party boats” are more basic: You get a rod, bait, and a spot on the boat, but much less help. They’re a cheap way for solo anglers to get onto the water but don’t compare to the VIP experience of a private charter.
Kayak fishing is pretty popular around Clearwater, and it’s easy to see why. You can escape the crowds and explore the shallows at your own pace. Even if you’re a complete beginner, jumping in a kayak will get you to some great fishing spots. You’re more limited in what you can catch, though. The main targets are Trout, Snook, Redfish, and other inshore species.
Clearwater kayak fishing can be as easy as renting a ‘yak and a rod from a beachside booth. For the full experience, you could also consider fishing with a guide. These guys usually provide proper pedal-drive fishing kayaks with rod holders and catch nets, as well as all the necessary equipment. They also give you tips on fighting fish from a kayak, which takes a little getting used to.
Of course, you don’t need to leave dry land at all. You can find plenty of action from shore. Clearwater is surrounded by beaches, parks, and piers where you can wet a line and catch some fish. Some beaches will be too crowded for fishing, but as long as you stay away from the main tourist hot spots you should find space.
The reason people love fishing from shore is that you’re completely on your own schedule. Fish all night or just for an hour – it’s entirely up to you. This also lets you be flexible if you’re the only angler in your group. The main downside to shore fishing is that you need to bring your own gear. You can rent rods locally, but they’re often in pretty bad shape.
Fishing Spots in Clearwater
By now, you should have a decent handle on what you can catch and how. Now you need to know where to do it. The best honey holes are always a closely-guarded secret, and we respect that. However, there are plenty of well-known and well-loved places to fish around Clearwater. Here are a couple of productive spots for each style of fishing.
- Sand Key Park: A pretty park with plenty to keep the whole family happy. Most importantly, the park has great surf fishing, as well as rocks and small wooden jetties facing Clearwater Pass. Expect a mix of inshore species like Ladyfish, Drum, Sheepshead, and Jacks.
- Pier 60: A licensed fishing pier stretching 1,000 feet into the Gulf. It costs $8 to fish here all day with your own gear, or $20 to have rods and bait included. Depending on the season, you can catch Snook, Sheepshead, Spanish Mackerel, Trout, Redfish, and more. The pier gets pretty busy in summer.
- Philippe Park: A beautiful park with a small pier and beach to fish from. You can also launch a kayak into Safety Harbor. Don’t expect to catch a monster (mainly medium-size Redfish and Trout) but this relaxing slice of old Florida is a welcome break from the Gulf Coast crowds.
- Hurricane Pass: An area of deep water between Caladesi and Honeymoon Islands. The area is known for its monster Snook, but you can catch anything from Redfish and Flounder to Cobia and Kingfish here. You need a strong pair of arms to reach the pass on a kayak.
- Rube Allyn Reef: A large artificial reef 11 miles offshore from Clearwater. The reef is famous for its big Smoker King bite every spring and fall. You can also catch Barracuda, Grunt, and Snapper, as well as Goliath Grouper and even the occasional Amberjack.
- Middle Grounds: This is the spot for a once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip. The Middle Grounds are almost 100 miles offshore and hold some of the best fish in the Gulf: Amberjack, Gag and Scamp Grouper, Red and Vermilion Snapper – even Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and Tuna live here.
Clearwater Fishing Tournaments
For most people, fighting big fish is enough of a challenge. If you want even more excitement, a host of fishing tournaments are held around Clearwater each year. Most are organized by The Old Salt Fishing Foundation, which has been going for almost 50 years and now runs competitions throughout the Clearwater-St. Petersburg area.
Old Salt’s most prestigious event is the Loop Billfish Tournament, held each August. This is a catch-and-release, winner-takes-all event with a guaranteed minimum purse of $50,000. Closer to shore but no less competitive are the King of the Beach Kingfish Tournaments. There’s a spring and fall edition, each with $225,000 in payouts.
Prefer to fish from shore? You get not two, but three chances to take part in the Seawall Tournament. There’s also a kids’ tournament in May, a ladies’ tournament in June, and an inshore challenge in January. Whenever you visit, chances are there’s a competition going on somewhere.
Fishing Licenses and Local Laws
You don’t need a permit to fish aboard a charter or licensed fishing pier, such as Pier 60. If you’re fishing from shore, on a kayak, or on a private boat, you need a Florida fishing license for anyone aged 16 or over. There are a few exceptions to this, which we’ve dedicated an entire article to already.
Talking of licenses, there’s one thing you should be aware of if you’re going on a charter. Captains in the Gulf of Mexico need a special federal permit to fish more than 9 miles offshore. These are hard to come by, so not everybody has them. If you want to catch big Red Snapper or other offshore species, make sure your charter is federally licensed.
Lastly, there are a few closed seasons you should keep in mind. As we mentioned above, special regulations are in place to help inshore fisheries recover. Snook are catch-and-release-only until September 1, 2021, while Redfish and Seatrout are protected until June 1. These closed seasons may be extended, so check with the FWC if you’re unsure.
Clear Water, Big Fish, and Loads of Fun
Fishing in Clearwater can mean something different to a dozen anglers. To many, it’s about exploring shallow seagrasses and remote bayous. For others, it’s reeling in huge, tasty reef fish. Some even journey to the heart of the Gulf in search of big game monsters. Whatever you’re after, you’ll find it here in spades, with some stunning views to make things even more special.
Have you ever been fishing in Clearwater? How did you do it, and what did you catch? Tell us your stories or drop us a question in the comments below. We’re always happy to talk fish!