With over 200 species inhabiting its bait-laden waterways, Tampa Bay is rightly revered as the crown jewel among Florida anglers. Being the largest open-water estuary in all of the Sunshine State definitely comes with its perks. Not to much surprise, fishing in Tampa Bay is nothing short of superb.
Extending over 400 square miles and fed by the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa Bay’s massive ecosystem plays host to pretty much all of the state’s favorite bruisers.
Top Catches in Tampa Bay
If it swims in the shallows and lives in the Gulf, you can pretty much guarantee it’s in these waters. The Bay provides such a wide variety of aquatic life, it’s not uncommon to bag several species on any given outing. Most anglers are after the “Big 3” – Tarpon, Redfish, and Snook.
Other local species include Trout, Jack Crevalle, Grouper, Snapper, Cobia, Ladyfish, Mackerel, Flounder, and a variety of Sharks. All of these and many more call Tampa Bay their home throughout different parts of the year. So whatever you’d like to catch, chances are, you’ll find it here!
Make Way for His Majesty, Tarpon!
Move over, Boca Grande! In the previous decades, Tampa Bay has repeatedly proven its reputation as one of the richest Silver King battlegrounds along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The traditional Tarpon season spans from April–August, but you can find an excellent bite as early as March. On a particularly good year, the season can last up to 7–8 months, which is always a welcome advantage.
Still, the bay is famous for its strong summer Tarpon fishery. From late May until July, it’s a Tarpon extravaganza everywhere you go. Throughout the peak of their migration (May–July), most Tarpon range between 80 and 140 pounds. If you’re looking for the ultimate fishing experience, there are 200 lb beasts swimming around the bay in summer.
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. In addition to ensuring the fish’s survival, this will also help you avoid tempting any Sharks nearby.
If you’re specifically booking a Tarpon charter, expect an average of 2–7 hookups per trip. It all depends on your own expertise and a lil’ bit of luck. All Tarpon fishing is catch and release, unless you’re in pursuit of an IGFA record (which requires a special tag). If you are – good luck!
Year-Round Redfish Party
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 the Tampa Bay flats.
Most Reds caught in the Tampa Bay area measure around 15–35 inches (the legal size limit varies) and the season is open year-round.
Throughout most of the year, this species is caught in very shallow grass flats, up to 3 feet deep. Even though most fish go into deep hibernation during the winter months, the tailing Reds of Tampa Bay remain very active. That said, they usually migrate to deeper waters at this time, normally between 4 and 8 feet.
Redfish typically congregate in many of the same places as Trout and Snook. If you’re looking for monster Reds though, they usually gather a few miles off the beaches or near the various ship channels. Happy hunting!
Sneaking up to Snook
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.
Although readily available year-round, spring, summer, and fall give anglers the best chance to limit out on Snook. While they’ll still blast your plug every now and again, winter is typically better spent pursuing other species.
For Snook enthusiasts that would rather avoid the summer heat, night fishing is a highly-productive alternative. Snook are nocturnal feeders and they’re very active under the cover of darkness. You’ll typically find them scouting for dinner underneath the dock lights.
To get the most out of Snook fishing in Tampa Bay, go to the beaches, residential docks, and mangrove shorelines for a successful day on the water.
Other Inshore Species
It’s no secret that the “Big 3” garner the most attention from visiting anglers eager to explore Tampa Bay’s inshore fisheries. Still, there are plenty of other line-melting game fish scavenging the Bay.
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 15 feet) during the cooler months.
Sheepshead, another winter bruiser, is best targeted January through March. They can be found underneath the bridges, docks, and nearshore reefs. Ranging anywhere from 1–5 pounds, what they lack in size they more than make up for in being positively delicious.
Everyone’s favorite bycatch, Flounder provides a year-long fishing frenzy. This is one species where double-digit hookups are considered the norm on a good day. Flounder love colder water and you’ll have a great time getting them off the sea bottom. These fish usually grow up to 20 inches, though you can find bigger specimens.
Don’t Forget The Nearshore Superstars
The party doesn’t stop when you step outside the Bay. You’ll find a wide array of species in its nearshore waters, each more fun to catch than the last.
Each year, the bait-rich offshore waterways of the Gulf attract a wide roster of pelagics and other predatory fish. Surface feeders such as King Mackerel, Barracuda, Permit, and Mahi Mahi all prosper throughout the summer months.
Bottom fishermen have their hands full as well. These waters are home to Red Snapper, Gag Grouper, Cobia, Amberjack, Flounder, Goliath Grouper, and plenty of other rock dwellers.
Finally, we can’t talk about fishing in Tampa Bay without mentioning the spectacular Shark action. Bull, Hammerhead, Blacktip, Tiger, and several other Shark species dominate the local waterways.
Types of Fishing in Tampa Bay
There are many ways to catch fish in Tampa Bay, so just about any fishing technique will land you something. If you think this is an exaggeration, try it for yourself!
Although primarily a light tackle fishery, there are plenty of other fishing styles to explore in the Tampa Bay area. If you’re a first-timer, then consider hiring a pro to clue you in and reveal some of the best tricks and tips.
Fishing From Shore
If you prefer to fish from land, then you’ll have plenty to do in Tampa Bay. The area is full of bridges, piers, and beaches that are perfect for fishing. The waters of the bay are teeming with gorgeous fish and even if you don’t have a boat, you can have an amazing time. If you’re a solo fly angler, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the amount of incredible fly fishing opportunities in the bay.
One of the most popular spots for shore anglers must be the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which separates the bay from the Gulf. Here you can target just about anything – from Snook and Pompano to Grouper and King Mackerel. You can also cast a line in Bishop Harbor for a top-notch Redfish and Trout bite. If you’re into surf fishing, then head out to Clearwater Beach.
But it’s not all just about saltwater fishing in Tampa Bay. Spots like Lake Tarpon and Edward Medard Reservoir are known for their solid Bass fishery, especially in the summer.
Fishing With a Charter
This is by far the most convenient and comfortable option for anglers wanting to make the most of their time on the water. Whatever kind of trip, technique, and fish species you’re after, there will be someone in Tampa Bay to take you out.
Fishing is a way of life in these parts so there are plenty of professional guides ready to show you a good time. From half day excursions and full day adventures to exciting night fishing trips and bowfishing escapades, your only limit is your fishing imagination.
Even if you’re in the mood to go after offshore monsters, you can book a deep sea fishing trip and go hunting for your next trophy. If you’re going after a specific species, there are plenty of captains who run specialized trips. Basically, you’re covered on all bases.
Remember that some fish in the bay have very strict seasons, so it’s best to check-in with your guide and find out what you’re allowed to target during your trip. That way, you’ll know what to expect and prepare accordingly.
Kayak fishing in Tampa Bay is a big thing, and it’s easy to understand why. Here, you can find grassy flats, rich backwaters, and calm nearshore waters all in one place – what’s not to like?
Kayakers can squeeze through the mangrove thickets and breeze through the skinniest of waters in search of impressive fish. Inshore favorites like Speckled Trout, Snook, Redfish, Jack Crevalle, and even Tarpon are always in the cards.
If the weather serves you and you’re an experienced kayaker, you can venture further into the bay. There, you can cast your line for superstars like King Mackerel, Cobia, Snapper, and Grouper. Wherever there’s public access to the water, you’re welcome to drop your kayak and start paddling toward your next great catch.
Top Fishing Spots in Tampa Bay
There’s no shortage of hotspots that stay productive well throughout the calendar year. Here, we’ll cover some of the area’s most popular fishing destinations to explore. We also might just give you a reason or two to put Tampa Bay fishing at the top of this year’s bucket list.
- St. Petersburg. You can do just about anything in St. Petersburg. Go fishing from the east side of the city, and you’ll find anything from Redfish and Trout to Tarpon and Sharks. Go west, and the abundant Gulf of Mexico is on your doorstep.
- Tampa. In Tampa, both freshwater and saltwater fisheries are a stone’s throw away. Saltwater aficionados will love the Sheepshead, Redfish, Black Drum, and Snook action. On the freshwater front, there are plenty of lakes and reservoirs full of Bass and Crappie.
- Hillsborough Bay. This bay is directly connected to Tampa Bay and offers a wide array of saltwater inshore species like Bluefish, Flounder, Redfish, and Sheepshead. You could also stumble upon Snapper and Grouper species, Mackerel, and Sharks.
- Clearwater. This is another city that serves as a direct line to both Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico’s fisheries. Target Redfish, Snook, and Tarpon in the bay or set off on an offshore adventure in search of Cobia, Mackerel, Grouper, and Tuna, to name a few.
- Fort De Soto Park. If you’d like to go after the most popular species in the area – Snook, Redfish, Trout – then this is the place to be. This is a go-to spot for shore anglers, with plenty of wading spots, two piers, and good kayak fishing opportunities.
Fishing Licenses and Regulations
Before you cast your line in the abundant Tampa Bay, it’s important to get familiar with the local fishing regulations. A lot of species have a specific seasonality (especially Red Snapper and Tarpon), so make sure you’re informed and organize your trip accordingly.
It’s also important to know what kind of fishing license you’ll need. If you’re going fishing with a saltwater guide, licenses are usually included in the price of the trip. Solo anglers need to buy an appropriate fishing license before they head out. If you’re fishing from a pier or a park, check if there’s an additional fee you need to pay to fish legally on the grounds.
For more info on Florida fishing licenses, check out this post on Florida fishing licenses.
The Sky’s the Limit
When it comes to fishing in Tampa Bay, if you can dream it, you can catch it. This is the ultimate playground for many sought-after fish species, as well as the anglers eager to catch them.
Top that off with some of the most magnificent sunrises and sunsets anywhere on Florida’s west coast, and you’ve got yourself a one-of-a-kind fishing experience, bar none.
Have you ever been fishing in Tampa Bay? What are your top experiences? Do you have any advice your fellow anglers should know? Let us know in the comments below!