An Expert Guide to Fly Fishing in Central FloridaPublished on 08/18/2022 · 8 min readFly Fishing Expert Robert Levin breaks down a few of his favorite spots to throw some casts and catch some fish in the central Florida area!
Photo by Clay LeConey
One of the unwritten rules of fishing protocol is that if you find a really good spot to go fishing, tell no one where it is. The strict observance of this law happens not out of greed, but simply self-preservation. For most of us who are not on the water every day, finding one of these spots is not a frequent occurrence.
This article, however, will attempt to be an exception to that rule. While I can’t guarantee your own success in these spots, I will share locations in Central Florida that I know were successful for many fly fishers previously.
First, some notes about the location, since Central Florida is not exactly marked out on any maps. Let’s just say it is the area starting below Gainesville down to a bit below Tampa. This area is unique in that it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean along the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico along the west coast, and both are within easy travel distance from the center of the state. Both coasts offer abundant saltwater fly-fishing opportunities, while in between there is a myriad of rivers, lakes, and ponds that offer many great freshwater fishing opportunities.
The Atlantic Side
Let’s start with saltwater locations along the Atlantic coast. Looking at the map, there are dozens of beach communities of various sizes along the Atlantic coast in this northeastern portion of the region, and while the overall fishing opportunities can be great, there are not many ideal fly-fishing opportunities throughout these beachy areas, as finding sheltered spots away from the easterly on-shore winds can be difficult.
An exception occurs when one arrives at the Halifax River, in the Daytona Beach area. Throughout this body of water, one can target sea trout, flounder, sheepshead, tarpon, snook, black drum, mangrove snapper, and, especially, red drum (aka redfish).
From the Halifax River, as one works their way down the Inland Waterway past New Smyrna Beach toward the Indian River, they will eventually come to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This is a legendary fly fishing area that includes the Mosquito Lagoon, and specific rules need to be followed here. These waters are adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center and various other government installations, and personnel guarding these sites tend to take their jobs seriously.
To see where you can and can’t fish in this area, check out this website. Along with the map, you can also download and fill out the permits required to be carried when in these waters. As noted above, be sure to read the rules associated with the permits carefully, so you don’t find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fishing here is best done by boat, though kayaks and canoes are very popular, and there are rental facilities available if you don’t have your own, as well as several launch sites you can use if you do have your own boat or paddle craft. In addition, there is a network of canals and culverts throughout this area, and younger tarpon get trapped in this network and can be spotted and fished from shore.
The Gulf Side
The Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico on Central Florida’s west coast—from a short way below the panhandle and heading south toward Tampa/St. Petersburg—comprises a vast area of marshland, small inlets, and tall seagrass flats. There are exceptions, but generally, these are not wading areas. However, shallow-draft boats and kayaks have endless opportunities throughout the area, especially where estuaries enter the Gulf. These are more rural areas, and not as densely populated as the east coast.
It is strongly recommended that you book a few trips with a guide before planning any trips on your own, as one needs to be comfortable with their navigating skills. A large number of very capable fly-fishing guides work in this area. Simply Google “Gulf of Mexico Florida Seagrass Flats Fly Fishing Guides,” call a few, and tell them your preferences. A good day for you is a good day for them.
Heading further south along the coast, you will come to the Crystal River area. Here you will find a confluence of fresh and salt waters, and a corresponding mix of fish one can target. On the saltwater side, you have inshore grouper, snapper, shark, red drum, black drum, jack crevalle, cobia, and pompano. On the freshwater side, you have largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, bluegill, sunfish, white bass, bowfin, gar, and even striped bass. No shortage of species to target here!
This area is easy to get to and with good launching facilities like at and near the Plantation resort, it is heavily fished and you won’t be alone on the water. It is also home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. So along with fishing, it is an interesting place to view some of these creatures that make this their home mainly in winter, though some stay year-round.
Traveling below Homosassa brings you into the Tampa Bay area. This is another vast area to fish, and hooking up with a guide is a good way to get informed on where to look for the species you are interested in targeting. The bay and adjacent waters hold tarpon, redfish, snook, sea trout, jack crevalle, grouper, snapper, cobia, ladyfish, mackerel, flounder, and a variety of sharks. These are found at different times of the year and in various water conditions and depths
The Freshwater Scene
Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest
Now let’s look at some of the freshwater options in Central Florida. Not far from where I live is the Ocala National Forest, which holds a number of lakes that are good fishing locations. This is also a very rural area, and road markings within the park leave a bit to be desired. There are several good maps online that show these locations, including this one.
Because many of these locations are off the beaten path, they don’t get a lot of fishing pressure. This explains why some of the inhabitants have reached record size. Several areas have space where you can fish from shore, but this is very limited. You definitely want to be able to see where you are stepping in these locations though, as many (if not all) are inhabited by the American Alligator. My experience has been that these creatures are generally people-shy, though, obviously, nesting females will frown upon being disturbed. If you paddle up to a shoreline and there is a gator there and it does not scurry away, which happens most of the time, just turn away from that heading and try somewhere else.
Water and its management is a critical concern in Florida. There are a number of natural springs in Central Florida, and these become the headwaters of rivers and creeks. Aquatic life is abundant in these locations and they are subject to a fair share of fishing pressure. Because so much natural food is present, the fish can be very selective. Most of these locations are easy to get to, and many have rental facilities for kayaks and other boats. The following are a couple of spots to investigate:
St. Johns River
In the northern portion of Central Florida is the St. Johns River. This has been a legacy fishing location for ages. It is a very large area and one of those places a guide trip is in order. If interested, information can be found here.
Throughout the state of Florida, there are additional fishing opportunities that have been established by the fact that year-round the waters stay warm and temperate. This condition makes Florida an ideal place to practice aquaculture on a large scale. The aquarium hobby industry has benefited from this for decades. These creatures are not for the most part common targets of fly fishers, although there are exceptions. The ubiquitous peacock bass has established itself through many canal systems in South Florida, as have some other exotic tropical species. In the Orlando area, a firm raises a species indigenous to Australia called the Barramundi and offers the opportunity to fish for them in a catch-and-release environment. These are big fish that fight well and will test you and your gear. For information about this unique opportunity, go here.
Central Florida offers a plethora of fly-fishing opportunities. No matter where you end up going, it’s guaranteed you’ll have a good time. Keep in mind that different tackle and flies are needed for different species, so reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated for help. They can get you set up for whatever species you are targeting at whatever location.