Even with 1,350 miles (2172 km) of coastline, Florida has thousands of lakes, ponds, and river systems that make up massive areas of freshwater habitat. The state is home to a wide variety of freshwater fish species, some native and others that were introduced.
From snakelike air breathers to classic, well-known sportfishing species, Florida’s freshwater habitats are a vibrant and varied ecosystem with plenty to uncover.
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15 Most Interesting Freshwaterfish in Florida
1. American Eel
American eels have long, snake-like bodies. Adults have yellow-brown backs and pale undersides. An average eel will reach 20 inches (51 cm) in length and weigh up to 9 pounds (4 kg).
These eels are mostly found in rivers that access the ocean all along the Atlantic seaboard, but they can also turn up in lakes and ponds with those same connections. Most of their lives are spent in freshwater, but American eels leave rivers and migrate to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. The eels die after spawning.
As opportunistic predators, American eels will eat anything if they have a good opportunity to feed. This can include insects, small fish, frogs, and will scavenge from carcasses. While most migrate to spawn much sooner, they can live up to 42 years.
American eels are a very popular food, primarily used in sushi and smoked eel dishes. The fisheries and hatcheries for them along the Atlantic coastline sell eels to markets as far away as Asia.
2. American Shad
American shad spend most of their lives in the ocean, migrating up streams and rivers to spawn. Adults weigh between 3 and 8 lb (1.5 and 3.5 kg) and lengths around 18 inches (45.7 cm). They’re mostly a shiny silver color, with a green or blue metallic sheen on their backs.
Unlike eels, shad spend most of their lives in saltwater. Between December and April, they migrate into the St John’s and Nassau Rivers in Florida in order to spawn.
Shad are filter feeders, both in the ocean and when they come into freshwater to spawn. They’re vital food sources for a wide variety of predators and sit near the bottom of the food chain. When it comes to fishing, they’ll strike flies and other tiny spoons as well.
They’re considered very flavorful fish and are popularly eaten smoked, fried, or broiled. The roe, also known as fish eggs, is considered excellent.
3. Atlantic Sturgeon
Atlantic sturgeon are as old as the dinosaurs and have barbels underneath their mouths, a suction-style mouth without teeth, and large body plates instead of scales. They’re usually a dark brown on their backs and a pale white on their stomach. This massive type of fish can reach lengths of up to 14 feet (4.3 meters) and can weigh over 800 pounds (363 kilograms).
These sturgeon migrate back and forth between fresh and saltwater environments, typically moving to freshwater to spawn or feed in the spring and summer months.
Sturgeon search for food on the bottom and consume crabs, shrimp, worms, and other invertebrates. Their biggest contribution to the food industry is the use of their eggs as caviar.
Atlantic sturgeon are considered to be federally endangered, though worldwide they’re considered near-threatened.
4. Black Crappie
The black crappie is a large panfish, with a tall and thin body. They typically can be identified by their dark spots and fins. Most adults average 11 inches (28 cm) in length and weigh up to 5 pounds (2.2 kg). Unlike other species of panfish, black crappie tend to prefer open water.
They can most frequently be found in deeper areas of lakes and slow-moving rivers. Like other crappie, they tend to school in large numbers and hold in a confined area together.
Crappies eat a variety of foods including insects, small fishes, and crustaceans. On their own, they’ve created a popular sportfishing industry, taking a variety of baits from worms to minnows.
Bluegill has a deep body, a dark green back, and usually has an orange to yellow spot on their throats. They typically reach lengths of 7.5 inches (19.1 centimeters) and can weigh up to 2 pounds (0.9 kg).
Bluegill are found throughout Florida, most commonly in lakes and ponds. They tend to congregate in water 6 feet (1.8 meters) deep or less. Most of their diet consists of insects and insect larvae.
Bowfins are large, prehistoric fish that have a long body with dorsal fins running most of the back’s length. They have a big mouth, rounded tail, and have typical mossy to brown colors on their backs.
The air bladder of bowfins can actually function as a lung. They’re commonly seen gulping air at the surface, both for oxygen and buoyancy. Since they prefer slow-moving water, swamps, and low-oxygen areas, this adaptation comes in handy.
Adults can reach lengths of around 30 inches (75 cm) and can weigh as much as 8½ pounds (3.8 kg). Most of their diet consists of other fish species like catfish, perch, and shad. While an amazing fighter when hooked, bowfins aren’t typically considered great table fare.
7. Chain Pickerel
Chain pickerel have elongated bodies, long snouts, and big teeth. They tend to be olive to brown on their backs, have a creamy-yellow belly, and have a distinctive woven pattern across their body.
Most pickerel can reach lengths of around 3 feet (0.9 meters) and weigh up to 7 pounds (3.1 kg). They tend to ambush prey from vegetation and are found most often in heavily vegetated lakes, rivers, and swamps.
Chain pickerel are the smallest gamefish in the pike family. Minnows are a reliable bait at any time, but you can also tempt them with plugs, spinners, and crankbaits.
8. Channel Catfish
Channel cats are large, grayish catfish found throughout Florida. They have long barbels alongside their mouths, rounded fins, and scaleless bodies.
Catfish can be voracious and greedy feeders, feasting on a wide array of prey items. Without teeth, they swallow their prey which usually consists of crayfish, insects, fish, and invertebrates. As they grow larger, so do their preferred foods.
On average, channel catfish grow to between 2 pounds (1 kg) and 4 pounds (2 kg), and between 12 in (31 cm) and 24 in (61 cm). Exceptionally large ones can grow to nearly 50 pounds (22.6 kg).
9. Florida Gar
Gar have large, bony scales covering their body like armor. Florida gar tends to be green or brown on their backs and paler on their bellies. Gar can always be distinguished by their long, thin snout that’s full of sharp, conical teeth.
On average, adult gar reaches lengths between 20 and 52 inches (51.7 to 132.2 cm) and can weigh as much as 22 pounds (10 kg). In low-oxygen water, they use an air bladder to breathe just like bowfins and can be seen swallowing air at the surface.
The favorite habitats for gar are the canals, streams, and rivers that criss-cross the state. They tend to hang around underwater vegetation and along muddy or sand bottoms.
10. Harlequin Darter
Harlequin darters are a species of special concern in the state of Florida. They’re typically a dark green color with six to seven light spots on their bodies. Their first dorsal fin has a red lining and their pelvic fins extend flat against the bottom.
These darters are small fish, reaching a length of around 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters). Most often, they can be found in debris buildups in creeks and rivers. In Florida, these fish only occur in the Escambia River watershed.
Because they tend to be stuck in one waterway, darters are incredibly susceptible to disasters like pollution, the removal of snags, and habitat fragmentation.
11. Largemouth Bass
The largemouth bass is the most popularly-fished species in the United States. They can be distinguished from similar-looking species of bass because their upper jaw extends beyond the rear edge of their eye.
They’re found in every kind of body of water in the state, from rivers and lakes to canals and ponds. Most often, they hang around dense vegetation or underwater structures. In Florida, this species can reach lengths over 20 inches (51 cm) and weigh more than 15 pounds (6.8 kg).
The diet of largemouth mostly consists of crustaceans, worms, and smaller fish. They’re also an important food source for animals such as alligators, large fish, and birds of prey.
12. Redbreast Sunfish
The redbreast sunfish can be distinguished from other similar sunfish by a long, flat earflap. This tends to be black and extends from behind the eye and the gill plate. They can have a shiny blue or green sheen on their sides, a bright red to orange spot on their throat, and are dark on their back.
Redbellies are found primarily in sandy-bottomed and slow-moving rivers. They’re only found in the northern half of Florida and are not known to inhabit the southern regions of the state.
These sunfish have a vast array of food sources, ranging from insects and larvae to minnows, snails, clams, and shrimp. These fish reach a maximum size of around 12 inches (30 cm).
13. Striped Bass
Striped bass is a ferociously-fighting species with the typical bass-shaped body. They’re usually silver to white in color and have seven or eight dark stripes running the lengths of their body. Average adults reach lengths between 2 to 3 feet (1 meter) in length and weigh between 10 to 30 pounds(4.5 to 13.6 kg).
In Florida, they can be found most often in the St John’s River and tributary systems, as well as some rivers in the panhandle region. While they are a native species, they tend to need cooler running water to spawn. Populations in Florida are dependent on restocking efforts by the state.
Most of a striped bass’ diet is made up of smaller fish. Shad are incredibly important as a food source for them.
The spotted sucker has a downward-facing mouth with large lips, no spines, and no scales on its head. They’re usually a sandy color and have up to twelve rows of spots on their sides. Adults can reach a length of around 19 inches (48 cm).
These suckers tend to prefer smaller streams. They use their mouths to vacuum up invertebrates from the bottom. In most waterways, they provide the main food source for a variety of larger game fish.
Warmouths are a type of panfish, with a thick, deep body. Unlike other panfish, they have a red eye and a huge mouth, as well as stripes across their face. They can grow up to 12 inches (31 cm) and weigh 2.25 pounds (1 kg).
Most of the time, they’re found in soft, muddy-bottomed areas. This includes swamps, streams, rivers, and ponds. Warmouths prefer to hang around underwater vegetation and snags along the banks. Crayfish, shrimp, and minnows make up most of their diet.
4 Invasive and Introduced Freshwater Fish in Florida
From Florida’s wild monkeys to massive pythons, Florida is no stranger to invasive animals. The warm climate of the Sunshine State makes it a natural home for a wide variety of animals brought to the region by humans.
This extends from the coastal waters of the state to swamps and freshwater habitats as well. Here, we’ll go over some of the most interesting freshwater invaders and their impact.
Arapaima are massive fish native to the Amazon regions of South America. Adults are one of the largest known freshwater fish species, reaching lengths up to 14 feet (4.2 meters) and over 400 pounds (180 kg). Arapaima have elongated bodies with huge green or gray scales. They have a distinctive head shape with a sloping forehead, flattened skull, and overall oval shape.
Arapaima are air breathers, meaning they need to surface every ten minutes or so to breathe air. In native habitats, this helps them survive when the shallow lakes, ponds, and river areas they live in begin to dry up.
They have large mouths and can leap from the water to snag prey. For the most part, arapaima feed on crustaceans and fish that fit in their mouths. This can be a huge problem for native fish in Florida that can’t absorb the pressure of a new, massive predatory fish.
While there is no indication they have begun to breed and establish themselves in the state, numerous reports of adult fish have been verified. These South American giants are being closely monitored by wildlife authorities.
2. Bullseye Snakehead
Another air-breather, snakeheads are torpedo-shaped fish with long dorsal and anal fins running along their bodies. They have a flat head that’s full of sharp teeth. Most snakeheads have red eyes and a dark brown body with black spots near the tail.
Native to Pakistan, Malaysia, and Southern China, the snakehead is a popular food fish throughout its natural range. In Florida, snakeheads frequent canals and stagnant, densely-packed waters.
The largest snakehead captured by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was 31.5 inches (80 cm) and weighed 9.2 pounds (4.2 kg). Some individuals in native waters are known to grow to over 4 feet (1.2 meters) and weigh 66 pounds (30 kg) or more.
As a predator, snakeheads pose significant threats to other freshwater species. The additional pressure put on by their introduction and establishment causes the depletion of other fish populations.
3. Butterfly Peacock
Also known as peacock bass, these fish very much resemble largemouth bass. The main difference is that peacocks tend to be a golden color with three vertical black bars on their back and a tail spot.
While native to the Amazon River Basin, peacocks were introduced to canals in Florida by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The reason for the introduction was to help control the overabundance of exotic foraging fishes in canals, especially the spotted tilapia.
While most introduced species aren’t really a positive thing, peacock bass have a very low chance of spreading beyond the areas they were meant to reach, do a good job controlling populations of other invasive fish, and bring in millions of dollars to the state thanks to their excellent quality as a sportfish.
Peacock bass poses little to no threat to native fish species. They’re speed hunters, feeding on small fish. The largest adults can reach a length around 19 inches (48 cm) and weigh up to 12 pounds (5.4 kg).
4. Common Carp
Carp is a well-known invasive fish in the United States. Asian carp plague the Mississippi River, but they aren’t the only ones. Common carp are not as big a problem within Florida as in other states, but they still occur.
Native to Europe but introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s, common carp have invaded the Apalachicola and Ochlockonee river systems. They feed by sucking up silt from the bottom and swallowing insect larvae, snails, algae, and other food items.
Most carp can reach weights of up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg). As of right now, they pose little threat to native species, instead serving as prey fish for larger fish and animals like alligators.
The most popular species for anglers to target in Florida include largemouth bass, black crappie, and sunfish. Florida ecology programs encourage catch and release fishing throughout the state for trophy fish, offering instead the opportunity to get a replica mount.
These mounts use dimensions taken by the angler before releasing the fish to recreate it as a museum-quality, fiberglass piece. The idea was popularized with saltwater fish such as billfish, mahi-mahi, and other declining species before moving to include bass and other freshwater fish.
Overall these mounts are a great opportunity to keep a trophy of a once-in-a-lifetime fish without harming the animal. It also helps keep populations healthy by not removing breeding adults.
Florida ranks in the number one spot for anglers in the United States with 3.1 million individuals. Total expenditure value ranked number one as well, with over $5 billion spent in 2013. These numbers don’t take into account the 2.1 million angels from out of state or the $8.7 billion impact on Florida’s recreational fishing industry.
Freshwater fishing alone accounted for 1.7 million anglers and an economic impact of $1.7 billion. In essence, it’s no wonder Florida is known as the sportfishing capital of the world.
Regular stocking efforts keep populations of species like striped bass high. The introduction and monitoring of peacock bass provided not only ecological control or nuisance species but added a valuable freshwater sportfishing industry.
Continued efforts are ongoing to keep large stretches of aquatic habitat in pristine condition. Everglades restoration programs, the ending of dumping into tributary areas, and wildlife management programs are all ongoing.
Climate change will eventually have a profound impact on native and invasive species in Florida. For now, many species are limited to the southern regions of Florida simply because the northern regions are too cool in the winter for them to survive. As the climate grows warmer, their range expands.
One thing that also comes with climate change is the increased intensity and quantity of storms and hurricanes. These storms and the damage that comes with them are at least partly at fault for the escape of exotic pets and research animals that have eventually established themselves in the state. As storms occur more frequently and violently, these events will occur more frequently as well.
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