Florida’s varied aquatic vegetation provides incredible habitat diversity and serves an important role in the food chain and lifecycle of countless freshwater species. With such widespread habitat across Florida, freshwater anglers have the opportunity to fish more than 1.5 million acres in 7,700 lakes and 1,400 streams, each thriving with assorted plants and reeds. Being able to distinguish the vegetation and not become overwhelmed by a lake full of foliage will greatly increase your ability to locate and catch big bucketmouths.
“Any type of aquatic plant can provide cover for bass and other fish,” explained Jon Fury of the Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Aquatic plants are an extremely important part of any healthy freshwater ecosystem. They provide a host of positive benefits, but some species can actually hinder angler access if they grow too thick.”
Most Florida anglers know they need to fish the weeds to find bluegill, bass and other fish. However, most can’t identify one plant species from the next.
More than 4,200 types of wild plant species grow in Florida including more than 1,400 invasive species, providing greater plant diversity than nearly any other state. Hundreds of these plant species blossom in Florida lakes and streams and along freshwater shorelines. Besides providing prime habitat, these plants also help keep local waters clean.
“A tremendous amount of runoff flows into nearly every freshwater system in Florida,” said Gil Sharell, Jr. of Aquatic Plants of Florida (apofl.com), which undertakes extensive habitat restoration work. “Runoff can cause degradation of water quality if a system becomes too rich in dissolved nutrients. When heavy nutrient loads enter a system they create algae blooms, which can block sunlight and wreak havoc on fragile, aquatic systems. Various plants like rushes are really effective at soaking up liquid nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates, that would otherwise run off into the water.”
Plants that grow in wetlands generally fall into four categories: emergent, submerged, floating-leaf plants and free-floating plants. Emergent plants like rushes and cattails root in shallow water, but much of the plant grows above water. Submerged plants grow up from the bottom, but remain entirely underwater. Portions of floating-leaf plants spread over the surface, but their roots anchor in the soil. Free-floating plants, like duckweed and water hyacinths, float on the surface and drift with the current and wind.
“Many experienced bass fishermen seek out emergent types of vegetation such as bulrush and spike rush,” Fury advised. “While cattails in small doses can be beneficial to fish, especially in bodies of water that don’t have other types of vegetation, they tend to become overabundant. They outcompete other plants and can become so thick that they no longer provide much benefit for fish.”
Most Florida anglers know they need to fish the weeds to find bluegill, bass and other fish. However, most can’t identify one plant species from the next. A list of Florida flora could fill volumes, but the following are some of the more common varieties found across the Sunshine State’s freshwater venues.
A free-floating plant often confused with water lilies, American lotus prefers muddy, shallow water, but can prosper in water up to six feet deep. American lotus features large yellow flowers that grow on long, stiff stalks. The submerged stalks provide essential habitat for a host of species from tiny invertebrates to larger predators like reptiles and fish.
Common in soggy soil or shallow water, cattails produce familiar cylinder-shaped brown flower spikes that look like corndogs. Cattails grow in water up to three feet deep and can tolerate some salinity. “Cattails are native to Florida, but are also invasive,” Sharell said. “They can quickly establish a dense monocolony by outcompeting all other plants in the system.”
Bulrush encompasses a variety of wetland plants in the sedge family that feature stems growing up to eight feet often crowned by hanging flower clusters. Bulrush commonly grows in thick patches along lake shorelines and wetlands. While bulrush can be mistaken for cattail reeds, bulrush typically grows in deeper water and often provides for more impressive catches than cattails.
Also called tape grass, eelgrass is a submerged native grass that grows in many clear lakes and springs across the state. Eelgrass can form massive underwater beds, with rounded blades measuring about one inch wide growing several feet off the bottom. Small white flowers may grow on the surface off very long stalks. There are a host of techniques used to fish eelgrass, with finesse worms, spinnerbaits and crankbaits all effective options. “Eelgrass is very good cover for bass,” Fury said. “It’s found in most Florida lakes and is very beneficial for all types of freshwater fish.”
Originally from Asia, Eurasian watermilfoil first came to North America in the 1940s and spread as far north as Canada. Milfoil grows long, slender stems that can exceed 10 feet in length. This exotic invader creates dense surface mats that take over bodies of water by crowding out other species. While providing great cover for forage and predator fish, milfoil can become overgrown and problematic. One of the best methods to punch through a heavy mat of milfoil is to flip a heavy jig, although running a plastic frog along the surface can result in explosive strikes.
One of the most aggressive invasive plants in Florida, hydrilla came from southeast Asia. Introduced to Florida in the 1950s as an aquarium plant, hydrilla spreads rapidly and now infests at least 30 states from Massachusetts to California. Hydrilla grows up from the bottom, but some stems grow longer than 35 feet in depths ranging to 20 feet. As a result, hydrilla forms thick surface mats and can completely block off waterways, preventing sunlight from reaching the bottom. Bass anglers love hydrilla because it provides excellent fish habitat, but Florida state agencies spend millions each year in an effort to eradicate it. “Hydrilla is both good and bad,” Fury explained. “It provides habitat for fish, invertebrates and other species in the food chain. However, it can also take over a lake and is very expensive to control.”
Commonly called Kissimmee grass, maidencane can grow more than six feet high. It dominates the shorelines of many Central Florida wetlands such as the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. In many areas it forms dense marshes. Often growing in shallow water, it makes a great place to flip soft plastic jigs and Texas rigged worms.
A submerged native grass, sago pondweed typically grows in water six feet deep or less. In many places it grows all the way to the surface. Sometimes called fennel pondweed or ribbon weed, sago pondweed grows tubers that serve as nutritious starchy food for ducks and other birds. In some places it can grow so thick that it chokes off waterways, but it provides good habitat.
Hyacinths are free-floating plants from South America that came to the United States during the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. It can cluster together in huge mats and the broad, leathery leaves may rise as much as three feet above the water. Spongy stalks provide buoyancy to the plants and feathery roots dangle from the floating bulbs. One of the fastest growing plants in the world, water hyacinth thickets can double in size in two to three weeks. One acre of water hyacinths may weigh more than 200 tons!
Water lily occur throughout the state and grow large, round leaves that float on the surface. About 40 water lily species occur in the world with several dominating many Florida waters. Fragrant water lily grow white, aromatic flowers. “Fragrant water lily is one of the best species in the state for providing cover and shelter for a lot of fish and aquatic animals,” Sharell said. “It helps fish hide from birds and other predators.”
This short list barely scratches the surface of the multitude of plants that comprise the diverse ecosystems bass anglers typically encounter. Knowing how to identify the most prevalent species and how to properly fish each can enrich any angling experience. While dense vegetation may cover a large portion of your lake, it’s important you focus on unique areas that catch the eye amongst acres of growth—think points, pockets and isolated patches of vegetation. Fishing heavy cover can be annoying when you are constantly picking weeds off your hook, but with patience and persistence the rewards certainly outweigh the inconvenience.