Sunshine bass plentiful and available in South Florida

Jun 10 2010 - 8:45pm

MIAMI -- Some South Florida anglers complain that you can hardly wet a line without encountering new fishing restrictions -- closed seasons, reduced bag limits or tighter slot and size limits.

But there's one freshwater fish the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is encouraging anglers to catch and keep -- the sunshine bass.

"It's an under-exploited fishery," said Barron Moody, the FWC's regional fisheries administrator in West Palm Beach. "It's a fish people can catch good numbers of and not feel bad about it."

The sunshine bass is a hybrid produced by crossing a female white bass with a male striped bass. Moody said the FWC has been stocking sunshines in Palm Beach County's Lake Osborne chain -- which includes Osborne, Ida, Eden, Pine Lake, and Lake Clarke -- at the rate of about 15,000 per year for more than 10 years. Moody is looking to stock as many as 30,000 in the next few months.

Anglers used to pursue them avidly; then for some reason, interest fell off. But the probability of catching them, according to studies by FWC biologists, is much greater than for native largemouth or black crappie.

Sunshines don't look anything like a largemouth; they have broken stripes on the front part of the body and straight lines toward the back. While the state record is 16 pounds, 5 ounces, caught in Lake Seminole in 1985, South Florida sunshines average one to three pounds.

Still, bag and size limits are liberal enough to catch sufficient poundage for multiple meals: 20 fish per angler per day, of which six may be 24 inches or longer.

Veteran Boynton Beach guide captain Butch Moser is dialed in on sunshines. Moser pretty much had them figured out from the time the state started stocking them in Lake Osborne. He says they are an ideal sport fish.

"They're a fast eater. When they strike it, they've got it," Moser said. "They fight much harder -- like a jack crevalle. They run back and forth and shake their head. They're not a jumping fish, but they fight all the way up."

Moser likes to ensure client success, so he fishes for sunshines mainly with live shad, which he catches in the pre-dawn hours in a cast net. Shad, he said, is the hybrid's favorite food. The guide typically free-lines the live baits, or rigs them with a bobber on ultra-light spinning gear and small No. 1 or No. 2 wire hooks.

But sunshines also have ocean-going stripers in their genes, so they have been known to eat live shrimp fished on the bottom on the saltwater sides of spillways. As for purists who use only artificials, Moser recommends Rat-L-Traps or any pattern that resembles a shad.

On a recent half-day outing in Lake Ida and adjacent Lake Eden, Moser and a customer caught and released 30 fish -- evenly divided between sunshines and largemouth. The bite was best right at daybreak; after that, it waned to a steady pick.

Last June, Moser and several clients caught and released 250 sunshines, demonstrating they bite year-round. The warmer the water, the deeper he finds them.

"They seem to stay in deep water -- any of the deep holes," he said. "If you see the shad, you'll see the sunshines."

Moser hopes the state will keep stocking the hybrids.

"They're a real good fish," he said. "Anything they can do to put fish in here to catch."

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