The Hardest-Fishing City in Florida

Jacksonville can’t be beat for spring action.
Downtown Jacksonville Florida
Jacksonville has the highest rate, per capita, of fishing license holders of the four biggest Florida metropolitan areas. City of Jacksonville

You’ll find anglers on bridges and beaches, bait shops open long before dawn, big tackle stores that carry enough gear to outfit a fleet of sport-fishers, and a line-up of fishing tournaments year-round. Numbers tell the story, too.

Jacksonville has the highest rate, per capita, of fishing license holders of the four biggest Florida metropolitan areas. That beats Tampa-St. Pete, Orlando, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale. Jacksonville takes the crown for the hardest-fishing big city in Florida.

The region’s rivers, maze-like marshes, bays, the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), jetties, beaches, and offshore grounds form a network of waters unlike any other in Florida. Two spring scenarios to target are shallow-water redfish and trout, and offshore, schools of migrating dolphin swarming at the Ledge.

Catch Seatrout and Redfish in Jacksonville

redfish catches near Jacksonville Florida
A double hookup of redfish in the shallow marshes near Jacksonville, Florida. Capt. Buzz Brannon

Big tides breathe life into Jacksonville’s extensive marsh-and-creek system.

“We have a 5-foot tidal swing, on average, every 6 hours, so the locations to fish are constantly changing,” says Capt. Buzz Brannon, who’s guided anglers in Jacksonville for more than two decades.  He runs an 18-foot Beavertail Vengeance in the shallows, stalking reds, trout, flounder, and other species on spin and fly. One of his favorite bites is for “hillbilly bonefish,” what some folks call redfish when they get them in the grass on big tides, he says.

For seatrout, Brannon likes dusk and dawn, low-light times. In the spring, when the finger mullet show up, both trout and redfish take topwater lures. “Anything with a hard edge along the St. Johns will be holding mullet,” he says.

Fishing the city’s infrastructure — bridges, docks, seawalls, and industrial installations along the water (where legally accessible) — produces a variety of species. Both natural and manmade habitats hold good fish in Jacksonville, one of the city’s many surprises for visiting anglers.

“I think we have the best redfishing in the state,” says Capt. Buzz Brannon.

It’s been the best year of redfishing Brannon has seen for quite some time. In 2012, an increase in the redfish bag limit to 2 fish per person took a toll on the redfish. In September 2022, the bag limit was lowered back to one redfish per person, and since then, the fishing has been steadily improving, Brannon says.

The nourishment of those rich waters flowing in the St. Johns generates and draws abundant life to the nearshore and offshore waters, including a pelagic fishery that’s been a standout hotspot in recent years— the Ledge.

Big Dolphin off Jacksonville

Fishing the Ledge for dolphin off Jacksonville Florida
With dolphin fishing declining in some areas, Northeast Florida anglers are still enjoying incredible days starting in April. Capt. Tim Altman

About 55 to 65 miles off Jacksonville, depending on the marina’s location, the continental shelf slopes down from 120-foot depths and then drops off to 175 feet deep — the Ledge. The Gulf Stream runs nearby, and when its warm waters or any of its warm eddies circulate over the Ledge’s structure, prey, and predators get drawn into those dynamic flows. In winter, these waters hold good numbers of big wahoo, ranging up to 70 and 100 pounds, often caught high-speed trolling and more recently, Capt. Tim Altman of Hoodoo Charters says, by live-baiting.

“Guys are having incredible days for wahoo at the Ledge slow-trolling live baits like blue runners and bonito,” says Altman, a multiple-time wahoo tournament winner and a fanatic for those fish.

Capt. Altman runs 11-hour charter trips to the Ledge for pelagics including wahoo and dolphin aboard his Saltwater Challenge, a 36-foot Contender with triple Mercurys. In April, the game switches to catching big dolphin.

“We’ve crushed it the last few years for big dolphin at the Ledge, lots of them,” he says. “We’ll start going out for them between April 12 and 15, and the biggest fish are early in the year. We get a good month and a half of solid dolphin fishing.”

His good news about dolphin fishing may surprise people who’ve heard about a lack of fish in recent years around South Florida and the Keys.

“I’m aware that South Florida has seen a real decline in their dolphin fishing, especially around Key West, Marathon, and Miami. I can’t explain the difference in Northeast and South Florida fishing,” Altman says. “The old-school guys say the migratory pattern for yellowfin tuna has changed, so maybe that’s the case with dolphin, too, or maybe the currents have changed.”

Dolphin at the Ledge

underwater photo of a dorado mahi
Look for temperature breaks with ocean water temps 76 degrees and warmer to find dolphin off Northeast Florida. Skirted or naked ballyhoo are great trolling options. Adobe Stock / #269599324

Altman and his crew leave his Amelia Island marina at 5 a.m. and head out to the Ledge for an 11-hour trip. He’ll check RipCharts on his phone and screenshot the image of the temperature breaks at the Ledge. On his Simrad he also has SirrusXM weather for sea surface temperature readings offshore. He’s looking for temperature breaks with ocean water temps 76 degrees and warmer, weed lines, and edges.

“During dolphin season, as we get near the Ledge, I’ll put out small Nomads or a horse ballyhoo skirted with an Ilander on a planer with wire to target wahoo. Beyond the Ledge, we’ll run everything on the surface.

“Some days skirted stuff works, but I don’t believe there’s anything more effective for dolphin than a properly rigged, chin-weighted, split-bill ballyhoo,” he says. “When you see that big dolphin coming, or if you get a hit, you free spool it for 15 to 25 seconds, and I’m telling you that works.”

The dolphin come through in packs, and between times Altman and crew can also bottom fish for triggers, snapper, grouper, or whatever’s in season. They’ll likely have sardines in the livewell and they’ll chum dolphin by their boat with cuttlefish or squid, keeping a lookout, ready to throw a live bait to any big fish coming to the boat.

“You’ve got to be ready for those big fish. You’ll have a bunch of schoolies, the boat’s kicked out of gear and you’re live-baiting. The fish get all around you. Then you’ll see the dolphin scatter and that’s indicative of a shark or a big dolphin coming in to tear them up. I’ll tell you it’s incredible when you see that big dolphin coming through the water to you. Man, that’s fun.”

Jacksonville Florida Fishing Captains

Bait Stores

  •             B & M Bait & Tackle, Jacksonville, (904) 249-3933
  •             Brown’s Creek Bait & Tackle, Jacksonville, (904) 757-1600
  •             FishBites Trading Post, St. Augustine, (904) 217-8012

Note: Special thanks to the FWC and its licensing department for the analysis of its data on fishing license holders by municipality across the entire state of Florida.