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Fishing the Hillsborough River

by Pip (on the FRF Message Board)

At higher water levels, this rapid can reach Class II

   The Hillsborough River begins in southwest Pasco County in the Green Swamp. From the Green Swamp, the river begins as an overflow from the Withlacoochee River, north of US Highway 98. Its headwaters begin as a slow moving sheet flow that percolates through a heavily vegetated riverine forest that has no discernable channel.  Approximately a quarter of a mile south of its beginning point, a channel emerges and becomes more defined as a channelized riverine system (SWFWMD).  The Hillsborough picks up a little steam with the influence of Crystal Springs which discharges millions of gallons of water per day.  Once in Hillsborough County, the river flows through two large regional parks and conservation areas, the Hillsborough River State Park and the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park.

    For this article, I will concentrate on fishing the “upper” section of Hillsborough River, from the Hillsborough River State Park through the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park into the urban section of Tampa ending at Lettuce Lake Park at Fletcher Avenue (near USF). And because you won’t be able to explore this section in a day, I will break it down into smaller “fishable” sections. The remaining section of the Hillsborough River runs through the urban sections of Temple Terrace and Tampa.  The urban section may have decent fishing, but it does not compare to the remoteness and tranquility of the “upper” section. Here is a link to the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park which has a good overall map of the section I’ll be discussing.

An average bass caught upstream of Trout Creek park

   There are primarily five fishable sections of the “upper” Hillsborough River.  For simplicity, each section is named after the host park with canoe access.  I should note at this point that each section is easily paddled up or down stream, as the normal current in these areas are mild at best (even during periods of high water).  There are narrow sections where the current pushes pretty good but they are not desirable for fishing. 


Hillsborough River State Park

    The Hillsborough River State Park is located on US Hwy 301 in Hillsborough County north of Plant City (map page # 83 in the Florida Atlas & Gazetter). It’s a typical state park that offers camping, nature trails, canoe rentals, and a large (shallow) swimming pool for the kiddies. An interesting geological feature in the state park; the river is characterized by limestone outcroppings creating a series of shoals and (deep) rock ledges.  The park also boasts a couple of rare (for central Florida) class II rapids in the extreme upper section.

   Hillsborough River State Park is a popular destination so be prepared to encounter a lot of people using the river.  The park’s rental canoes are aluminum and noisy!  When fishing the state park you’ll need to be patient, wait for the noisy canoes to go by and continue fishing.  There is no point trying to outrun a group of canoes, because this will cause you to get too hurried and miss fish.  The upside is that most “tourists” are just canoeing, not fishing.

The Hillsborough River is a canoe trail. This is a common sight anywhere on the river. Of course, note the lack of fishing rods!

   My advice for fishing the state park is to fish slow(er) with a little more weight than normal.  For example, I was fishing a plastic worm with a 1/16 oz weight, but because of the rock ledges and depth I would use a heavier weight (1/8 to 3/16 oz.).  Medium diving crankbaits and jig-n-pigs (a 1/4oz. football jig in particular) should also be considered depending on the conditions.  The state park “trail” ends and connects with Dead River Park.  A larger sign will tell you when you’re leaving the state park and a smaller sign on river right will tell you you are in Dead River Park.

Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park

   The Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park is a 16,000-acre regional park is located in northeast Hillsborough County and consists of several smaller “activity” specific parks which include Dead River Park*, Flatswood Park, Off-Road Loop Trail, Morris Bridge Park*, Sargeant Park*,  and Trout Creek Park* (* denotes parks with canoe launches).

In keeping with FRF tradition, here is the obligatory alligator shot! No shortage of these guys!

 Dead River Park

    Dead River Park is located south of the Hillsborough River State Park off of US Hwy 301 and is the most remote and primitive of all parks mentioned.  To get there, turn onto Dead River Road (off of Hwy 301) then follow the road until you think you can’t (and shouldn’t) go any further, then keep going until you arrive at the park.  It’s remote!  The park is only accessible via automobiles on Saturdays and Sundays, the rest of the week is hiking and mountain bikes only, so plan your canoe trip here on the weekends.  The canoe access is unimproved (to say the least) so take care putting-in.  Once you are in the river you are rewarded with a deep, wide, and slow moving section of the Hillsborough.  I’d say the average depth is at least 10ft in most sections.   

     I would limit fishing here to upstream only. Below Dead River Park the section of the Hillsborough is called “Seventeen Runs” and is a confusing maze where the main channel disappears in a swamp. Upstream there is no confusion here. Because of its depth and lack of current, I believe that this section has potential for BIG bass. This is big worm, spinnerbait, and buzzbait territory, but don’t be afraid to throw a lipless crankbait either.     

Sargeant Wilderness Memorial Park

    After the Seventeen Runs section, the Hillsborough converges into a single river channel where you will find Sargeant Wilderness Memorial Park.  It too is located off of US Hwy 301 further south of Dead River Park.  However, it is easily accessible and has restrooms and an improved canoe launch.  A Tampa based livery, Canoe Escapes uses Sargeant Park for a drop-off point for rental canoe trips going downstream to Morris Bridge Park (2hr paddle) or further to Trout Creek Park (4hr paddle).  Group canoe trips are a common sight but they pass by relatively quickly and almost always ask “catch anything?”

    Sargeant Park is mostly a downstream fishing trip.  You may go north towards the Seventeen Runs section, but you’ll encounter many laydowns (it’s not maintained by Canoe Escapes).  If you decide to go north, I recommend the use of smaller kayaks that can maneuver around and “slide” over the laydowns.  With a little work this section may produce a fishing bonanza as it receives little pressure.

    Downstream is pretty straight-forward as river fishing goes. Fish stumps, bushes, lily-pads etc. It is 4 miles to Morris Bridge Park, so if your fishing with a friend the best option is leave a vehicle at Morris Bridge Park and float this section.  It a 2 hour paddle, so most likely a 4 hour fishing trip.

Morris Bridge Park

    Morris Bridge Park is located on Morris Bridge Road (go figure).  From I-75 take the Fletcher Avenue/Morris Bridge Road exit and turn east onto Morris Bridge Road.  The park entrance is a few miles from I-75 (if you cross the Hillsborough River you went too far).  Unfortunately, I have not fished this section of the Hillsborough River.  However, I can tell you that the park has a good boat ramp/canoe launch. In addition, there are picnic pavilions and restrooms. This is the narrowest section of the Hillsborough River, but there is fair pool on the upstream and downstream sides of the park. This is “standard” river fishing; fish laydowns, stumps, lillypads, and any current break structure.  My recommendation is use Morris Bridge Park as a pick-up, drop-off, or mid-point lunch spot for floating the river (starting at Sargeant Park).

Trout Creek Park

A view of the river at Trout Creek Park

    Trout Creek Park is located on Morris Bridge Road just east of I-75. Once you turn off of I-75, the park entrance is just a “hop-skip and jump” from the exit.  Trout Creek Park is probably my favorite section of the Hillsborough River.  Because of a flood control structure located downstream there is an excellent pool both upstream and downstream.  The park itself has a picnic pavilions and restrooms.  It’s also a popular trailhead for the mountain bike trails that connect with the rest of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park.

    This section of the Hillsborough contains an abundance of lillypads and hyacinth patches as well as cypress trees.   Find any combination of these and you’ll find bass.  The bass will quickly let you know their activity…if you don’t get a strike within 15-20 minutes of fishing you’ll need to slow down or try something else.  Fish upstream until you get to “Natures Classroom”, a nature center owned by the local school board for middle and elementary school programs (there is a dock with boats floating in the river).  Above Natures Classroom the river gets too narrow to fish effectively. 

    Below Trout Creek Park the river is also deep and wide but does not contain as much the vegetation as the upper section.  Again, this is “standard” river fishing; fish laydowns, stumps, lilypads, and any current break structure.  Further downstream you’ll find Lettuce Lake, which is a park itself (Lettuce Lake Park).  Unfortunately, Lettuce Lake Park does not have a canoe launch, so access to Lettuce Lake is limited to 2 options. One, float downstream from Trout Creek Park; two, paddle upstream from Fowler Park located in Temple Terrace on Fowler Avenue.  Because of its lack of access Lettuce Lake receives little fishing pressure.

    Well there you have it.  Hopefully, you will find the Hillsborough River as enjoyable as I do.  It’s great to have a natural resource such as this so close to a larger metropolitan area.  And if by chance the fish do not cooperate, relax and enjoy the surroundings!