by Larry Larsen, Bass & Caribbean Travel Editor

Finding America's favorite fishing & diving waters.

More than 8,000 miles of relatively unpolluted coastline, Gulf Stream-swept clear waters, natural and artificial reefs, and a network of freshwater springs make Florida a land of opportunity for anglers and divers alike. Warm waters from the Gulf Stream bathe the mid-Atlantic south to the Keys and influence the Gulf on the west coast north to Tampa Bay.

The resulting sub-tropical environment impacts waters off the barrier island system along the Atlantic, the mangrove islands on the lower west coast, and the salt-marsh estuaries of the upper Gulf coast. The abundance and variety of marine life in Florida's coastal waters is unsurpassed in this country. It deserves attention and respect, meaning that we should all try to enjoy it and conserve it.

The state's saltwater fishing opportunities are seasonal in many cases. So it's important to time your travel and target species so you're at the right spot at the right time.

As the water temperature warms, sailfish move north in the spring along the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico. On the Atlantic side, they move north with the Gulf Stream. In the late fall, decreasing water temperature and a southerly migration of baitfish motivate the sails to retrace their travels back south along both coasts.

Spanish and king mackerel move northward each spring along both coasts from their winter ocean home off the lower one-third of Florida's peninsula. Similarly, tarpon move north and south at the dictates of the seasonal weather and spawning urges, and the popular three-some of redfish, snook and trout move from shallow flats to deeper waters with colder water temperatures.

Pods of cobia migrate north and west along panhandle coasts from Steinhatchee to Pensacola each March. By April, they inhabit the markers and artificial reefs over the entire area. On the Atlantic side, cobia are abundant off the northeast coast in the summer months. During the fall and winter, they take up residence along the central Gulf coast and lower east coast.

Floridians have known all along they have the best diving in the Northern Hemisphere. Visitors acknowledge it, too, and more than two million of them from all over the world visit the Florida Keys annually, making it the most dived location on earth.

Each underwater section of Florida is vastly different from another, according to 25-year long diver, M. Timothy O'Keefe. The co-author of the book, Fish & Dive Florida, claims Florida is really three separate states -- The Panhandle, Central Florida and South Florida -- combined into one. He believes that the underwater regions contain a magnificent scope of diversity such as to reflect a whole different universe.

But it is a potentially hostile universe, more receptive to visitors at certain times than others. Florida's best diving is from April/May to October. That is the period of calmest and clearest water and, in truth, the only time to plan an extended dive vacation unless you have time and money to burn. If you want a sure thing, wait until summer. Even then, diving may be limited primarily to the morning because of the frequent afternoon thundershowers which send everyone scampering for shore. If you always schedule your two tanks for the morning, afternoons become more of an option: for another dive or to sight-see on land, always worth doing.

Remember, travel posters and travel ads depict the ideal image of Florida, not reality. Even the fabled Keys are virtually undiveable whenever a winter cold front passes through. Waves of 5-6 feet or more may keep boats at the dock for days at a time unless you can round up enough Rambo divers to go out whatever the conditions, hellish and high water. Storms also stir up the bottom and reduce visibility for days.

Don't expect to come to Florida and find good ocean diving every time of the year. And bring a full wet suit for fall, winter and early spring. The water may be warm enough for bathers who dash in and out, but not for divers who stay submerged for an hour at a time. Even bold Canadians who attempt to dive the Keys in winter without wet suits return to the boat with their teeth sounding like castanets.

Florida's best salt water diving is on the Atlantic side, from the Palm Beaches to Key West and the Dry Tortugas. This is the region with the living coral reef, which is the underpinning of Florida's unique marine ecosystem.

In winter, the best diving is actually in fresh water, in the massive spring system found throughout the Panhandle and Central Florida. Divers come from as far away as Texas and Tennessee for long weekend trips in fresh water then, knowing the springs are the place to find consistently clear water and no adverse wind conditions.

Our travel promotion industry has given many visitors the impression that Florida is paradise year-round. Not quite, but I wouldn't be surprised if the imagineers at Orlando's Disney World aren't working on it.

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