Guide To Tilapia Fishing: Tips For a Huge Catch

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Tilapia are far from being the most difficult to catch fish species in the world. But even these small guys have quite a few things that you should know about.

Well, if you were looking to do tilapia fishing, then our comprehensive tilapia fishing guide should help you with getting started!

Identifying Tilapia

It’s first important to be able to identify tilapia. While tilapia is the common name for a hundred species of cichlid fish, when anglers say tilapia, they usually imply the blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus). With that said, there are many other more or less famous tilapia species, including the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).

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Tilapia generally have laterally compressed deep bodies with long dorsal fins. The front portion of the dorsal fins is heavily spined. Spines may also be found in the pelvic and anal fins.

While these traits are shared between tilapia species, there are some unique features that make each species stand out. Among the distinct features of blue tilapia, as indicated by the US Geological Survey’s Nonindigenous Aquatic Species resource, are:

  • Metallic blue coloration for males.
  • 15-16 dorsal spines.
  • 27-30 dorsal fin rays.
  • No distinct stripes/bands.
  • Vermillion dorsal fin margin.

At the same time, the Nile tilapia’s distinctive features are as follows:

  • Red coloration for males.
  • 16-18 dorsal spines.
  • 29-31 dorsal fin rays.
  • Distinct dark stripes.
  • Dark gray/black dorsal fin margin.

There’s also the Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) with a dull greenish to yellow coloration, sometimes with weak banding.

Tilapia’s Spawning Season

To maximize your catch, you should be looking for tilapia amidst their spawning season.

Now, tilapias spawn throughout the year with varying rates, but the peak of the spawning appears to be around January-March and July-September. However, the study that discovered these time frames has been carried out from in 1987-1988 in Lake Awassa, Ethiopia. How exactly the spawning season peaks are in the United States is difficult to say.

With that said, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Nile tilapia produce as many as 1,200 eggs per spawn, and they can spawn throughout the year. Under ideal farming conditions, female tilapias spawn every 17 days. This time span probably won’t be able to be used for practical purposes since if you can fish in ideal conditions, then you probably are a farmer and don’t need any guides.

One piece of info that may help you with catching tilapia is that they are very sensitive to temperatures. In particular, they tolerate low temperatures badly. Even though tilapias can adapt to a wide variety of conditions, water temperature is a serious limit for them.

The pure strain of the blue tilapia dies at 45 degrees Fahrenheit, while other species die at water temperatures of 52-62 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As for optimal temps, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, blue tilapia spawn when the water temperature exceeds 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Other species should also spawn near these temperatures.

Overall, what this means is that as long as you are angling in warm seasons, you should be able to find plenty of fish.

What you should also know is that tilapia get very territorial during the spawning season, and they get aggravated by nearly anything that disturbs their territorial integrity. This actually makes attracting tilapia towards the bait pretty easy, given that you are fishing at the right time.

Where You Can Find Tilapia

Tilapia mainly live in shallow freshwater streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, or other water bodies. Tilapia can sometimes be found in brackish water, but your best bet is to look for this fish in freshwater bodies.

Although Tilapia are native to Africa and the Middle East, they have been introduced to a wide range of locations throughout the world in part due to their unique mild taste. Aside from that, tilapia have been used to control aquatic plant growth – this is because tilapia are very invasive due to their territorial behavior and their sensitivity to water conditions.

In the United States, wild populations of tilapia (any species) may be found in southern states. You probably won’t find this fish species in other states due to lower temperatures, unless someone has a fish farm. But needless to say, you won’t be able to fish at a fish farm.

There are some other locations in the US where blue tilapia have been observed. You may check out the US Geological Survey’s Nonindigenous Aquatic Species resource for more information.

As it turns out, tilapia have been observed in quite a few states, even though southern areas still remain the best places to look for tilapia. Tilapia have recently been observed in the following states:

  • Florida (2019).
  • Ohio (2017).
  • South Carolina (2017).
  • Texas (2017).

Florida and Texas appear to be the best places to fish for tilapia in since they have 33 and 44 areas respectively where tilapia have been observed. You may be able to find tilapia in a few other areas, but that’s less likely.

The Nile tilapia is a little less abundant in the United States. According to the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species information resource, there are 17 areas in Florida where Nile tilapia have been observed. For other states, the number of areas of observation doesn’t exceed 4. For the Nile tilapia, the best place for fishing is thus the waters of Florida.

As for Mozambique tilapia, this kind of tilapia is again pretty abundant in Florida where it has been observed in 10 areas. 

Wild Mozambique tilapia populations also appear to be in Arizona and California with 14 observation areas each, though the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species resource says that there have been no recent observations of the Mozambique tilapia in these areas.

Necessary Equipment for Tilapia Fishing

Tilapia are small fish, and you don’t really need exceptional equipment to have a good catch. The most important piece of advice to follow is to use lighter fishing tackle since there is no need to go overkill on your equipment. Nile and blue tilapia usually weigh around 5 pounds, whereas Mozambique tilapia is somewhere around 1.5-2 pounds.

Lures/baits

You may use either lures or baits to attract tilapia. If you didn’t know, lures are artificial, while bait is live food.

With lures, you can take advantage of the territorial instincts of tilapia – as mentioned above, they are very territorial, and it’s pretty easy to attract them to a piece of plastic. As for live bait, they are best for attracting starving tilapia.

If using lures, make sure to use shorter lures that mimic small fish. And if using live bait, go for plant foods such as corn and peas or for bread balls. Bread balls sized as a large grape should be good enough. Fish pellets also work great with tilapia.

Hooks

There are plenty of fishing hook types out there, and they all can work well with tilapia. With that said, you should choose smaller hooks – size 6 hooks with around 12-inch leaders should be good enough.

Fishing rod & reel

The optimal fishing rod size for tilapia is between 6 and 7 feet. And since tilapia are small and light, a monofilament test line with a weight of 4-8 pounds should be more than enough.

As for the reel, you will have to choose a proper reel for your fishing rod and line combo. Do additional research to find out which reel is going to work with your equipment.

Umbrella rigs

You may also use umbrella rigs since they can be very effective with tilapia. An umbrella rig allows you to cast several lures/baits at once. Usually, umbrella rigs have 5 attachment points.

You may find umbrella rigs at local fishing tackle stores, online, or make one yourself if you are up to it.

Other Things You May Need for Fishing

You need to have not only fishing equipment – you will also have to take care of some legal stuff. Most importantly, you may have to get two papers – a fishing license/permit and fishing endorsement.

Fishing license/permit

In all states but one (Hawaii), you are required to obtain a fishing license if fishing for recreational purposes. Fishing licenses can be purchased annually for a small fee (usually below $50 for state residents) or for life.

Keep in mind that not everybody needs to acquire a fishing license – each state has its list of exemptions, so you better check them before buying a license.

Also, keep in mind that a fishing license bought in one state is valid only in that state. If you are a resident of one state but want to fish in another, then you will have to get a non-resident fishing license in that state.

Fishing endorsement

In some states, you may also have to purchase a fishing endorsement. In Texas, for example, you have to buy either a freshwater or saltwater endorsement (or both) in addition to a fishing license. Again, make sure to check local regulations to see whether you need to buy any additional endorsements or tags.

State Fishing Requirements

When fishing tilapia, there may be a few limitations imposed by each state. While there appear to be no state-enforced limits on tilapia fishing at the moment, and they’re probably won’t be any in the near future, you should check state regulations from time to time.

Tilapia are very invasive fish species, and their populations are growing very quickly – the low-temperature tolerance and the territorial behavior of tilapia are the main contributors to this. Tilapias are known to cause rapid population declines in other fish species, which ultimately brings imbalance to the ecosystems they are in.

Tilapia is so invasive that they’ve been included in the Invasive Species Specialist Group’s top 100 of worst invasive alien species

According to the Global Invasive Species Database, the Mozambique tilapia is suspected to be a threat to Hawaii’s native species such as striped mullet. Tilapia is also considered to have had a major impact on the decline of the desert pupfish populations in the Salton Sea area.

Due to the harm that can be caused by tilapia, possession or transport of alive tilapia may be forbidden in your area.

Even if there are no possession restrictions in your area, you should be careful with tilapia. We suggest that you keep and cook all the tilapias that you catch.

The Importance of Proper Posture

Fishing tilapia requires prolonged periods of standing and sitting, so you should maintain a posture that’s comfortable for you. Exercise may also be able to prevent you from early fatigue. Besides, you may want to practice catching easier fish to build endurance. 

How to Catch Tilapia

You should now know everything you should about tilapia. You may check the links provided above for additional information on the behavior, spawning seasons, or characteristics of tilapia.

Now, let’s have at a look at how you should be catching tilapia step-by-step. Keep in mind that the guide below implies some basic knowledge of fishing techniques, equipment, and terminology.

Prepare the bait

First, you need to prepare your bait or lures. You will need to do little to no preparation if using artificial lures, but if going for live bait, there are some things you should do.

If you want to use bread balls, then make them from old and wet bread. You may add some cheese to the bread, as well as leave it in the fridge overnight to make the balls more durable.

If using fishing pellets, then you need to soak them in water for 5-10 minutes. This is necessary to make the hard pellets softer and spongier. You can soak the pellets right in the bags they come in. 

Don’t use too much water since the pellets will become soggy and may stick to each other. Instead, use a small amount of hot water and shake the bag to make sure that all the pellets get wet.

After pouring the water out, allow the pellets to expand for around 30 minutes. You may then apply some bait powder to the pellets to add flavor to them.

Pick the right time and spot

Then, of course, comes picking the right spot and the right time. You should look for tilapia:

  • In the southern areas of the United States.
  • In freshwater bodies like ponds, rivers, or streams, though tilapia can also live in brackish water. Check the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species information resource to find out where blue tilapia, Nile tilapia, and Mozambique tilapia have been observed the most. 
  • At not too great depths since tilapia live in shallow water. Staying along the shoreline is the best option.
  • At daytime since catching tilapia is difficult at night, though possible.
  • In warmer seasons when the tilapia have their spawning season. As mentioned above, tilapia are very territorial and thus easier to aggravate and attract to a lure during the spawning season.

It’s important to know that tilapia are shy, and they will stay away or hide from you. Due to this, you shouldn’t be invasive.

Aside from that, be sure to stay away from tilapia’s spawning beds. You could scare the fish away into cover, missing your chance of having any catch at all.

Fasten the lure/bait

When fastening the lure or bait, make sure that the hook is exposed. Otherwise, the fish will eat the lure without getting trapped into it. This advice actually applies to any fish.

If you picked properly sized lures/bait, then you should have no problems with ensuring that the hook is exposed.

Cast the lure into the water

Then comes the time to cast your lure or bait into the water.

Now, you may cast the lure/bait into the water immediately. However, you may first try to attract the fish to your spot with fishing pellets.

Throw some fishing pellets into the water around 15-20 feet away from the shore. Then, wait for tilapia to appear. If no fish show up within a few minutes, throw fishing pellets into the water again. If fish still does not appear, then you have probably chosen a bad time or fishing spot.

Once tilapia appear, cast your bait near the area where you had cast the fishing pellets. It will be just a matter of time until the tilapia reach your bait.

Gently lift the tilapia out from the water

Once the float dives, you will have to lift the tilapia out of the water in 3-5 seconds. Make sure to lift the hook gently – tilapia have soft mouths which can be easily torn into shreds. Gently control the fishing rod and reel but expect to apply some force since bigger tilapia may give a good fight.

Final Words

Now, you should know all the important things about tilapia fishing.

There are many more things for you to learn well beyond what we’ve covered in this post. However, for getting started, this should be enough.

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We suggest that you give a good read to all the sources we’ve cited throughout the material. These will provide you with some extra insight into how tilapia behave and where they live. 

And finally, don’t forget to check state fishing regulations, though tilapia at the moment do appear not to have any fishing restrictions on them.

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