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A method to estimate speed of free-ranging fishes using a passive sampling device is described and illustrated with data from the Everglades, U.S.A. Catch per unit effort (CPUE) from minnow traps embedded in drift fences was treated as an encounter rate and used to estimate speed, when combined with an independent estimate of density obtained by use of throw traps that enclose 1 m2 of marsh habitat. Underwater video was used to evaluate capture efficiency and species-specific bias of minnow traps and two sampling studies were used to estimate trap saturation and diel-movement patterns; these results were used to optimize sampling and derive correction factors to adjust species-specific encounter rates for bias and capture efficiency. Sailfin mollies Poecilia latipinna displayed a high frequency of escape from traps, whereas eastern mosquitofish Gambusia holbrooki were most likely to avoid a trap once they encountered it; dollar sunfish Lepomis marginatus were least likely to avoid the trap once they encountered it or to escape once they were captured. Length of sampling and time of day affected CPUE; fishes generally had a very low retention rate over a 24 h sample time and only the Everglades pygmy sunfish Elassoma evergladei were commonly captured at night. Dispersal speed of fishes in the Florida Everglades, U.S.A., was shown to vary seasonally and among species, ranging from 0· 05 to 0· 15 m s−1 for small poeciliids and fundulids to 0· 1 to 1· 8 m s−1 for L. marginatus. Speed was generally highest late in the wet season and lowest in the dry season, possibly tied to dispersal behaviours linked to finding and remaining in dry-season refuges. These speed estimates can be used to estimate the diffusive movement rate, which is commonly employed in spatial ecological models.