Research has identified numerous conservation benefits attributed to the use of marine protected areas (MPAs), yet comparatively less is known about the effectiveness of freshwater protected areas (FPAs). This study assessed multiple long‐standing (>70 years active) intra‐lake FPAs in three lakes in eastern Ontario, Canada, to evaluate their potential conservation benefits. These FPAs were intended initially to protect exploited populations of largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides (Lacépède, 1802)), but since their establishment no empirical data have been collected to evaluate the effectiveness of FPAs for protecting bass or the broader fish community. A comparative biological census of fish species abundance, biomass and species richness was conducted using snorkelling surveys within FPAs, along the bordering transition zones, and in more distant non‐protected areas of the lake that had similar habitats to the FPAs. In general, the FPAs yielded benefits that were most obvious (in terms of abundance and biomass) for the focal protected species (i.e. largemouth bass) as well as several shiner species. Largemouth bass and shiner abundance and biomass were highest in the FPA, lowest in the distant non‐protected areas, and intermediate in the transition zone. Species richness was also highest in the FPAs in two of the three lakes. Collectively, these results support the use of FPAs as a viable and effective conservation strategy that extends beyond simply limiting the exploitation of a target species. Beyond the benefits afforded to fish within the FPA, evidence of spillover in adjacent areas was also observed, which is promising. Additional research is needed on the effectiveness of FPAs in a variety of regions and water‐body types facing various threats in an effort to understand when, where and how to best use FPAs to benefit aquatic biodiversity.