EMER­ALD COAST HOT SPOT, IN­SIDE & OUT

Sprawl­ing Bays and the Clear Wa­ters of the Gulf of Mex­ico Of­fer Wide-Open Fish­ing Around Florida’s Panama City

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Doug Olan­der

AAs we skimmed over the mir­ror-calm sur­face of Saint An­drew Bay, en route from Sun Har­bor Ma­rina to the DuPont (High­way 98) bridge that sep­a­rates Saint An­drew from East Bay, I mar­veled at how large an area of in­shore wa­ters sprawled north­west, north­east and south­east of Panama City. I had no idea.

“Our en­tire sys­tem in­cludes four bays,” ex­plained Capt. Matt Smith, our guide for the day: “West Bay, North Bay, Saint An­drew Bay and East Bay.” These to­tal up to nearly 170,000 acres of water, Smith pointed out. And a glance at a map shows an as­ton­ish­ing amount of fish­able shore­line.

Given the ideal weather on that early-sum­mer morn­ing, I kept look­ing for other boats with an­glers also in­tent on hook­ing some bull red­fish. But as Smith po­si­tioned his 21-foot Cobia bay boat near the bridge chan­nel and dropped an­chor, I noted that we had the whole area to our­selves.

BULL REDS AND F-16S

We in­tended to fish some of the Storm soft plas­tics that my fish­ing part­ner, Dan Quinn with Ra­pala, had brought down with him from Min­nesota. Smith had plenty of small, live men­haden — cast-net­ted that morn­ing — fill­ing his baitwell, and he ex­plained that plas­tics could be dy­na­mite in shal­lower ar­eas of the bays, but here in nearly 20 feet of water, they were a much tougher sell.

Nev­er­the­less, the in­trepid Quinn did hook a good fish on a 360 GT Largo Shad from Storm’s Coastal series, his first bull red drum ever. But bow­ing to the power of live baits, we put some of Smith’s pogies to good use, land­ing sev­eral more reds to at least 30 pounds, giv­ing our light spin­ning out­fits quite a work­out.

Then the air show started.

It takes a con­sid­er­able dis­trac­tion to make die-hard an­glers re­di­rect their at­ten­tion from a live bait in im­mi­nent like­li­hood of be­ing eaten by a ra­pa­cious tro­phy-size red­fish, but when F-16s, F-22s and other fighter jets be­gan sneak­ing up on us — mov­ing so fast that un­less watch­ing, we were aware of them only when they thun­dered by over­head in the blink of an eye — it be­came hard to con­cen­trate on other things.

There’s noth­ing to bring out the 8-year-old in a lot of guys like fighter jets, and it turned out we were fish­ing in their flight path — lots and lots of them — prac­tic­ing take­offs and land­ings at Tyn­dall Air Force Base, a stone’s throw south of the bridge.

I think Smith was amused at our awe, hav­ing long since got­ten used to this phe­nom­e­non. Grad­u­ally, I man­aged to fo­cus on the rea­son we were here. It helped that the fre­quency of over­flights slowed. About the same time, the tide slowed as well, as then did the red­fish bite.

LIGHT-TACKLE TOMFOOLERY

For­tu­nately, we be­gan see­ing splashes and swirls as some­thing drove small white bait to the sur­face. I picked up a lit­tle Shi­mano Stradic 3000 and slid a Ra­pala Shadow Rap Shad in an

Bow­ing to the power of live baits, we put some of Smith’s pogies to good use, land­ing sev­eral more reds to at least 30 pounds, giv­ing our light spin­ning out­fits quite a work­out.

al­bino shiner color (think white pearl) onto my snap, tossed it out, and be­gan er­rat­i­cally work­ing the lure jerk­bait-style, in sharp, quick snaps. Al­most at once, in a sil­ver flash, I had hooked up. The bush­whacker turned out to be a small blue­fish.

Quinn joined me, throw­ing a small 360 GT Largo Shad on a light lead-head, and both of us stayed busy with slash­ing strikes of small but al­ways ag­gres­sive blues, with la­dy­fish and Span­ish mack­erel mixed in.

Soon, Smith weighed an­chor and we headed far­ther up into East Bay.

Some­where in the vicin­ity of mid­bay, the sounder dis­played the bot­tom abruptly ris­ing from about 8 feet to 3 feet or so — a large sandy shoal.

Though usu­ally fishier (and ap­par­ently at times troutier) than it proved to­day, we did hook some jacks, and I landed an­other, con­sid­er­ably larger, Span­ish mack­erel while fish­ing the same Shadow Rap Shad, and missed what might have been a small tar­pon.

By this time — mid­morn­ing — we had caught sight of maybe two or three other boats with an­glers, and ap­pre­ci­ated the tran­quil­ity of the East Bay. That, how­ever, was about to change.

FLOUN­DER IN THE FREE-FOR-ALL

Floun­der fish­ing in these wa­ters can be pro­duc­tive this time of year if you fish the right place. On this day, Smith said, the right place would be Saint An­drew Bay Pass, where the Gulf fun­nels into and out of the ex­ten­sive bay sys­tem sur­round­ing Panama City.

The pass and wa­ters around it proved to be pretty an­ti­thet­i­cal to our ex­pe­ri­ence back in the bays, with all man­ner and sizes of boats head­ing in and out. De­spite the traf­fic, Smith dropped an­chor and, bounc­ing in the wash­board of wakes, we dropped live pogies to the bot­tom, about 30 feet down.

Once again, Smith proved true to his word: Shortly af­ter, we boated our first south­ern floun­der and, just af­ter an­other, a small gag grouper.

In­tent on adding to the day’s al­ready no­table va­ri­ety, Smith moved us to the end of the east jetty, a fa­vorite spot to catch man­grove (gray) snap­per. Bingo: We caught sev­eral gray snap­per, on lit­tle liveys just off the rocks (keep­ing our lines away from the per­sonal wa­ter­craft dash­ing around jetty’s end).

By then it was about mid­day. Smith, like most in­shore guides here fish­ing the long days of sum­mer, gen­er­ally runs two half-day trips — roughly 7 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., or there­abouts. So we headed back to the ma­rina, plenty sat­is­fied af­ter a busy, fishy out­ing.

June’s a great time to con­nect with the va­ri­ety these bays of­fer, but then, it’s hard to go wrong any­time. “We truly have a year-round in­shore fish­ery here,” Smith says. That in­cludes trout and reds on the flats, spring through fall (the morn­ing we fished, the tide wasn’t right for that fish­ery).

Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber are Smith’s fa­vorite months to fo­cus on fish­ing the in­let for bull reds. (Smith cus­tom­ar­ily re­leases red­fish to help en­sure the fu­ture of this out­stand­ing fish­ery.)

March and April find him there tar­get­ing sheepshead. Sum­mer bait­fish mi­gra­tions of­fer the best ac­tion for floun­der, man­grove snap­per

Sum­mer bait­fish mi­gra­tions of­fer the best ac­tion for floun­der, man­grove snap­per and Span­ish mack­erel, as well as species drawn in by the bait, in­clud­ing jacks, blue­fish, black­tip sharks and some­times tar­pon.

and Span­ish mack­erel, as well as species drawn in by the bait, in­clud­ing jacks, blue­fish, black­tip sharks and some­times tar­pon.

GAME ON OFF­SHORE

A change-up was in store for our sec­ond and third days fish­ing out of Panama City. Armed with slightly heav­ier gear, we met up with Capt. Matt Par­ramore and our third an­gler, who hap­pened to be Matt’s spouse, Jen­nifer, in his Cape Horn 27 at Panama City Ma­rina to fish off­shore.

The sunny, calm weather of the day be­fore had given way to gray skies and the sound of rolling thun­der here and there, so we opted to tar­get nearshore wa­ters with bait and lures — again, with va­ri­ety in mind. Fish­ing any­where from a cou­ple of miles or so off the beach up to 10 or 12 miles out, we spent a good bit of our time drift-jig­ging in 60 to 130 feet of water on a va­ri­ety of spots from Par­ramore’s lit­tle book of num­bers.

Typ­i­cal of the north­ern Gulf, large struc­tural re­lief from the gen­er­ally flat bot­tom wasn’t re­quired to find fish; even small ar­eas of mod­est rub­ble could hold preda­tors.

Cast­ing a mix of Wil­liamson Koika metal slow-pitch jigs and Ar­row Head lead-head buck­tail jigs, we did par­tic­u­larly well with king mack­erel of re­spectable size (and some a good

bit larger), as well as — in­evitably — red snap­per (though we re­leased all of them by law) and other species.

Had red snap­per sea­son been open and had we wanted to tar­get them, Par­ramore could have put us on some larger wrecks typ­i­cally cov­ered with snap­per. Be­yond red snap­per, a dozen or more species will very pos­si­bly be pulled over the gun­wales on any given day fish­ing off­shore of Panama City (see the chart “Species Avail­abil­ity: Panama City”).

With the jigs per­form­ing well, we ended up us­ing few of the live cigar min­nows that Par­ramore had bought at a bait re­ceiver af­ter leav­ing the ma­rina. We added a cou­ple of big kings to the to­tal by trolling Ra­pala’s deep-div­ing X-Rap Magnum 40s.

While drift­ing the north­ern Gulf, it can pay to try what­ever ar­ti­fi­cials you think could work. I had fun with some smaller kings and tunny while cast­ing and re­triev­ing with hard jerks a 5-inch X-Rap Salt­wa­ter crankbait on one of the light (in­shore) spin­ning out­fits I’d brought. Although we didn’t break out the kites that day, Par­ramore is a fan of dan­gling live run­ners from kites for big kings and other sur­face-ori­ented game fish.

PEAK TIME FOR PELAGICS

While the ac­tion can be good any­time of the year, weather per­mit­ting, late spring/early sum­mer is Par­ramore’s fa­vorite pe­riod. “The water’s start­ing to warm up, and bait­fish are mi­grat­ing in close,” at­tract­ing coastal pelagics such as cobia and kings, as well as am­ber­jack and snap­per. About that time, larger blue­wa­ter pelagic game fish turn on as well. While Par­ramore typ­i­cally fo­cuses on the va­ri­ety of coastal pelagics within an hour or so of the beach, the skip­per is all about blue­wa­ter big game. Given the shal­low slope of the Gulf, he points out that a run of 60 to 120 miles is re­quired to fish where blue mar­lin roam.

On the other hand, off­shore game fish (other than blue mar­lin) can be found at times within a few miles of the coast. “I’ve seen peo­ple catch dol­phin and sail­fish off the pier!” he points out.

Whether near or far, dol­phin (mahi) rate as a fa­vorite for Par­ramore. “I love fish­ing for dol­phin. We run-and-gun a lot, look­ing for weeds and float­ing de­bris. Dol­phin are usu­ally un­der what­ever we find.”

Par­ramore is a mem­ber of the Dol­phin­fish Re­search Tag­ging Pro­gram; he notes that a dol­phin he tagged 20 miles off Panama City was re­cap­tured 45 days later off Freeport in the Ba­hamas.

My take-away from this visit to Panama City is that there’s no short­age of ac­tiv­i­ties and events go­ing on in a des­ti­na­tion that is suc­ceed­ing as a Gulf tourist mecca. But any­time I should hap­pen to be back here, I’ll be fo­cus­ing on the fish­ing, since there’s al­ways some­thing go­ing down, in­shore or off­shore.

Near the Dupont (High­way 98) Bridge, sep­a­rat­ing St. An­drew and East bays, Dan Quinn hooks up on a soft plas­tic.

Floun­der are highly sought and widely avail­able in the bay sys­tem around Panama City. Capt. Matt Smith can usu­ally find the tasty flat­fish.

Above: A se­ri­ous bull red­fish let Dan Quinn, vis­it­ing from Min­nesota, scratch one goal off his bucket list. Be­low: Quinn’s bucket list was fur­ther re­duced when he boated this huge smoker king, as­sisted by Capt. Matt Par­ramore (left), af­ter it struck...

Slow-pitch metal jigs, like Wil­liamson’s Koika, proved ef­fec­tive for kings up in the water col­umn and red snap­per be­low them. As is true for the en­tire Gulf, red snap­per have be­come abun­dant (to the point, dur­ing most of the year when re­ten­tion is not...

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