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
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.
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...