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Experience The Northern Gulf’s High-Catch Fishery

Capt. Steve Dougherty July 19, 2012

Over the years I’ve had the good fortune of traveling to some of the most critically acclaimed angling destinations in the entire world. While I’ve experienced highs and lows, I wouldn’t trade the friendships and experiences for anything. And although I truly enjoy hopping on a plane and getting off the grid, nothing compares to a hot-bite in your home waters. One trip that is engrained in my mind was a recent excursion to the Pacific Coast of Panama. After a 9-hour flight delay we finally made it to Panama City. Due to logistics we were forced to spend the night and as a result, lost an entire day of fishing on an already short itinerary. As we fell asleep to dreams of enraged black marlin we awoke to yet another bump in the road. Over the course of the night there was a major earthquake in Japan and consequently, a tsunami warning for the coastal regions of the Pacific Ocean. With yet another major delay getting to our mothership based operation in the Pacific, I thought to myself what else could go wrong. When the warnings passed and we finally made it to our home away from home we were greeted with a red tide that further limited our offshore endeavors. So it goes traveling to foreign destinations on the hunt for big fish. And although the good times outweigh the bad times, little did I know there was an epic fishery within reach that’s accessible without the need to board a plane or stamp a passport.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

Nestled along the Emerald Coast of Florida, Destin originated as a small fishing village and has exploded into a tourist Mecca. While white sand beaches, emerald green waters and populations of cobia and redfish attract anglers from across the country, the offshore action is where it’s at. Believe it or not, I’ve lived in South Florida my entire life but have never taken the initiative to visit the Panhandle. This however has been a serious mistake.

While I’ve seen impressive weedlines in The Bahamas and Florida Keys, the edges we were trolling were what dreams are made of.

While I normally have a good idea of what I’m getting into, for this trip I really had no clue what to expect. The doom and gloom story of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had been played out and I was really curious to what we would encounter. Nonetheless, I packed my truck and along with my buddy Captain Ben Espinoza, made the 600-mile trek with camera gear in tow. One of our field reporters from the Panhandle hooked me up with Captain Kevin Moke who runs the 58′ G&S Papi. If you’re not familiar, G&S has been building custom sport fishing boats for over 30 years and has over 50 vessels chasing game fish around the world. The thing about these custom works of art and the reason they are used by serious crews looking for world record fame is their impressive and unmatched handling and agility. Papi is the original Mollie, which is legendary in the northern Gulf, with the owners currently running their third G&S. Both Papi and Mollie rest at Harbor Docks, which is nothing short of legendary itself. This place is incredibly fishy and hosts the annual Cobia World Championship, with this year’s winner hoisting a 98.6-pound brute. Although cobia fishing piques my interest, we were in search of the pelagic targets that really get my blood boiling.

Although you may consider the Panhandle as an inshore destination, the area’s offshore waters feature first-class blue water opportunities that deserve keen investigation. The prolific offshore waters of the northern Gulf can be attributed to the varying bottom contours and structure in the otherwise desolate expanse of open ocean. However, the only downside is that to reach promising waters requires a run upwards of 50 to 100-miles. Some may agree that this is a burden, but in my eyes this is a welcomed benefit. In my home waters of South Florida anglers can reach 1,500-foot depths less than 20 miles from shore, making prized pelagic targets within range of nearly every outboard powered vessel. Because of the long run to reach fishy waters in the Gulf, the game fish you seek see much less pressure. This isn’t to say that they aren’t routinely targeted, rather they are only scoured by die-hard crews willing to put in the time and effort to get connected. Another benefit I welcomed with open arms was the fact that most crews perform overnight excursions to capitalize on the bounty. This meant I would be able to fully enjoy my first offshore excursion to the northern Gulf on the superbly capable G&S.

While the opportunities are indeed incredible, there is a lot of water to explore and the relative lack of pressure means there aren’t as many reports to point you in the right direction. You are really on your own, but well known hot-spots like the Nipple, Spur, Elbow, DeSoto Canyon and Dumping Grounds give anglers a good starting point. In addition, freshwater run off from the Mississippi Delta can greatly influence the location of clean blue water. While you could certainly head offshore from any port in the northern Gulf and win big, with the aid of satellite-based fishing forecasts captains in the know are afforded a better understanding of areas worthy of dropping the riggers. Thankfully, Captain Kevin Moke has years of experience fishing these waters and knows exactly what to look for and where.

Although downloadable charts help captains monitor prevalent conditions and locate prime stretches of water, it is only with a knowledgeable captain that you will be able to determine movement and direction of convergence zones and where they will likely be encountered days after the release of area forecasts. While these dynamic charts result in substantial fuel savings, they aren’t the end all answer. Once on location anglers need to be aware of weedlines, temperature breaks and disturbed current edges in the vicinity of the aforementioned bathymetric features. On our way to the grounds we passed several weedlines and current edges that I would have certainly stopped and tried our luck, although we pressed on for greener pastures.

Captain Kevin was right on the money, and only five minutes after setting the spread we had a white marlin on the line. While I’ve seen impressive weedlines in The Bahamas and Florida Keys, the edges we were trolling were what dreams are made of. And the fact that we only saw three boats over the course of the entire trip made it even more remarkable. From this point forward the action never slowed, with blue and white marlin, wahoo, dolphin and tuna keeping the crew on their toes resetting the spread and rigging ballyhoo. In our first four hours of trolling we released a blue marlin and boated several gaffer dolphin and speedy wahoo. From the tuna tower we also spotted blue and white marlin casually milling down the edge as they plucked off chicken dolphin. The entire time I couldn’t get over the fact that I’ve lived in Florida my entire life, yet never experienced the Gulf’s rich offshore bounty. It was set in my mind that South Florida was the ultimate angler’s paradise, but I was about to have a major change of heart.

As day turned to night we set a spread for swordfish and lit the grill for one of the most memorable ribeye steaks in my entire life. By 10:00 p.m. nearly everyone gave up and hit the sack, although Captain Kevin, first mate Curt and I remained in the cockpit checking the spread and dip netting flying fish in the lights. I eventually crashed and woke to the diesels roaring to life at first light.

With the early morning low-light hours we managed to hook several yellowfin tuna on the troll, further reinforcing the plethora of species available for anglers willing to make the long run. After messing around with naked ballyhoo with spools half dumped we reset the spread for marlin, dolphin and wahoo. Within no time we had a fired up blue in the spread and once again Ben jumped in the chair and went to battle. A few acrobatic leaps and hard runs later and the fish was brought boat side for a healthy release. While marlin make for incredible photo opportunities, wahoo are one of my all time favorite species. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of these striped speedsters in the northern Gulf.

Trolling monofilament rigged ballyhoo and marlin lures, at times we had schooling wahoo bombard our spread, only to result in every line getting cut-off. Resetting with wire ballyhoo/Ilander combos gave us the upper hand and soon stout ‘hoo were slamming the deck. After fishing many of the world’s oceans there is one thing that remains consistent—blue/white Ilanders cannot be overlooked and do the trick no matter the species or body of water. By noon our fishbox was full and with release flags flying high we packed it in and headed back to Destin. I can’t thank the crew of Papi enough and couldn’t have had a better experience on my first trip to the Panhandle.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience the offshore waters of the northern Gulf you don’t know what you are missing. I thought I had seen it all, yet some of the best fishing I had ever experienced was in my own backyard. The next time you plan an offshore excursion don’t check your passport’s expiration date and search for the most affordable flights out of the county. Hit the road and stimulate Florida’s economy. With a visit to Destin I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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