Known for its stunning white sand beaches and incredible fishing opportunities, Destin is a diamond in the rough along Florida’s Emerald Coast. While inshore opportunities with redfish and trout rival that of any location in the state, Destin’s offshore arenas are where the real excitement is at.
Unlike the southeast coast of Florida where fertile blue water exists only a few miles off the beach, targeting pelagic game fish off the Panhandle requires a long distance run. And even when you reach promising grounds, you may be greeted with less than ideal conditions. However, when everything comes together the rewards are certainly well worth the effort.
Fortunately, the area’s offshore fleet has a rather open line of communication, which helps when attempting to pinpoint fertile stretches of water.
To be successful in this endeavor you either have to have access to a high-speed center-console, or a vessel with some serious tonnage. In my younger years I might have sided with a go-fast boat, but now I prefer size and comfort over speed and consider my own 45-footer a tad on the small size. Fortunately, I’m friends with Doc Conkles, who owns and operates a 50′ G&S, Miss Babbie, and Gordon Gill who owns a 55′ Hatteras, Never Better. In my opinion, these are two of the most well equipped platforms for chasing big game in the expansive Gulf of Mexico.
Because we’re talking about waters upwards of 100 miles offshore, most crews embark on overnight or multi-day trips to maximize on the opportunities. In addition, almost all of the region’s big game tournaments are multi-day events, hence the large fleet of sportfishers found in Destin. While the near-shore crowd chasing tournament-winning king mackerel draws most of the focus, those-in-the-know are well aware of the Gulf’s tantalizing secrets awaiting adventurous offshore anglers.
While Destin certainly has a dedicated offshore fleet, what we don’t have are seamounts, legal FADs, or dramatic drop-offs. Because of the slowly sloping continental shelf, most of the Gulf features a gradual drop-off compared to that of South Florida. Another obstacle we must overcome is the massive Mississippi River delta to our west, which dumps incredible amounts of sediment creating unwanted green water. Because of this, finding prized pelagic predators out of Destin can at times be a bit of a challenge. Thankfully, numerous species of game fish call the nutrient rich Gulf of Mexico home, with blue and white marlin leading the way in September as they mingle in the offshore playgrounds.
Know Before You Go
Before I leave the dock on any Destin blue water adventure—blue is the key ingredient here—I order up a $64 special. Extremely popular with offshore anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecast Services provides highly detailed forecasts and offshore charts in real-time. Utilizing a wide range of satellite and oceanic data, these extremely valuable charts provide extreme accuracy and an excellent idea of where to find blue water and promising temperature breaks. With the cost of fuel and time associated with searching for promising conditions, this is the best $64 you’ll ever spend. Don’t waste your time in green water when only a few miles away there may be cobalt blue water with weedlines, rips and working birds. Fortunately, the area’s offshore fleet has a rather open line of communication, which helps when attempting to pinpoint fertile stretches of water.
A Lesson Learned
Back in the day when I was stationed in Hawaii, an old salt who fished the islands for over 50 years taught me a very valuable lesson that relates to blue water fishing anywhere in the world. It may seem rudimentary, but there is usually a reason why game fish are in a certain area, and it most often has to relate with forage. As captain, you should be looking hard at what’s around you. Whether it’s a lone frigate flying high, a ball of bait boiling on the surface, or a game fish lazily tailing down sea. A lot of times it’s the small things that catch your eye that are worth investigating.
Don’t waste too much time staring at the lures behind your boat…that’s why you have anglers in the cockpit. From dawn to dusk you can find me in the tower searching for signs of life. If we hook a billfish or even catch a quick glimpse of one in the spread, I’ll work that general area for an hour or more. Our most successful days have been in relatively small pockets of water, especially with billfish.
The Ultimate FAD
Fish aggregating devices work wonders, and it’s a crime we don’t have legal FADs scattered throughout Florida waters. What we do have are weather buoys, oil platforms, and drill ships. These deep-water platforms are the mother of all FADs and harbor an incredible amount of sea life. Like all aspects of offshore fishing in the Gulf you never know what to expect and you could be steaming to an oil rig only to find out that it’s operating an active drilling platform boat. When approaching a rig you’ll likely be informed by radio if you’re allowed to approach or required to stay a safe distance away. When you do find a rig to fish you can expect explosive action. Live baiting around these platforms can be deadly and you can have your pick of tantalizing live baits. Sabikis dropped near the rigs will entice a variety of live baits including tinker mackerel and Spanish sardines—excellent options for both blackfin and yellowfin tuna. For a really epic encounter, bridle up a juvenile tuna and hold on. I can’t think of anything better than coming tight on a burly blue marlin that just chased down a 10 lb. blackfin. However, do these big girls a favor and be sure to rig with circle-hooks.
Some people like to sleep at night but I’ll sleep when I’m dead! In the northern Gulf we have a pretty consistent swordfish bite. While it may not rival South Florida’s Gulf Stream fishery, we do catch quality broadbills. When the sun starts to set and we’re finished chasing billfish, a big feast is served up and out come the glow sticks and squid. A favorite local hot-spot for swordfish is The Spur, approximately 50 miles offshore along the 300-fathom curve, although I’ve heard guys catching them just about everywhere in deep water. Last year during the Sandestin Celebration Tournament there were six boats hooked up simultaneously within 5 miles of each other. That’s what I call solid swordfishing.
While grilled broadbill steaks are hard to beat, fall chunking at the rigs is a blast for yellowfin tuna. You’ll want to get out early and catch as many juvenile blackfin as possible for chunk bait and chum. When you’re ready to fish, idle around the rig while scanning your sonar. Most of the time the schools will be found up-current of the rigs. Blackfin will generally show up as small returns in green and blue, with larger yellowfin represented by boomerang shaped returns in red and yellow. Once you’ve found a concentration kick the boat out of gear and start chunking. Slip a nice chunk or live bait on a 7/0 circle-hook and let it drift back into your slick. I prefer to fish with 80 lb. stand-up gear, but some of the guys I fish with prefer to battle it out on heavy-duty spin tackle. I want no part of a 100-pound tuna on spinning gear, but needless to say it’s pretty awesome to be able to fish around the clock.
At one time or another I’ve fished most of the world’s oceans and have made my home here in Destin for a reason. The Gulf of Mexico is a challenging place to fish for sure, but I’ve had some incredible days, along with the ones when you just pray for a knockdown. Fishing offshore of the Panhandle is, no doubt , a costly endeavor, but the northern Gulf is a serious big game destination and the experiences and memories are worth every penny spent.
Super Grand Slam
Because the open Gulf is so expansive, crews typically focus their efforts along deep structures like DeSoto Canyon, The Elbow, The Nipple, and The Spur. But don’t think the gently sloping shelf is void of life. The rewards can be plentiful with the real possibility of catching marlin, sailfish and swordfish in a single day with tuna, wahoo and dolphin icing on the cake.