Pass The Peninsula

With all of the negative press in response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it’s remarkable the Gulf is still even on the map. However, if anyone can bounce back stronger than ever it’s the tight knit coastal communities along the Emerald Coast of Florida. Known the world over for blue-green waters and sugar sand beaches, Florida’s Panhandle feels a world away from the rest of the Sunshine State. In fact, if you cross the Apalachicola River heading west you’ll need to set your watch back an hour.


Image 1 of 6

Anglers targeting sheepshead along Panhandle structures won’t be let down. Photo: Captain John Rivers

While each and every destination along the Panhandle offers a unique feel ranging from overpopulated to undiscovered, the fishing opportunities all deserve closer inspection. Redfish and seatrout are the bread and butter of the Gulf, but the warming trend of the spring season brings numerous migratory species into the mix. From west to east we’ve selected four incredible spring opportunities along the coastal playground of Florida’s Panhandle.

A two-hook pompano rig baited with fresh sand fleas is a great way to get connected.

Pensacola: Sheepshead

Although sheepshead can be encountered along bridges, pilings, docks, seawalls and barnacle encrusted navigational markers nearly any given day of the year, locals in the know cherish spring break for more than the increased tourism and benefit to the local economy. As waters warm, sheepshead begin staging along ledges, rock jetties and deep holes of Pensacola Pass as they prepare to head offshore to complete their spawning rituals. Filling their bellies with shrimp, crabs, barnacles, oysters and clams, spring sheepshead aren’t as finicky as one would think. These fish are hungry and often feed uninterrupted. When fishing the pass you’ll want to time your efforts around any period of moving water. Outgoing is best, with slack tide your enemy. Because the Pensacola Pass is rather deep, you’ll want to drift with the current as you work promising ledges below. A quality fish finder will help uncover prime territory. Because of its abrasion resistance, 20 lb. braided main line and 30 lb. fluorocarbon leader will help you come out on top. A fish finder rig will enable you to stay in touch with the bottom and detect strikes. If you are boatless don’t fret. There are numerous guides in the area that will be happy to put you on the bite. You can also try your luck at the old Ft. Pickens Pier or the old Bob Sikes Bridge that used to join Pensacola Beach to Gulf Breeze. No matter where you choose to wet a line, shrimp and fiddler crabs are the go-to offerings. Razor sharp, short shank, heavy wire 2/0 J-hooks will give you a fighting chance against the crushing teeth and powerful jaws of mature sheepshead.

Destin: Pompano

Along the Emerald Coast, bikini-clad spring breakers aren’t the only ones flocking to area beaches. Pompano anglers also enjoy the warm weather by hitting the sand with beach carts in tow. Along with migrating schools of jumbo jack crevalle, pompano begin to show up in March, with peak season usually around the second week in April. Although tidal movements along area beaches are relatively minimal, you’ll want to focus your efforts on an incoming tide. Ideal conditions occur when small swells churn the waters. The wave action clouds the water while also uncovering sand fleas. Because of their inherent feeding attributes and favored forage, you’ll want to keep your offering on the bottom. There are two approaches you can take to accomplish this. A two-hook pompano rig baited with fresh sand fleas is a great way to get connected. Outfitted with small Kahle hooks and colored beads, this rig will stay anchored to the bottom with a pyramid or spider sinker. Bouncing a jig is another option, with orange and pink jigs routinely fooling cruising pomps. No matter what approach you prefer, you’ll want to study the surf and look for troughs between sandbars. You can also score on area piers and jetties where you’ll want to look between the first and second sandbars. This time of the year you never know what you may spot from the vantage afforded atop a pier, so along with pompano jigs you better bring a rod rigged and ready for cruising cobia.

Panama City: Spanish Mackerel

With rising water temperatures ravenous Spanish mackerel begin to show their presence along area beaches in early March. Some of these early season fish can be huge, with 6 pound trophies taken annually. Look for diving birds and surface commotion to point out the location of aggressive schools. Along the beaches, crystal clear water bodes well for sight casters, with spoons, plugs and flies all enticing strikes. Although Spanish mackerel are equipped with razor sharp teeth, your best results will come with the use of monofilament leader. If you’re worried about losing your lures, by all means rig with a short trace of wire bite leader. Either way, it will be in your best interest to attach your main running line and leader with a blood or double uni knot to avoid accidental bite offs. Mackerel often follow hooked fish and even a tiny swivel will get their attention. Gotchas, mackerel spoons and topwater plugs will all get you in the game. Fly casters are in luck too, and you don’t need to be the most accomplished caster to get in the game. If you can cast 30 or 40 feet you will be fine. And when you’re stripping a white Clouser you can’t work it too fast. Although smaller Spanish mackerel make their way into the upper reaches of area bays and lagoons, the big boys prefer to cruise the surf and passes.

Apalachicola: Flounder

During the spring season flounder will be ambushing baits along sandy bottoms in the vicinity of shorelines, creek mouths, docks, bridges, passes and oyster bars. Highly adapted to ambushing baits, the flattened shape of flounder enables them to remain nearly invisible along the bottom. By understating the feeding habits of game fish you’ll be able to have a better understanding of what it takes to reach consistent success. Look for areas with strong currents and fixed structures that alter current flow. Combined with moving water, these underwater attractions offer ambush points where sediment is stirred and baitfish are disoriented. Apalachicola Bay is an incredible estuarine system that is contained by the barrier islands of St. Vincent Island, Little St. George Island, St. George Island and Dog Island. Thanks to the layout of these natural barrier islands there are several passes and open expanses that flush nutrient rich Gulf water into Apalachicola Bay. While currents bring forage to flounder waiting along the sandy bottom and rock jetties like those found at Bob Sikes/Government Cut, anglers can also score big flatties inside Apalachicola Bay. From area docks to the causeway crossing the bay, look for flounder staging along sandy bottoms that offer quick access to deeper channel edges. Flounder relate to extremely subtle drop offs and small variations as little as six inches can offer prime territory. You need to put in your time and cover a lot of water to be successful. Fan cast large swaths of water and if possible cast at an angle parallel to the ledge or drop off to keep your bait in the zone as long as possible. Furthermore, if possible you want to fish tidal movements that flush water from shallow to deep. Small baitfish seeking refuge in the shallows will be disorientated by the current and swept to the deeper depths. When you finally catch a flounder take note of the conditions, depth, water clarity, bait of choice, and what you did to entice the strike. Flounder are creatures of habit and if you can pick up the noticeable patterns you will greatly increase your score. Where there’s one flounder there’s usually more.