“Good morning folks. Today we’ll be fishing a few reefs and wrecks about an hour away. We’ve had an excellent mingo bite over the last few days with some solid grouper mixed in as well so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. The mates will be around to make sure you’re rigged up and ready to go. Thanks again for fishing with us and we look forward to a great day on the water!”
Across the Panhandle, skippers address anxious anglers as local party boats prepare to depart from popular ports in Pensacola, Destin and Panama City. Each morning a dozen or more sturdy vessels head south into the northern Gulf’s emerald waters in search of an array of desirable species. Daily trips range from 4- to 12-hours and are available to the general public nearly 365 days a year.
…local crews have been at this for years and are well versed in the current regulations. They know exactly what you can and cannot harvest.
For local anglers and tourists visiting these popular beachside destinations, Panhandle party boats offer a perfect combination of relaxation, affordability, and the potential to bring home more than a few fresh fish dinners. Targeted species include hard-fighting amberjack, cobia and king mackerel, along with a variety of popular bottom dwellers. It’s not uncommon to see red snapper, mingos, lanes, black snapper and white snapper, gags, red grouper and a few scamp all strung up during the same trip. The variety doesn’t end there, with prized wahoo, blackfin tuna and dolphin occasionally surprising anglers as well.
While most charter operations across the Emerald Coast cater to groups of six, open boats ranging from 40- to more than 80-feet in length carry dozens of passengers and allow even a single angler an opportunity to jump aboard for an exciting day of fishing. And while many of these trips are occupied by a fair number of snowbirds who drive the local tourism industry, don’t make the mistake of thinking there aren’t great catches to be had. There are plenty of regulars who fish these trips as well, and for good reason. Panhandle party boat captains fish hard. Many are second and third generation fishermen who know these waters like the back of their hand. They have built a long-standing reputation by consistently putting fish in the boxes and smiles on patrons’ faces. They can’t turn on a bite, but short of black magic they do what they can to ensure all aboard have an enjoyable experience.
As far as bait and tackle are concerned, customers are welcome to bring their own, however ticket price covers everything from A to Z excluding food and beverage. The all-inclusive policy, which includes your fishing license for the day, leaves the door wide open for spur of the moment trips and visiting anglers with little or no tackle of their own. Still, at the very least patrons are encouraged to bring along sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, a hand towel, camera and a small cooler. A light rain jacket wouldn’t hurt either.
Depending on seasonal closures and predetermined schedules, typical trips include fishing an assortment of natural and artificial reef formations from as few as six miles to more than 30 miles off the beach in depths ranging from 60- to 200-feet of water. Once the captain maneuvers the vessel into position and the signal is given, the appropriate technique involves deploying a two-hook rig with enough lead to keep fresh cut bait in the strike zone just a few cranks off the bottom. This sort of straight up and down fishing isn’t very complicated and a perfect tactic for children and novice anglers to enjoy a rewarding experience while also having the opportunity to catch a fish of a lifetime. For most of us, a 30-inch gag grouper is respectable, but certainly not worth writing home about. However, for John and Jane visiting from Wisconsin with their two young children, bagging a big grouper is a very special experience.
While nearly all Panhandle party boats encourage walk on traffic, it is highly advisable you reserve no less than 48-hours in advance by contacting the boats directly. While you can expect an action packed day of reef and wreck fishing, you can also expect to see frolicking porpoises, lazy sea turtles and a variety of aquatic bird life. And just in case you were wondering about any lingering effects from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, all of the party boat crews I spoke with claim the fishing in the northern Gulf is just as hot as it has ever been. There are plenty of quality fish out there just waiting to be caught. The only problem most skippers complain about is the stringent and often confusing rules and regulations put in place by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service.
Bottom fishing these waters is like a jigsaw puzzle with open seasons and closed seasons, size limits and bag limits, along with daily aggregates that must all be considered. Fortunately, local crews have been at this for years and are well versed in the current regulations. They know exactly what you can and cannot harvest. If you can take the fish home, your catch will be strung up and iced until you return to port where fish filleting services are available for a nominal fee. Otherwise, handle your catch with care, smile for the camera and release the critter to fight another day. Regardless if you like it or not, without some level of conservation there may never be anything to catch.
For more experienced anglers with advanced skills looking for a more intense trip, many of these same boats offer special outings with extended hours that allow them to fish distant honey holes. If you’re interested, contact the boats directly to see what type of specialized trips are available.
Most, if not all of us have at one time or another fished on a party boat. It is where many of us got our start and where impressive catches continue to be made. Many tactics and techniques used across the recreational sector have been pioneered and perfected on headboats and because of these large vessel’s length and beamy width, party boats offer a comfortable, stress free platform to fish off of in nearly any sea conditions. Sure, a quick four hour reef trip may not be the best option for hardcore enthusiasts looking to kill everything that swims, but day in and day out headboats continue to provide hundreds of enthusiastic anglers of all ages and all skill levels an opportunity to create some lasting memories. Reserve your tickets today and see you on the rail!