An Insider's Overview of the Fishing Scene at the Emerald Coast

Cape San Blas.
Cape San Blas. pulaw
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It’s no great secret that Florida’s Gulf Coast offers world-renowned seafood, with landlocked newbies and aficionados alike flocking to the panhandle’s sandy white shores for a taste of the best. For some, a favorite local restaurant satisfies the craving. But for others, the thrill is in the catch itself. Fishing enthusiasts and beginners can expect to find luck along the shores, deep in the gulf, and even in inland waters thanks to Northwest Florida’s abundant supply of marine life.

Beginning inland with fresh and occasionally brackish waters, anglers can expect to find pristine habitats with plenty of opportunity. The Blackwater River and its surrounding lands—with a brackish bay and freshwater lakes like Hurricane and Bear—offer large mouth and striped bass, brim, and catfish. Small crafts like jon boats, canoes, skiffs, and even kayaks are useful for in-water fishing, while casting from the banks of the Blackwater itself or any of the surrounding lakes can also be a successful venture.

Bear Lake in particular, in addition to its campsites, offers built-in cleaning stations for weekenders with no accessible kitchen, or anyone who wants to clean his or her catch before bringing it home. And while the Blackwater River, Bay, and State Forest have, arguably, the best freshwater fishing in the panhandle region, the Escambia and Perdido Rivers should not be forgotten—both rivers offer a dose of quiet solitude along with what is often a fruitful trip.

Casting a line on the Emerald Coast.
Casting a line on the Emerald Coast. Tim Donovan/FWC

The shores of the Gulf of Mexico offer even novices ample chances to reel in a big catch standing on Pensacola, Navarre, Destin, or Panama City beaches. The Gulf shoreline is where all things marine like to hang out, from the modestly sized pompano to Cobia and King Mackerel.

Flounder gigging is popular along the shoreline. Pier fishing is another excellent option; rod and reel, cast nets, and even crab traps can be successful, and almost all public Florida Panhandle beaches have piers for fishing and plain ol’ observation. After all, these waters can seem like the end of the world if facing south from the sands.

Inshore saltwater fishing gives anglers more varied opportunity than fishing from shore with stable, smaller boats navigating the shallow waters with ease. Expect to catch redfish, speckled trout, flounder, black drum, whiting, and more, all while keeping the shore well within sight.

Deep sea fishing is where the fishing world begins to get serious, and the entire panhandle is recommendable for an excursion, Destin tops the list. Dubbed the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” countless charters leave each and every morning from Destin’s East Pass into the deep waters of the gulf. The conditions can vary based upon the weather, but the Gulf of Mexico is where hopeful anglers can find grouper, wahoo, marlin, tuna, amberjack, triggerfish, and the coveted red snapper.

Snapper fishing is highly regulated, starting June 1 and only lasting until the middle of July, followed by a long stretch of weekends from September to November. Fall is easily the most rewarding time to go, thanks to cooler weather, clearer waters, and calmer seas.

An amberjack is just one of the trophy fish you can catch in the gulf.
An amberjack is just one of the trophy fish you can catch in the gulf. Amanda Nalley/FWC

Trips often begin early in the morning—well before the sun has risen—and vary in length of time, but they are rarely in vain. Destin’s close proximity to the continental shelf is what’s given this beach town its well-earned title; captains are able to zip into thousand-foot deep water faster than from any other point along Florida’s shores. The bites are typically frequent, and the folks on board are prepared to help you reel whatever you’ve caught. Most charters will clean catches for their patrons, and some charters partner with local restaurants and offer a “you catch it, we cook it” option, a favorite for those who wish to leave the fixin’ to the experts. You can also "catch and cook" when you stay at vacation rental properties equipped with full kitchens.

Be sure to have an up-to-date Florida fishing license: There are two, one for freshwater, and one for saltwater, however most anglers choose to snag a combo license for simplicity. Sunscreen and plenty of water are always recommended, and if freshwater or shore fishing, insect repellent is something to consider. Always check the calendar for regulations on all species before booking a charter, although each company has a host of experts who are more than happy to guide eager fishermen through the seasons. Once prepared, grab a rod, and toss in your lines!

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