Panhandle Redfish

Panhandle Redfish

One of the most popular fish for anglers in the Sunshine State, reds an be targeted using a number of tactics along the west Florida coast. Let's see what the action is like this month. (July 2006)

Without a doubt, redfish are one of the most popular saltwater species in the South. That's especially so in Florida's Panhandle. And the stretch of the Gulf of Mexico shore from Ft. Walton Beach to Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive places to target these fish year 'round.

There are dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of spots where anglers consistently catch redfish at various times of the year. No doubt some areas are better than others, but the bottom line is, if you want redfish, the Panhandle is the place to be.

Many people believe that redfish action shuts off during the colder winter months, but that's not true. It just gets a little harder to find them. In the winter, the fish move (sometimes in a matter of days) from inshore flats to river and creek mouths, then on up the rivers. At times, they may go miles up those waterways seeking the right temperatures.

That's what happened this past winter, while I was fishing with Dwayne and Candi Allen on Apalachicola Bay. Dwayne is a fishing guide and, with his wife Candi, operates the "Book Me A Charter" guide service out of Apalachicola

When I said I wanted to target redfish, Candi immediately started fretting. "It's the middle of winter," she pleaded. "The redfish could be anywhere. We can't guarantee redfish when it's like this." But she agreed to talk to Dwayne and see what he thought.

Like any good guide, he offered to give it his best try. And did he ever find redfish!

When we left the dock that morning, it was cold -- and very, very foggy. Candi was with us, along with my son Joe. She pointed out that Dwayne was always fishing with paying clients, so she never gets to go along. When this chance came along to actually fish, she jumped at it.

As we motored slowly through the pea soup fog, Candi gave us a running commentary on the Apalachicola Bay area, covering both the ecology and the politics of the region. She and Dwayne both grew up right there and have seen a lot of changes.

Apalachicola Bay is at the heart of Florida's west coast fishing, and the nursery ground for most of the northern Gulf Coast. Kill this bay and you destroy a multimillion-dollar recreational and commercial industry. Unfortunately, its beauty is probably going to be its demise. Major developers have already targeted the area for condos, upscale private homes, and water-oriented enterprises.

After a bit, we pulled up to a huge oyster bar.

"This is Dry Bar. It's the biggest oyster bar on Apalachicola Bay," Dwayne explained. "You really need a shallow-draft boat to fish it properly, and high tide is the best time to fish it."

Unfortunately, we were on a falling tide. Adding to our dilemma was the fact the hurricanes of 2005 had changed the sea and landscapes.

"Some of our landmarks are gone, washed away by the storms," Candi noted.

Sand bars have moved, oyster bars covered over, and sunken wrecks were moved or broken apart. But on the plus side, new areas have been created. Like the rest of the anglers in the area, the Allens have been working hard to locate them. For example, new cuts through bars have provided ambush points for schools of redfish and trout. But Dry Bar, where we were, sustained little damage.

Once again Candi started to fret, this time worried that we wouldn't catch redfish because of the cold. Dwayne, in his quiet manner, just smiled and put a live shrimp on my son Joe's hook. By the time Candi cast out, Joe was already hooked up. The fish was small, but was our first red of the day.

A minute or so later, Joe had another red, then another. Dwayne told me later that given the few days of relatively mild weather that the area just had, he figured the redfish would have moved out of the Apalachicola River and into the shallow bay where the water was warmer. He was right.

After a few more fish, we moved on to another spot. The plan was to hit as many different locations as we could. Dwayne pointed out that there was no way we could fish all the oyster bars in the bay -- there are more than 150 of them. You could fish for a week and not hit them all.

Next we tried the beach along St. Vincent Island. If you are into primitive Florida, this is a place to go. Access is by boat only, and you must tie up at a designated area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs St. Vincent Island as a National Wildlife Refuge offering hunting, fishing and camping. There are huge wild hogs on the island, along with exotic sambar deer that were imported from India in the early 20th century.

At this stop, unfortunately, all we found was awesome scenery. We then moved on to fish the seawall along the old bridge to St. George Island. It's a portion of the roadbed left when the new high bridge was built. Also, sections of the old bridge have been turned into piers for shore-bound anglers. You can walk out on those from both the mainland and island.

As usual, Joe caught the first fish -- a fat sheepshead. Not exactly what we were targeting, but a nice bonus. In short order, several more were caught. We moved to another part of the seawall and then found another redfish. After a couple more sheeps-head, we moved on.

We hit a few more places before deciding to return to Dry Bar. It was getting late, and we had a long drive home. But the day was already a success. Candi and Joe had caught more than 20 fish, most of them reds. And little did we know what was awaiting us back at Dry Bar.

By the time Dwayne anchored the boat, the tide had dropped considerably. We were in the exact spot where we'd started the day, but at the worst possible time. Even so, Dwayne picked out several schools of redfish moving in the shallows. Before long, fish started coming to the net. Joe had the first one, of course. Then Candi. Then Joe. And so on.

The action was too much for Dwayne to pass up. He started casting a plastic grub and catching fish. And finally, with all my film gone and my notebook full, I began casting.

The action got even hotter. Many times we had double-headers, and even a couple of triples. Finally, we had to go and left the fish still biting.

Our tally for the day was more than 60 redfish, half a dozen sheepshead and a single trout. Not bad for about 2 hours of

actual fishing time, since most of the day was spent traveling from place to place.

SUMMER HOTSPOTS

For information on what's biting, where, and when in the Apalachicola Bay area, Rex Pennycuff is the person to see. He runs Fisherman's Choice Bait and Tackle in East Point.

Breaking down the year into seasons, Pennycuff said that in the summer, redfish are out of the rivers and on the grass flats. Look for them along the grass edges where they burrow along the bottom, looking for shrimp and crabs.

The summer is when they move into the surf areas too. But to fish the surf, plan on being there early and again late in the day.

Some of the better spots to fish around Apalachicola Bay in summer are the East End on St. George Island, Bob Sikes Cut at the west end, and in the surf. St. Joe Bay fishermen do well at this time by targeting flats areas or sand bars on East and West bays.

Moving west toward Panama City, try St. Andrews Pass, Burnt Mill Creek, Crooked Creek, and the fishing piers at Panama City Beach and Mexico Beach.

FALL AND SPRING ACTION

"Fall and spring, the redfish patterns are the same," Pennycuff said. "Look for them to be still on the grassflats, around oyster bars and along the edges of dropoffs."

The fish also hold around breakwaters, bridges and pilings.

Pennycuff suggested Cat Point, Dry Bar, the Governor's Docks on little St. George Island, the causeway to St. George Island, the old causeway bridges in Apalachicola Bay, and the surf zone around St. Vincent Island.

For these seasons, other good areas are the flats between Eagle Harbor and The Tip in St. Joe Bay. The bay also holds reds in Crooked Island Sound, Black Island, and in Pigs Bayou channel.

Action around Panama City is found in North and East bays, St. Andrews Pass, Redfish Point, Smack Bayou, and in residential canals that offer deep water.

Ft. Walton Beach and Destin fishermen should target Grayton Beach, jetties at the passes, the channel near Crab Island, the Midbay Bridge, and Hog Town Bayou.

WINTER HAUNTS

In winter, it all changes. When water in the bays, bayous and surf zones gets too cold, the fish either move to the mouths of rivers and creeks, or actually head upstream and hang in the lower bends where the water tends to be deeper, warmer and has less current. In this part of Florida, most of the rivers and streams are spring-fed. Thus the water is usually warmer than the air and stays fairly constant in temperature.

Pennycuff said that the redfish also look for the warmer water in deep holes. During the winter, any hole more than 8 feet deep will usually hold redfish.

But throughout the winter, there are periods of mild weather that warm the flats and shallows. This entices the redfish out to forage for shrimp and other food sources not readily available in the rivers and creeks.

Some of the more productive areas to fish around Apalachicola Bay in winter are the East, St. Marks and Little St. Marks rivers, and in Bob Sikes Cut.

Moving west, try the canals and bayous leading into St. Andrews Bay and Andrews Pass.

REDFISH RIGS

The rig that Dwayne uses to fish the bars is simple and cheap. He attaches to the line a short leader of 20-pound-test mono to protect against the sharp oyster shells, along with a small sliding sinker and a 3/0 hook. The current determines the weight of the sinker. The faster the water is moving, the heavier the rig.

The size of the redfish you're targeting also figures into the equation. Bigger fish require larger and stronger hooks with heavier leaders.

We were using live or fresh dead shrimp for bait, because most of the reds we were catching were barely legal or smaller. The 20-pound rig would be good for any legal redfish, Dwayne said. Reds over the 27-inch maximum for harvest would require heavier terminal tackle.

Reels spooled with 12-pound-test line are fine for keepers. The giant bulls cruising the surf and cuts call for heavier line and stronger reels. Regardless of the fish's size, the goal is to get it in fast and release it unharmed so that it can swim away from any sharks or porpoise in the area. Lines testing at 25- to 30-pound should work fine for these giants.

As for lures, the list is endless, but there are some basic ones. Plastic grubs on jigs, swimmer/diver jerkbaits, and topwater lures are "must have" varieties.

The plastic grub tails come in a number of styles, and dozens of color schemes. Since they are quite inexpensive, it's a good idea to have a wide variety on hand.

Swimming/diving lures, such as those made by MirrOlure, are hard to beat. They've been taking redfish for decades. Other similar brands work well too.

Topwater popper and chugger-style plugs produce best in summer when the fish are on shallow flats. Even though redfish are built to root along the bottom looking for crabs and shrimp, they will quickly rise to a topwater presentation.

TECHNIQUES

The methods anglers use to catch redfish are as varied as the fishermen themselves. Just about every part of the Atlantic and Gulf coast have specialized ways of catching them. Northwest Florida is no different.

If you want to fish from a boat, just make sure it has a shallow draft. Much of the bottom has rocks and oyster bars, obstructions that quickly do a number on fiberglass boats. That's why many serious inshore boaters prefer a heavy-duty aluminum boat with welded seams. You'll still see many of the old narrow johnboats puttering around with outboards barely clinging to life. But there's also a newer generation of aluminum boats appearing -- extremely wide, stable, and fitted with all the amenities. These boats are practically indestructible.

Boaters have the advantage of being able to reach oyster bars well beyond the range of shore- or wade fishermen. Also, they can work their way up rivers and creeks where the redfish go in winter.

But that doesn't mean that anglers on foot are out of luck. One technique that's popular here is to wade out to oyster bars that get exposed at low tide. By quietly walking these bars, you can actually see feeding redfish as they move in looking for a meal. Just remember to head back to shore before the tide comes in and leaves you stranded.

Another way to fish on foot is to cast a bait out into the surf. Redfish like to cruise in the trough that the waves create just offshore. They're looking for sand fleas (also known as mole crabs), shrimp, and crabs that might be there.

If you're on foot, jetties are hard to beat as r

edfish destinations. The fish move along these with the tide. But once you figure out what the best tide is, and what bait they're feeding on, the rest is easy.

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