Targeting Panhandle Seatrout
September 30, 2010
From Pensacola to St. Marks, West Florida offers some great options for summer speckled trout action. Let's take a closer look at several of the hotspots along this coast.
David Barnes displays the kind of trout he regularly catches while wading the Panhandle bays.
Photo by Jimmy Jacobs
Growing up in Alabama, I used to sit at my grandfather's feet and listen to his stories of catching ice chests full of speckled trout from the Intracoastal Waterway near Panama City. He would talk of catching those fish, which are correctly called spotted seatrout, during the winter months when the water was cold as ice.
I do not think Granddaddy, as I called him, ever visited the Gulf Coast during the spring and summer to trout fish. I am certain wintertime fishing was great, but summertime fishing is every bit as good. It just takes knowing where the fish are and figuring out what they will bite.
A lot of things have changed over the years, but one that has not is that spotted seatrout leave the shallow bays and flats of the Gulf shores during the winter and head to warmer water in estuarine creeks and rivers. By mid-March to early April, the reverse happens and trout return to our bays and grass flats. There they stay for the summer months.
Techniques for catching seatrout from Pensacola to the St. Marks area of Apalachee Bay are quite constant, due to the wide expanse of grass flats along this Panhandle coast. Where things are a bit different are in regions of oyster and rock bottoms from the Apalachicola area over to the mouth of the St. Marks River.
Hunter Armour has fished the coastal flats near Pensacola for more years than he cares to remember. He's been a guide the last 14 and takes the majority of his clients who want to catch spotted seatrout to Big Lagoon, a shallow body of water that is protected on the south by Perdido Key and stretches north to the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
While the lagoon runs 5 to 6 feet deep in places, Armour said the majority of the water is only 3 to 5 feet deep.
If his clients bring their kids, he likes to rig them a cork and live "hopper" shrimp.
"Some of these kids have never caught a trout, or anything else for that matter. It's really fun watching them," Armour said. "Sometimes, I'll put them up near some of the docks where you are apt to catch trout."
For any of his anglers who can throw a cast, Armour encourages them to tie on artificials -- such as soft grubs -- or use live shrimp.
"Trout are pretty predictable during the summer. The water is warmer, and depending on the tides, first thing in the morning they're usually going to be out feeding on the grass flats or hunkered down in the troughs on the flats. If you're there and you don't do anything to run them off, it's usually just a matter of if they're hungry or not," the guide explained.
Armour feels the building boom on the lagoon and adjoining coastal waters has produced pollution that has taken a toll on spotted seatrout numbers. He used to catch an occasional 7- to 8-pound trout, but he has not done that in four or five years.
Chris Phillips is another area guide and quite often takes clients in pursuit of seatrout out. He fishes several miles to the east of Big Lagoon in Santa Rosa Sound. Santa Rosa Sound is long, several miles wide, and stretches from the Pensacola Beach/Gulf Breeze Bridge to the Okaloosa County line. The sound is buffered on the south by Santa Rosa Island.
Phillips fishes out of a 21-foot Sea Pro and usually launches from Shoreline Boat Ramp in Gulf Breeze.
This long sound is fairly deep in places, but it has extensive grass flats leading to its northern and southern shorelines. On a trip last October, I was in this area early one morning and watched what appeared to be several schools of menhaden on the surface. Twice in about a 10-minute span, a big 'gator trout smacked the school. It was one of those days when you'd have rather been fishing than working.
While Phillips said tides are important, he ordinarily takes his clients out first thing in the morning, because that is when most want to go out. On a typical trip, Phillips likes to use his trolling motor and slowly ease down the edge of a grass flat, working around docks along the way.
"We usually have two rods out the back of the boat with popping corks and live mullet or menhaden. We might fish one 4 feet deep and the other a foot and a half to see if we can figure out any kind of pattern," he said. "A lot of times we'll fish two rods out the front with artificials."
Phillips' favorite soft baits are grubs on 1/4-ounce jigheads. A good rule of thumb when the water is dingy, such as following a heavy rain, is to use bright-colored grubs and natural colors when the water is clear.
While Phillips' fishing is largely dictated by when his clients want go, he likes to fish a moving tide. It is not rocket science to figure out that a dead low or high tide is usually the least productive time to fish.
One thing this guide likes to do on the grass flats, particularly around dawn, is throw a topwater bait.
"Someone who's never had a big trout hit a plug at daylight is missing something. It's an experience you never forget," he said.
According to Phillips, spotted seatrout fishing has improved in the area. Most years he boats several 5-pounders, with an occasional 6-pounder.
For fishermen on their own without a boat, Santa Rosa Sound is a great place to wade-fish. You can quickly get in water 2 to 3 feet deep, which is plenty deep for trout, redfish and flounder. The footing is generally firm and there are plenty of areas of mixed grass and sandy bottom that hold fish.
Hurricane Ivan, which slammed ashore in the area Sept. 15, 2005, destroyed thousands of boat docks and homes with winds of more than 100 mph and waves of more than 15 feet high. Some debris from the boat docks and even boats remain submerged or near the surface in the sound, and some repairs on boat ramps are still in progress. A new $1.2 million double ramp is now open on the eastern end of Santa Rosa Sound near the Navarre Bridge. It has over 100 parking spots for vehicles and trailers.
Trout fishermen in Walton and Bay counties fish Choctawhatchee Bay. The body of water is fairly large, stretching from where the Choctawhatchee River empties into the east end ba
ck west to Destin and Ft. Walton Beach. For the most part, the bay is fairly shallow and has some large grass flats, particularly in the lower reaches near Destin.
Probably due to the upriver clay soils and other turbidity from the river, Choctawhatchee Bay is usually cloudier than the other inland waters on the Gulf coast. Trout fishermen who throw artificial lures tend to use bright-colored grubs or hard-plastic diving crankbaits.
For some reason, you do not see as many wade-fishermen in Choctawhatchee Bay as elsewhere along the Panhandle. One place that is good for wading and offers firm footing is along the north side of U.S. Highway 98 between Destin and Ft. Walton Beach on the east end of Santa Rosa Island. Another is on the north side of the bay, just south of State Route 20 in the vicinity of Choctaw Beach.
Choctawhatchee Bay has plenty of boating access. Launch facilities are located in Ft. Walton Beach at the west end of the bay, at the U.S. 331 bridge over the east end of the bay, and on that same end of bay at the mouth of Black Creek.
Another productive area for trout just to the east is the collection of bays at Panama City. These bodies of water are North Bay at Lynn Haven; West Bay, which runs from Panama City west to SR 79; East Bay to the east of Panama City; and St. Andrew Bay, at which the others join to empty through the jetties at St. Andrew State Park into the Gulf of Mexico.
This is a healthy estuary system that stretches for over 20 miles. The grass flats extend throughout most of the bay. Wherever the sea grass habitat and good water quality are found, you also have good trout fishing.
Roy Ray guides in this area, mostly in East and West bays. Back in the 1940s, when America was defending itself in a two-front war, Ray was learning to trout fish the area in a worn-out 16-foot net boat with a 3.8-horsepower Champion motor. He has been guiding since 1985, after a career in the communications industry.
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While Ray use live baits such as finger mullet or pinfish on occasion, most of the time he rigs his customers with a Ray's Speck Rig. It is a clear popping-type cork, short leader and jig-and-grub combo his father designed years ago for catching trout.
Obviously, from his long experience, one thing Ray has learned is where to find fish. Depending on the tide, he may start fishing in only 1 to 2 feet of water but then work out toward water 5 to 6 feet deep until he finds fish. While they are certainly not all legal-sized fish, some days his customers boat and release 100 to 125 trout.
A top-notch trout fisherman who fishes East Bay is Panama City resident David Barnes. The 6-foot, 5-inch Barnes is largely a self-taught trout angler. Barnes said his dad really did not trout fish, and if there's anyone he credits with teaching him it was Hoke Kennedy, a Bay County tackle shop owner who passed away several years ago.
Barnes started out fishing throwing artificial baits. It was about five years ago on successive weekends on East Bay that he used a Jerk Sam topwater bait to land his two biggest 'gator trout ever. One fish was 31 inches long and weighed 7 1/4 pounds, while the other measured the same length and weighed exactly 7 pounds. Barnes caught both trout while wade-fishing. He still uses artificials on occasion, but Barnes' equipment now usually consists of a 7-foot rod, a spinning reel, a 10-foot cast net and a live-bait bucket. He knows that hungry trout cannot resist live minnows such as finger mullet, bull minnows or menhaden.
His first order of business for a day of wading is to catch several dozen baits and then head to the grass flats. Sometimes his rig includes a popping cork with a finger mullet underneath. On the other hand, where there are sandy potholes on the flats, he uses only a lightweight jighead and live bait hooked through the lips.
"The bait has got to be lively, but you catch trout, flounder and sometimes redfish. The key, though, is fishing the right tides," he noted.
Barnes understands that trout, and a host of other game fish for that matter, feed when tides are moving. His favorite fishing tide is an incoming flow, but he also fishes the outgoing currents. Dead low or high tides are the least productive.
"I like to wade-fish because there's less disturbance than being in a boat," Barnes emphasized. "You can really get close to fish.
"If there's a downside, you occasionally have sharks that come in pretty close and will bite your fish off, which has happened to me several times," he continued. "Then, there're stingrays. That's why the first thing you learn, if you wade fish, is to shuffle your feet."
APALACHICOLA TO ST. MARKS
Another productive system of estuaries and bays for spotted seatrout is the 40-mile expanse of grass flats and shell beds from Apalachicola Bay over to Apalachee Bay in the St. Marks area. While this region ranks as one of the best fishing areas in the state, it also has the potential to be the least forgiving. Oyster bars and limestone rock formations near the surface offer great habitat for trout, reds and just about every other saltwater fish found in the Gulf, but these underwater obstacles can destroy a fiberglass boat, or shear off the foot of an outboard.
Capt. Dave Lear writes an outdoors column several times a month for the area newspaper and knows the region's waters. He likes to fish the grass that grows on the rocky bottom. He said the hard bottom is more common from Ochlockonee Bay around to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County.
"Some of these places, there's grass and sandy spots a
nd you can fish jigs or live baits on the bottom. Where you're around oyster bars or rock, most trout fishermen use traditional popping corks with a live shrimp or finger mullet. Another rig that's real popular in the area is the Cajun Thunder with a stingray grub," Capt. Lear said.
The guide went on to say that trout fishermen, particularly those fishing at daybreak and near sunset, should try throwing topwater stickbaits. Another good choice is a noisy chugger-type topwater lure.
Due to the nature of this part of the coast, Lear suggested that anglers new to the area go slow until they learn the local waters. You might even want to hire a guide, at least for the first venture. He also recommended buying a good chart or fishing map for the area.
Although most fishing is from boats, there are plenty of excellent areas in which to wade-fish here.