Don’t let the body of water’s size keep you from fishing from a canoe or kayak. When it comes to catching fish, these small crafts have a distinct advantage as long as you’re judicious about watching the weather conditions.
Another advantage is that launching a canoe or kayak is easy. It requires no ramp, just a place to park.
For more than two decades, my wife, Cathy, and I have been canoeing the waters of Choctawhatchee Bay and catching our favorite table fare, speckled sea trout. That’s not to say we don’t keep a few redfish and flounder as well, because we do. Those species are just as eager to bite as trout are.
The 27-mile long Choctawhatchee Bay ranges in width from 1 to 6 miles and reaches a depth of 40 feet. Grasses and small patches of oyster beds abound in its sandy, shallow, greenish-brown expanses of brackish water. At the eastern end of the bay, the Choctawhatchee River and Black Creek wind their way through swamps to dump tannic-stained water into the bay.
Other freshwater streams flowing into the bay are Bear, Fourmile, Alaqua, Basin, Trout, Rocky, Mullet, Piney, and Juniper creeks.
Low tide draws in saltwater from Santa Rosa Sound, Destin Pass and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) at the eastern end of the bay. High tides drain from the bay via the same routes.
Submerged patches of brown sea grass grow in shallow flats, with much of the rest of the bay bottom covered with mud and sand.
As a result, most game-fish species hug the marshes on the edges of the bay, hang out around bridges, pilings and piers, or cruise around grass and oyster beds.
Some of the best fishing areas for trout, striped bass, redfish, black drum, and flounder from east to west around the bay include the many mouths of Choctawhatchee River; La Grange or Alaqua bayous; from Alaqua Point and Basin Bayou to Hammock Point; the long stretch from Mullet Creek to Buccaroo Point; from Bens Lake to Black Point; the entrance to the ICW at Fort Walton Beach; Joes Bayou at Destin; the grassbeds from the new State Route 293 bridge east of Destin to Legion Park boat ramp; Horseshoe, Mack or Hogtown bayous; and the entrance to the ICW at Point Washington.
Canoeing or kayaking on the waters in and around Choctawhatchee Bay gives you a cross-section perspective of Panhandle Florida’s fishing opportunities. Speckled trout are usually the most active species and, as is true in most of the state, are the most popular target of anglers.
You find a variety of grassbeds in different shapes and sizes, and it looks like you can catch trout just about anywhere you cast. The specks, however, often hold in depressions and holes inside the grassbeds or on grassbeds that form points.
One important point when tackling Choctawahatchee Bay in a small paddle craft is using the weather and water conditions to your advantage — specifically, the wind and water currents.
Approaching a grassbed, we look for tide and wind directions so that the current, the wind or both will carry us stealthily along or through the grass. This is easier for a canoe or kayak than a larger boat.
The wind plays a major factor on the numbers of fish you catch, especially during the summer months in grassbeds. In fact, different stretches of grass may offer quite varied periods of angling action, based on which way and how strong the wind and current are moving. It usually takes you several trips and plenty of observation to figure out the best time to be on individual grassflats. Trout may be in the grass but not be feeding — the wind makes a difference in their activity level.
During midday, the wind sometimes becomes an issue for canoes and kayaks. We like a little ripple to break up the surface so that fish can’t readily see us. But when the wind kicks up and makes paddling an effort, we switch to trolling in the feeder streams. For this, we employ jigs in 1/8- or 1/4-ounce sizes with a twin-tail, 4-inch chartreuse grub.
Once we get a fish on, we paddle to the hookup spot and lower an anchor very slowly and quietly. When we spook trout, we’ve got to go hunting again. We’ve become pretty good at locating trout, anchoring and casting for them.
Redfish are also found in the same waters as specks. They readily hit shrimp or crab baits, or gold spoons.
Another tasty species is the flounder. Its flaky white meat makes it a popular target for anglers.
The standard saying about flounder on Choctawhatchee Bay is, “If it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use.” So get a handful of chartreuse lures or jigs for catching these flat-sided fish. Of course, flounder also hit live minnows or shrimp.
Flounder are found in the bay and up the river and creeks during warm weather months. While the beaches fill up with people in the summer, the back bays and rivers aren’t overly crowded.
Tides are probably more important to catching trout than wind. At least, that’s been our experience from a canoe, especially when fishing the flats. Almost every flat can be productive, but at different times.
Our best day — talk about being the right place at the right time! — was when we were paddling around islands at the mouth of the Choctawhatchee River. Wind blowing lightly from the northwest and the incoming tide were working in conjunction to push water up the river and around the islands.
Suddenly we saw the flashes and froth next to isles from baitfish trying to escape predators. We paddled over a bar that had a depression on its windward side, continued to the other side of the sand and anchored within casting distance of the action.
Cathy cast back to the depression and connected immediately. I cast to the froth near the shore and hooked up with my first cast too.
We caught trout, reds and flounder for about an hour. We had our supper in the cooler within minutes and had almost more fun than we could stand. It was one of those bonanza days every angler dreams about.
The flats and islands that create the Choctawhatchee River’s multiple mouths have become our favorite fishing area because we can get protection from winds, and our canoe can skim over the very shallow areas even at low tide.
Anglers fishing from a boat with live baits do have a couple of advantages over those using a smaller paddle craft. To begin with, having a live well makes it much easier to use the fresh baits that trout love. We used to carry live shrimp in a trolling bucket, but gave up on that because of the extra drag on the canoe.
Instead, we now cast jigs to the edges of grasslines or shell bars and toss spoons into the grass. To get longer casts, we use 8-pound-test. So far, we’ve caught about as many trout on artificials as we used to do with live bait.
Another bonus for fishermen in larger vessels is the opportunity to use some of their live baits as chum. Tossed out on the water, those stunned or disoriented baitfish are easy targets for trout or redfish. This allows the anglers to discover any feeding fish in a given area.
We’ve tried throwing out a handful of thawed shrimp in a likely-looking spot to see what happened, but gave up on that idea too. Fishing from a canoe, we find that casting jigs and spoons covers so much water that it tells us what we want to know, and we don’t waste time chumming.
Early morning and late evening are the best times for catching trout. Choctawahatchee bay has many mouths of coves, inlets and bayous, and the specks tend to hide in the passes At these times, casting topwater lures — like pencil poppers or even deer-hair flies typically used for largemouth bass on a fly rod — works well.
The Clouser Minnow is another fly that works well for speckled trout early in the morning. Another trick to double your chances with the long rod is to tie on a pencil popper, then a Clouser as a dropper. The popping bug then works much like a popping cork to attract the trout to the streamer fly. And you may pick up fish on the topwater fly as well.
The specks respond to a pretty quick retrieve. Work the setup off the banks and weeds where the water is about 3 feet deep. This noisy two-fly setup can call the trout out of the nearby cover.
When fishing for specks with spinning gear, especially during midday, you may have to go to live bait to provoke any action. Shrimp, alewife, finger mullet and bull minnows all are good choices for taking trout from deeper waters. You can use a cast net to get those baits, since they’re usually plentiful in the summer.
A big speck in the bay weighs 6 pounds. We’ve caught a lot of 3-pound fish, but you have a chance at some of the bigger ones. In this part of Florida, seatrout must be between 15 inches and 20 inches to be harvested, but you can keep one longer than 20 inches in your five-fish-per- day creel limit.
When fishing for tailing redfish, I use spinning gear and live bait on a short leader with a little bit of weight so the bait won’t move much. The fish have their heads down feeding on the bottom in the shallows, thus their tails often protrude above the surface. Once the reds start tailing, their field of vision narrows, and you must get the bait right in front of their faces and keep it there.
If you’re sight-fishing for reds on grassy flats in the morning, you want the tide to be moving. You’re likely to see a half dozen to a dozen reds in a tailing pod.
Whatever your offering is, you need to drop it within 18 inches of the fish’s nose. They aren’t easy to spook, which is kind of strange, but the cast has to be close. Before casting, watch to see which way the fish is moving, then anticipate where your cast needs to land in order to be seen.
Canoes and kayaks are ideal crafts for slipping up on tailing reds. Good areas for wearing out reds in this feeding mode are around the flats and islands at the eastern end of Choctawhatchee Bay. The incoming tide is best. Casting 1/8-ounce jigs dressed with plastic chartreuse-and-red trailers is deadly. I caught and released my largest redfish from about a foot of water in this area. That hefty red took the canoe for a spin about the bay before we netted it.
Retrieving a jig in shallow water requires that you begin cranking your reel before the bait even hits the surface. You also need to keep up a speedy pace. Topwater baits are effective in the very shallow areas and are actually easier to use in this skinny water, since they pretty much stay out of the subsurface grass.
When the reds aren’t tailing, you need to fish deeper around structure or dropoffs along the edges of the flats. Live bait, jigs and lures all work for this action.
There is a slot limit for keeping reds. Your one fish per day creel limit must be at least 18 inches, but no longer than 27 inches.
Opinions vary, but flounder are usually considered one of the best-tasting fish that swim. Their flaky white meat makes them a popular target for anglers on the bay.
On a hot day, it’s fun to get out of the canoe to wade and work the shallow waters around islands and the edges of flats for these flat fish.
Flounder remain in the bay and up rivers all during warm weather months.
Just looking at its flattened shape, with both eyes on one side of its body, tells you these fish live on the bottom. The common dogma about your presentation to flounder is that it should be slow — and then slow it down by half.
But these fish will swim to take a lure. I’ve had them come at my jig like lightning. They ambush their meals, which calls for a sudden fast reaction when they attack.
Choctawhatchee Bay is diverse and wickedly splendid for catching sport fish. Take some time to learn a section during the summer season, and it will pay off for years to come.