Panama City Beach Fishing: The Florida Panhandle destination is best known as a vacation spot, providing sun and surf for visitors, but the area also is a mecca for anglers to enjoy a day on the water.
Every year, Panama City Beach, Fla., receives an influx of visitors taking advantage of the area’s pristine beaches, excellent weather and numerous amenities. These visitors range from retirees to vacationing families, and even college kids wanting to party for spring break.
While most are there to eat vast amounts of seafood and play in the sun and surf, some take advantage of the vast fishing opportunities for redfish, seatrout, cobia, grouper and more in the blue water.
One of the most popular ways to pursue saltwater species, both inshore and deeper water, in the Gulf is by hiring a guide, as guides spend years learning coastal waters.
Capt. Todd Jones, with Panama City Inshore (www.panamacityinshore.com), has been hunting and fishing the Gulf since he was a child. He, along with Capt. Justin Leake, also works with the Panama City Visitors Bureau to produce the city’s “Chasin’ The Sun” TV show, which explores the culture and lifestyle of the Gulf Coast region and can be seen on Sportsman Channel.
Jones typically takes clients to structure that he has discovered over the years, such as dropped bridge pilings and natural reefs, when targeting deeper species. Depending on the time of year, anglers can pursue red snapper, vermillion snapper, cobia, flounder, tarpon, mackerel, amberjack and more.
Of course with experience, anglers can learn where to pursue saltwater species without a guide. According to Jones, one of the best places to start learning where to target fish is at the website of Half Hitch (www.halfhitch.com), a retail fishing store started by fishing guide Capt. B.J. Putnam. In addition to selling fishing gear, accessories and clothing, Half Hitch publishes regular fishing reports and maintains meticulous records on reefs, both natural and manmade, and even provides GPS coordinates for reefs in the Gulf near Panama City, as well as numerous other coastal cities in the region. Another location to find artificial reef locations is at Myfwc.com, which also has size and harvest limits, as well as tips to help anglers catch fish.
One of the best things about visiting a coastal city is the eating a variety of fresh seafood, and Panama City Beach has some of the best right on the main stretch — Front Beach Road.
Called the “Last Local Beach Club,” Schooners (www.schooners.com/index.htm) is an open-air bar/restaurant with a back porch that runs right to the sand. The dress is extremely casual, all the way down to swimsuits and T-shirts allowed, with live music on pretty much a daily basis. The menu consists of a variety of Gulf seafood, from grouper to multiple styles of shrimp to mahi-mahi, as well as more standard fares, such as burgers and steaks, and a diverse menu for the kids. Also, one of the most popular events happens at sunset when the restaurant blasts off a cannon to celebrate the end of another beautiful day.
Those who head further west on Front Beach Road will see numerous other local and chain restaurants, eventually reaching a shopping center containing Firefly (fireflypcb.com), an elegant restaurant that features a variety of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Be sure to consider the American Kobe Carpaccio and the Sauteed Gulf Grouper, also known as the Olympic Grouper because it was served to athletes during the 2012 London games. And when you’re done, be sure to walk down the center to the Pink Pelican (find them on Facebook), a local ice cream shop serving 40 different flavors of ice cream, Italian ice and frozen yogurt with a politeness that lets you know that you’re in the South.
The numerous reefs, many of which are manmade, provide crucial structure in the vast Gulf of Mexico, which is actually pretty bare. These structures provide cover for both baitfish and gamefish, and are the best locations for anglers to find reef-holding fish, such as grouper, snapper, sea bass and more. The structures are of countless variety, from sunken boats to bridge rubble, and even pyramid super reefs made of steel and limestone. Closer to shore, structure is smaller but just as important to both fish species and anglers.
Once again, a lot of the structure nearer shore is manmade, but the area also has oyster beds, sand flats and grass flats. Even floating buoys attract fish, both close to shore and farther out. Some of the best areas for fishing include jetties that jut out from the shore, providing opportunities for shore-bound anglers to get out to areas holding larger fish.
Inshore anglers with boats can concentrate on the St. Andrews Bay System, which comprises of four smaller bays around Panama City. North Bay is closest to the city, while the water around Panama City Pass is known as St. Andrews Bay. West Bay is north of the city, and East Bay is north of Mexico Beach and Crooked Island. Each bay provides miles of shorelines, docks and reefs, along with access to the Pass, which is a frequently dredged channel that leads into the Gulf of Mexico. It is also a gathering place for many inshore saltwater species.
Most anglers use electronics to find underwater structure that hold fish, but another good strategy is to look for diving birds. When predator fish attack schools of baitfish, the smaller fish are driven to the surface, where fish-eating birds attack from above, providing a visual of where fish are feeding.
In these situation, anglers can charge in and cast big stickbaits and shallow-diving crankbaits that resemble minnows, sardines or other baitfish into the melee from as far back as reasonable to prevent spooking fish.
These same baits can also be used around reefs after sweetening the water by chumming up a fish slick or ripping up minnows and chunking them over the side to bring fish up and around the boat. Of course, other baits can be used, such as shrimp or shrimp imitators, as well as big plastics and even jigs. It is actually quite amazing how quickly ripped chunks of fish thrown over the side will bring amberjack, red snapper and more to the top to be caught with a variety of baits.
Of course, not everyone has a boat or wants to pay out the moneyfor a charter, so it’s good that Panama City has miles of open beach, where anglers can wade or cast from the shore.
One of the easiest ways to catch fish is to cast live or cutbait on a fish-finder rig and let it sit until something takes it. The type and size of bait is decided by the targeted species, such as flounder, pompano, whiting, bonito and more. Anglers can even used sand fleas, which are actually small crustaceans that can be found in the huge swath of sand lining the shore. There are even times when redfish and speckled seatrout come in close to shore to hang out between sand bars and can be caught on a variety of minnow-resembling crankbaits and soft plastics, or even Gulp! Alive!, which comes in a variety of saltwater varieties including shrimp.
Those who don’t want to feel sand between toes or waves crashing on legs can head to one of four Panama City Beach piers that jut out into the Gulf of Mexico. Russell-Fields Pier is known as the City Pier, while M.B. Miller Pier is called the County Pier.
Located at 16201 Front Beach Road, Russell-Fields sits more than 1,500 feet over the Gulf of Mexico, providing ample room for walkers, spectators and anglers. Folks can spend a day walking around for $3, or obtain a license and fish for $7 for everyone over seven and under 65, though anglers with disabilities, active military and seniors can fish for $3. The pier offers both seasonal and annual passes; however, anglers are limited to three rods plus one bait rod unless a $2 additional fee per rod is paid (five rods, plus one bait rod, maximum). A little further southeast on Front Beach Road sits M.B. Miller, which also juts about 1,500 feet out and maintains the same regulations but is $1 less expensive. Even better, visitors who don’t bring gear can rent rods and reels, and purchase bait and tackle on site at both.
Even further down the strip is where St. Andrews Park is located, which provides an additional two fishing piers — one stretching over the Gulf, while the other reaches into Grand Lagoon. Anglers can also hit jetties at the park or even head to the deep-water point bordering St. Andrews Pass.
Deciding which to hit depends on proximity and preference, as all have wide areas where anglers can drop or cast a line, and, depending on the time of year, can offer up cobia, Spanish mackerel, redfish and more. Those in search of big fish, including possibly a chance at a shark, should head toward the far end of the piers and drop big baits — live or cut — down on heavy rods and reels.
Anglers can even catch bait right there, which is one of the best methods, as the pier pilings attract a variety of porgies, including pinfish, which can be caught and used immediately. To catch bait, anglers can throw a cast net from the nearby beach, set a trap or even drop small hooks with small baits, such as Powerbait, from the pier.
Other baits that can work on gamefish are shrimp or shrimp-imitators under a popping cork, and even some minnow-imitators. However, anglers need to remember to use stout rods, and possibly a pier net to bring big fish over the railing.
St. Andrews Park provides camping — 176 campsites with electricity, water, tables, grills, dump stations and showers, as well as a primitive site for large groups — biking, geocaching, nature trails and even a boat launch for visitors. The park also has three stores, proving snacks, drinks, limited groceries, licenses and beach gear rentals, and the park has an interpretive exhibit that explains the various habitats and wildlife in the area.
Adding to the area’s attractiveness is that just a short drive from Panama City Beach are multiple freshwater lakes that provide fishing for largemouth bass, catfish, bream and more. There are also several wildlife management areas that provide hunting access for visitors in the fall; folks can even conduct a cast and blast with a little bit of planning, and the area is known for numerous wintering duck species for those with shotgunning on the mind.
Panama City Beach is best known as a popular vacation site, with the primary draws being the sun, surf and beach. The area is completely set up for vacations, with countless condos, hotels, restaurants and fun activities lining the streets that run along the coast. In fact, the area provides fun opportunities for every member of a family, regardless of what is considered fun, from the beach to shopping, and all kinds of outdoor activities to make a trip memorable for all.