April 29, 2022
By Frank Sargeant
Gulf Islands National Seashore extends for more than 150 miles along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico and includes seven major islands, lots of small, unnamed sandbars and thousands of acres of great fishing water.
Here, the Gulf teems with trout, redfish and sheepshead on the inside; flounder and bull reds roam in the passes; pompano, whiting, bluefish and Spanish mackerel are along the beaches; and tarpon prowl just outside the bar all summer long.
The seashore stretches from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to Cat Island, Miss., within casting distance of the Louisiana line and even more great island fishing in the Chandeleurs, which are not part of Gulf Islands but are designated as Breton National Wildlife Refuge.
While some of the islands require a boat to access them, others like those in the Navarre Beach to Fort Pickens area of Florida feature drive-by fishing where anglers can kayak, wade, or fish from some of the longest piers and bridge fishing areas in the nation.
There are also excellent camping areas in some portions of the park, including the one at Fort Pickens in western Florida. Most years, the fishing is good from late February through early November in this family-friendly angler’s paradise that features some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and lots to do when you aren’t on the water.
Both Horn Island and Cat Island can be reached quickly out of Biloxi, which also happens to be a great spot for some sport ashore if you’re inclined to games of chance. The city is sort of a mini Las Vegas, with 24-hour hotel-casinos everywhere—except it’s surrounded by water instead of desert.
For family-friendly attractions, there’s the Mississippi Aquarium (msaquarium.org), with more than 70,000 square feet of aquatic exhibits where you can show kids the fish you’re trying to catch in advance. It’s about $30 for adults and $25 for kids.
If you don’t bring your own boat, you and the family can hop aboard the Ship Island Ferry in Gulfport (msshipisland.com) for a 12-mile trip to the island and 150-year-old Fort Massachusetts located there.
There’s also a great beach and good springtime surf fishing for big trout on Heddon Spooks and Rapala Skitter Vees, as well as pompano and whiting on sandfleas or shrimp. You can rent chairs and umbrellas on the island. The ferry ride costs $34 round-trip for adults and $24 for kids.
Though not technically part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, the west end of Dauphin Island is part of the same island chain as Cat, Ship, Horn and Petit Bois to the west, and also offers great springtime wadefishing in the surf for trout as long as your arm. The local favorite lure is the Slick Lure, which is a soft jerkbait. Be a bit wary when wading at dawn and dusk—the sometimes discolored water here also attracts bull sharks, and they will not ignore a fat trout on a stringer attached to your belt.
Fort Gaines, an interesting Civil War fort with a modest admission charge, is at the east end of Dauphin Island. Nearby is the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a marine research center that also features a public aquarium with a 10,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 7,000-gallon stingray touch pool and the Living Marsh Boardwalk.
Across the mouth of Mobile Bay is Fort Morgan, another Civil War fort that lies within Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge—a great place for energetic kids to run and play, and for older kids and adults to learn some sobering history (fort-morgan.org).
Dixey Bar, just off the tip of Fort Morgan, is the most famed spot for bull reds anywhere east of Louisiana, with schools of 20- to 40-pounders hanging there nearly year-round. Nearby Sand Island Light shoal is almost equally good at times. The bars can be dangerous for boaters anytime there’s an outgoing tide and a wind out of the south, but otherwise this is a great fishing area.
Large swim jigs work as well as anything, but avoid treble-hook rigs since all these fish are oversized and must be released. One of the best-known and most personable guides in the area is Captain Bobby Abruscato (ateamfishing.com).
Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches some 54 miles from the east end of Santa Rosa Island to Perdido Key, including a small but very productive fishing area on Santa Rosa Sound where you can wade-fish or kayak to plenty of big trout and redfish. The secret here is to find areas with lots of seagrass on Google Earth and wade those areas, particularly at dawn and dusk.
Also in this area is the resort town of Pensacola Beach, which is loaded with family-friendly attractions including kayak and SUP rentals, pontoon rentals, sundown cruises and a kiddy playland complete with mini zipline and splash pads at Laguna’s Adventure Park.
There are also lots of waterfront restaurants here. Try The Crab, right on the beach, where you can sit outside and fill up on their honeybun appetizers before your blackened grouper entree arrives.
This area also has some of the clearest water anywhere on Florida’s beaches, and the whitest sand—it’s regularly ranked near the top not only nationally, but world-wide.
The drop is very shallow near the shore, making it an easy spot for kids to enjoy the water, too, and snorkeling down the outside of the nearshore bar will let you see a variety of the Gulf’s inshore fish, crabs and other critters. There are a few sharks here, so don’t be completely oblivious to your surroundings and don’t swim outside the bar at night.
Another potential treat here is a fly-over by the Blue Angels. They regularly buzz the beach when they return from out-of-town airshows, and you’ll feel the thunder all the way down through your flip-flops. You can also visit the Naval Aviation Museum, a massive display of historical aircraft, many of which you and the kids can climb inside (navalaviationmuseum.org).
There’s a 10-mile stretch of undeveloped beach parkland on the east side of Pensacola Beach where you can get a feel of what this area must have been like before humans first arrived here, and a similar stretch on the west side of town on the road leading to Fort Pickens. The latter is a paid entry area, but well worth it for history buffs, with multiple historic gun emplacements and forts to explore. There’s also good fishing on the beach side of both areas and endless beaches for swimming or shelling. The tip of the island at Fort Pickens is a noted spot for bull reds in the fall—drifting an outgoing tide with an 8-inch live mullet usually results in a hookup in short order.
No boat? No problem. The quarter-mile-long Pensacola Beach Pier produces excellent action on kings, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, jacks, cobia and even some blackfin tuna and sailfish now and then. The trick is to jig up some live baits with a sabiki then fly-line them from the end of the pier on repeated drifts. It’s also a great spot to just walk out and watch the sun set, and the beachfront Casino Beach Bar and Restaurant (fishpensacola
beachpier.com) is adjacent.
Simplify the process of transporting gear across the sand or down a long pier with one of these handy carts. A beach or pier cart is a big help in many fishing spots along the northern Gulf for getting beach chairs, umbrellas, coolers and fishing tackle out to the water.
If you’re primarily a pier fisherman, a welded aluminum model with inflated rubber tires and ball-bearing wheels will allow you to easily carry just about anything. The wheelbarrow-style Angler’s Fish-N-Mate Cart from Bass Pro Shops ($330; basspro.com) has 16-inch wheels and weighs just 34 pounds, yet carries up to 150 pounds.
On the other hand, beach anglers will fare better with a model that has balloon-type tires to float over the soft sand, like the Alumacart Sidekick Beach and Fishing Wagon ($560; factorypure.com/products). It hauls up to 350 pounds, is built of anodized aluminum and stainless steel and has solid axles—no bearings—for durability around sand and salt.