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Paddling the Panhandle

  by Vernon Summerlin

 

Half way between Destin and Panama City, Florida lies the eastern end of Choctawhatchee Bay where five rivers enter the more than 25-mile long bay. This is where my wife, Cathy, and I have spent many days canoeing and fishing. Although we visit there during all seasons, the months between November and May are our favorites, fewer tourists, cooler weather, and better fishing.

We canoe trolling jigs - a quick way to locate fish - in the bay and rivers for flounder, red fish, and speckled trout. Once we find them, we anchor and cast.

During the low water levels, such as the Panhandle has experienced in recent years because of drought, higher salinity is present in the bays and further up the rivers. This usually doesn't have a negative effect because the saltier water stays on the bottom because it is denser. It can be an advantage in that it allows saltwater species to move farther up the rivers, often concentrating in deep holes.

Last spring we fished Black Creek and Choctawhatchee River to catch speckled trout. We caught them trolling a 1/8 to 1/4-ounce leadhead with a twin-tail, four-inch, chartreuse grub. Once we hooked one, we anchored and cast the jig. We only kept three fish, more than enough for two meals - they were big fish.

At the mouth of Choctawhatchee River we caught reds swimming the same jigs. In the shallower back bays, Cathy caught flounder with a chartreuse streamer on her fly rod. I tease her about using the "benign neglect" retrieve. From the front of the canoe she cast the streamer, set the fly rod down for a moment and when she lifted it, a flounder was hooked.

Many techniques work for the various species or you can simply use a jig to catch all three species. Later we met Bo Walker, a guide from Seaside, Florida and picked his brain for tips on fishing this area.

Tides

"We fish all of the bay, according to what the tide is doing. Almost every flat is productive. Different times, different flats are better than others. We start just outside the Choctawhatchee River mouth and run to the central part of the bay. The large flat where the river meets the bay is very productive," says Bo.

When baitfish begin to migrate out of the bay and the game fish start looking for food, that's when Bo starts getting the tailing reds on the flats.

"They are eating on the bottom, working across the flats. We also have great grass here, something most people don't know."

Bo likes to fish the incoming currents and extremely low tides. He prefers to fish incoming currents on the deeper parts of the flats, farther into shore.

Reds move to shore with the tide and feed among the weeds. During the low tides when the water drains away from shore the reds move to work the shallow side of the ledges and onto the flats near the ledge.

This protected part of the Gulf coast usually has one high and one low tide. Occasionally, two will occur.

Speckled Trout

Early morning and late evening are the best times for catching trout. The bay has many inlets to lakes and the specks tend to hide in the inlets. Bo likes to cast topwater bait like the pencil popper or topwater flies typically used for largemouth bass.

"I like to use a Clouser early in the morning," says Bo. "Occasionally, if they're hitting topwater, I'll use a Clouser in conjunction with a pencil popper - a two-fly set up. The specks respond to a pretty quick retrieve. I work the setup off the banks and weeds about three feet deep. They have cover but it's something they can come out of to take the bait."

When fishing for specks with spinning gear, usually during midday, Bo uses live bait: shrimp, alewife, finger mullet, and bull minnows. He also fishes deeper at this time of day.

"A big speck here will be six pounds. We've got a lot of three and four-pound fish, but you have a chance at some of the bigger ones. In this part of Florida they've got to be between 15 inches and 20 inches, but you can keep one longer than 20 inches to make a creel of five fish per day.

Flounder

"If it ain't chartreuse, it ain't no use," says Bo when talking about flies for the doormats. "Not many anglers fly-fish for them but a fellow near here holds the world record for flounder on a fly rod."

Flounder hit jigs, live bait, and artificial lures. They stay in the bay and up river during warm weather months. But in winter you can catch flounder in the rivers emptying into the bay where the water is warmer.

Fall is transition time, when some begin moving out of the bay into the warmer Gulf waters. Many stay within casting distance of the Gulf's shoreline through November. Bo says, "your presentation has to be slow, then slow it down by half."

Redfish

"The reds begin tailing more," according to Bo, "when the water gets warmer in March. If we're casting to tailing redfish, I like to use spinning gear and live bait - something on a short lead with a little bit of weight so the bait doesn't move too much. Once the reds start tailing, their field of vision narrows and you have to keep the bait right in front of their face."

When fly-casting for tailing reds he likes the Clouser, shrimp patterns with BB's that rattle, and an unconventional spoon that he makes.

"I like the gold spoon with chartreuse flecks on it, and I like the one where I put Mylar webbing over it - it's gold with orange Mylar and sealed with epoxy resin.

Bo uses a classic approach for sight fishing for reds: the client stands on the front of the boat and he's on the back poling. The client begins casting to grassy flats in the morning when the tide is right.

"You'll see a half-dozen to dozen reds tailing," he says. "They get their heads down feeding on the bottom. I pick the largest one for the client to cast to. You need to lay the fly within 18 inches of the redfish's nose. They aren't easy to spook, which is kind of strange, but the cast has to be close. You watch to see which way the fish is moving, trying to anticipate where it's going to bring the fly into its narrow vision area. Picture a "V" in front of the fish. The distance between the top parts of the "V" is about 14 inches. You've got to put the fly in that triangle."

There is a slot limit for reds, not less than 18 inches and not more than 27 inches with a creel limit of one per day. Restrictions are still rather tight on these fish even though their numbers are greatly increased.

"We've seen a lot of redfish in the 35 to 38-inch range," says Bo. "They are a little harder to trek and they are usually laid up, not feeding. These fish will weigh about 10 or 12-pounds and the legal length fish weigh around six pounds."

For the Family

If you saw the "Truman" movie you saw Seaside, an 80-acre community of distinctive architecture colored in cool coastal pastels. More than 200 cottages of varying size available for you and your fishing buddies, family or large group.

Many specialty shops form a semi-circle around the diminutive post office on Walton County Road 30-A, commonly called 30-A. Across 30-A are other shops, restaurants, and boutiques - all within east strolling distance.

This community offers something for everyone, including the sugar white beaches for sunning and swimming. Bud and Alley's (one of the best restaurants in the area), Cafe Bouzouki, Pickles, and Modica Market and Deli provide dining to suit the widest range of taste buds.

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