Florida has been deemed the fishing capital of the world, and its widespread offshore, inshore and freshwater fisheries certainly support that claim. While each of the state’s regions boasts an illustrious history of coastal communities founded on sport fishing, the Panhandle in particular offers an incredible diversity of pursuits. Whether it’s distant offshore opportunities, a near-shore blitz amid the area’s emerald beachfront waters or tailing redfish sh atop the flats of Choctawhatchee Bay, visiting and resident anglers have plenty to keep them busy. However, in addition to the obvious fisheries that keep boat owners occupied, several prolific land-based venues exist throughout the area, giving fishermen on foot year-round action of their own.
Though Florida in general represents one of the most diverse angling destinations on the planet, the Panhandle offers its own unique collection of sport fishing pursuits. As is the case in any other locale within state lines, anglers fishing from boats are given the most advantageous access to widespread game fish in Florida’s famed northwest region. However, miles of fishy shoreline and massive piers extending surprisingly deep into the Gulf of Mexico give land-based fishermen excellent opportunities as well.
However, without the ability to hop in a boat and find the bite, landlocked anglers must be ever more diligent in their planning and preparation. Success in any fishery requires knowledge of seasonal migrations for both forage and predators, prevailing weather conditions, yearly patterns and much more. Limited to the handful of locations that they can fish on foot, shorebound anglers must be precise in their timing, maximizing every opportunity to jump on a hot bite when it presents itself.
Fortunately, the Florida Panhandle is one of the most prolific shore fishing destinations in the country. Bordering the northeast Gulf of Mexico, this entire region provides anglers on foot ideal scenarios throughout the year to intercept a variety of sought-after game fish. While the area’s reputation as a shore fishing destination makes it obvious that the fish are there, a few of the major keys to becoming successful in this pursuit is knowing when and how to approach these fisheries. But location is also critical and gaining an understanding of the Panhandle’s top land-based hot spots is an advantage that should not be overlooked.
Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier
Standing strong along picturesque Fort Walton Beach, the Okaloosa Island Pier is a staple hot spot for land-based Panhandle anglers. The pier is open year-round and often 24 hours a day, seven days a week, though those hours are modified during the winter months. At only $2 per person age 6 and up, entrance is inexpensive, and the on-site tackle store offers affordable equipment rentals for those who need them. However, serious anglers almost always come prepared with their own gear.
While Spanish mackerel, bluefish and whiting represent a large majority of the species anglers catch from the pier, there is one particular target that is perhaps the most sought after among pier-goers. During the warmest months of the year, tarpon migrate along the Emerald Coast and give land-based anglers realistic opportunities to land 100-plus-pound behemoths of the pier. The bite in the Northern Gulf usually heats up in the beginning of May and persists until August, when the masses of silver kings continue their migration and vacate the region.
Although the tarpon arrive in numbers during the summer months and roam within close vicinity of the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, hooking and landing these fish from the planks is the real challenge. Around the state, many successful tarpon fishermen rely heavily on the maneuverability of their boats to not only put themselves in the ideal positions to intercept these wary predators, but also to more effectively fight the fish once they are hooked.
Specific tackle preferences vary among anglers, but successful pier-based tarpon fishing usually involves heavy spinning gear comprising rods that are long enough for accurate and long casts but still maintain plenty of backbone. Heavy spinning reels are the norm here as well, loaded with 50 or 65 lb. braided main line. Line capacity is a major component in this fishery, and anglers need to have enough line to accommodate drag-screaming runs without the ability to chase their fish down.
Another important consideration when tarpon fishing from the historic Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier is bait. Wherever anglers chase the elusive silver king, presenting the right offering is a monumental key to success. “Matching the hatch” with live bait is never a bad idea, and some of the most effective options in this fishery are ladyfish, pinfish and threadfin herring. However, it’s also important to recognize that live bait isn’t always readily available, especially when you don’t have the luxury of a livewell. Fortunately, today’s lifelike baitfish sh imitations work well in lieu of the real thing. Swimbaits are particularly effective in this venue, with the Spooltek 9” Stretch and 6” Fatt y from A Band Of Anglers (abandofanglers.com) popular options, as well as the Motion Minnow in various sizes and colors from Marea Gear (mareagear.com).
Unlike many statewide hot spots that can be challenging to access, the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier sits beside a free parking lot. Anglers can also explore the additional isolated beach parks east of the pier that offer excellent fishing of their own, but the pier itself is a great place to start.
Navarre Beach Pier
Measuring 1,545 feet in length and situated 30 feet above the water, the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier is the longest pier in the state. While this feat is the landmark’s most widely recognized claim to fame, the world-class fisheries that exist for anglers here are also something to appreciate. This massive pier very well might be the most impressive attraction in Santa Rosa County and dedicated land-based anglers are often rewarded with trophy game fish. While Pensacola and Desti n are popular destinations for statewide anglers, Navarre sits geographically in between these fan-favorite locales and has largely flown under the radar, but it’s in the local angler’s best interest to give the gigantic pier a shot.
The Navarre Pier offers many of the same red-hot fishing that other sites in the region do, but this particular pier’s size and the distance it spans into the Gulf of Mexico breeds opportunities not generally seen from shorter piers. Many of the anglers at the very tip of the pier are targeting kingfish in the deeper water, but the real reward in this pursuit is the occasional cobia that meanders within casting range. Every spring, this region sees one of the most prolific cobia migrations in the world, with big brown bombers heading west along this historic stretch of northern Gulf coastline. When these fish crash the party, they are normally spotted pretty easily by the keen eyes of seasoned pier goers at their heightened vantage points and monster cobia travel near the surface amid the notorious emerald waters.
Area kingfish are often taken by anglers casting and retrieving fresh dead cigar minnow with bite-proof wire leaders on large spinning reels with long rods for long casts. While cobia can be very aggressive, they are usually far more wary than feeding mackerel and may not fall for the same approach. Live bait with fluorocarbon leader is the best bet when targeting cobia specifically, with pinfish, mullet and threadfin herring a few of the most effective offerings. However, these fish tend to pop up unexpectedly and because live bait can be difficult to obtain during shore-based exploits, anglers in the know will keep a spinner rigged with a heavy bucktail jig ready at all times.
The pier can be crowded, especially on weekends, so it’s important to claim your spot early in the morning, as that’s often the most productive time of day to fish anyway. Open seven days a week, spring hours are 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., with summer hours 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and winter hours sunrise to sunset. A daily pass for an adult is available for only $7, while an annual pass costs $150 with discounted rates for patrons 65 and older as well as children under 16.
Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
Perhaps the most popular location among anglers in the entire Panhandle, Pensacola offers a huge diversity of prolific fisheries. When it comes to land-based pursuits, the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier is second to none. Besides the beautiful views that attract countless travelers and locals alike, this pier offers excellent opportunities not only for casual weekend anglers fishing with their families but also serious fishermen looking to connect with the fish of a lifetime. While the Gulf Pier is a decades-old landmark, hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico through the years has created the need for multiple rounds of serious repairs. However, the pier that patrons enjoy today stands strong and offers incredible year-round fishing.
Though the deepest water anglers can reach at the end of the pier is only around 20 feet deep, anglers see their fair share of pelagic game fish traditionally only found many miles offshore as their seasonal migration patterns bring them within casting range of eager land-based fishermen. The idea of catching a dolphin or sailfish from a pier may seem farfetched and even impossible in the minds of widespread anglers, but these feats are achieved with surprising consistency at this historic pier. The Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier extends nearly a mile into the Gulf, and in the fall when the blue water creeps in near the pier, sailfish roam surprisingly close to shore and provide anglers with rare opportunities to intercept them. By the same token, dolphin are encountered with surprising regularity as they venture in near the end of the pier to gorge on nearby baitfish.
Although these highly regarded pelagic gamefish are treasured trophies anytime they are caught by pier fishermen, king and Spanish mackerel are more realistic targets at the Gulf Pier. During the summer months, trophy smokers can be caught with impressive consistency from the pier, though attention to detail and proper tackle is necessary for success in this fishery. As is the case at most Gulf coast piers, casting nose-hooked dead cigar minnows is a winning formula when live bait is not available. Flashy spoons, plugs and jigs will also entice nearby kings as well as aggressive Spanish macks, but natural bait often proves to be more effective. It’s important, though, that anglers use the freshest possible baits they can find, whether procuring it themselves or scouring the freezers of their favorite tackle shops. Additionally, while wire leaders offer bite protection from toothy mackerel, clear water and wary fish means that 80 lb. monofilament leaders attached by a streamlined knot or small barrel swivel will likely get you more bites.
Destin East Pass Jetties
While the many piers reaching into the Gulf of Mexico give land-based anglers opportunities to target pelagic game fish that are typically associated with offshore endeavors by boat, trekking to the end of the planks is not the only way to reach trophy targets. Desti n has long been a sport fishing hub, known for its impressive fleets of reputable charter boats and prolific distant offshore fisheries. However, don’t discount the inshore exploits readily available to shore-bound anglers. While there are many land-based hot spots in the area, the jetties at Desti n’s East Pass just might be the most intriguing. Unlike the region’s piers that sit high above the water’s surface and offer more comfortable conditions for anglers, these jetties often require more of an adventurous spirit from fi shermen.
Fishing from a jetty can be challenging, with sometimes poor footing, crashing waves and swift currents, not to mention the fact that anglers are inherently forced to take a minimalist approach with maybe a rod or two and a backpack full of gear. Fortunately, that’s all you really need at Desti n’s East Pass, with several popular inshore targets making their homes along these rocky barriers. If you can manage to carry a small bucket of live shrimp with you, potential non-stop action awaits with seatrout, sheepshead, pompano and much more. However, one of the most popular pursuits at this venue is targeting redfish on artificial enticements.
Redfish maintain a year-round presence along virtually the entirety of Florida’s Gulf Coast, including the Panhandle, but their patterns and behavior can shift as often as the tide. Therefore, anglers must adjust their presentations and adapt to the conditions they are faced with. At the Desti n East Pass jetties, redfish action stays relatively hot from the fall to early summer. Redfish have adapted to successfully hunt a variety of prey, from small crabs and shrimp to larger baitfish, giving anglers a variety of lures to choose from.
During low-light conditions associated with dawn and dusk, walking the dog with topwater plugs is not only effective, but also gets the blood pumping more than any other method in the minds of most anglers. During calm conditions, feeding reds will annihilate topwater offerings with reckless abandon, putting on a show at the surface. When the sun is high in the sky, subsurface lures are more effective with a variety of soft plastics pinned to heavy jigheads one of the most consistent producers. However, a traditional gold spoon might be your best bet.
T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Situated amid one of the most beautiful landscapes the Sunshine State has to offer, the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is certainly a site to see for all sorts of visitors. However, with the expansive Gulf of Mexico to the west and St. Joseph Bay to the east, this accessible patch of land also provides prime fishing opportunities for anglers on foot. Additionally, minimal crowds and a mere $6 entrance fee per vehicle allows anglers to pack a heavy load and truly maximize their time chasing their targets within the park. Open daily from 8:00 a.m. to sunset, the park is an excellent place to spend a day fishing from shore.
On the Gulf side, miles of beachfront offer access to a variety of game fish including black drum, bluefish and whiting, particularly at Cape San Blas to the south of the park. However, many anglers inside the park prefer to focus their efforts along the shoreline on the west side of St. Joseph Bay. Here, redfish remain top targets as they do around much of Florida, but speckled seatrout are also encountered throughout the bay in greater abundance. While redfish can be wary targets that sometimes won’t even fall for perfect presentations, trout can be caught throughout much of the year with greater consistency.
Specks at the upper limits of their growth potential display characteristics more closely related to finicky flats targets, only committing to stealthy presentations with a preference for live bait. But anglers who cast small plugs and soft plastics atop the area’s lush flats will be rewarded with steady action from respectable trout, with a few larger specimens mixed in. Furthermore, if you stop on a particular stretch of shoreline and catch a few fish, it’s in your best interest to remain in that area and fish it thoroughly until the bite stops. Trout often gather in numbers, congregating on flats that feature healthy seagrass and plenty of forage, so be on the lookout for baitfish activity.
While fishing from land will never be the same as fishing from a boat, that doesn’t mean it can’t be productive. Success in any fishery requires thorough preparation and attention to detail; it’s never as simple as showing up and casting a line. The coastal waters of Florida’s Panhandle are home to an incredibly diverse array of game fish and, as a result, the region is also the site of some of the most impressive land-based catches in the state. Whether you prefer the elevated vantage point of a pier, a sandy shoreline or a treacherous jetty, one thing has become abundantly clear – no boat, no problem!