Five Reasons the Florida Panhandle Is an Angler’s Dream

A longtime panhandle fisherman on why the region draws him back year after year

photo: David Mangum

A Panhandle tarpon.

On my first fishing trip to the Florida Panhandle, I met a friend at a boat ramp in one of the area’s many bays, and we headed out toward the Highway 98 bridge near Panama City. I didn’t really know what to expect: I’d never fished here before, the day was gray—leftover gloom from a passing thundershower—and the water was tossy. “I have no idea if they’ll be here,” my friend told me as we neared the bridge. “But this place is always worth a look.” 

He was talking about redfish. Giant redfish, in fact, that on certain tides sometimes attack bait near the bridge’s pylons. 

Bermuda shoreline
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As we got just under the bridge, I saw them: redfish blowing up bait, causing massive explosions on the surface. It looked like someone was dropping bowling balls into the water from the bridge. I threw my fly out into the mayhem and, one strip later, was into the biggest redfish I had ever hooked. The fight didn’t last long—the fish broke me off after about ten seconds, and the explosions subsided before I could re-rig. But I’ll take the sight of those redfish with me to the rest home one day.

It has now been thirty years since that trip, and I’ve kept going back to the Panhandle to fish nearly every year since. The reason: The Panhandle—defined here as the roughly two hundred miles of coastline between Pensacola and Panacea—is one of the best fishing spots in the world. Both seasoned veterans and true beginners can find high-quality angling experiences literally every month of the year. The fishing opportunities are endless: I’ve fished the river mouths, bays and inlets, the inshore and offshore Gulf of Mexico, and even a freshwater lake. And, of course, the Panhandle’s restaurants, shops, and beautiful beaches offer plenty of diversions off the water.

If you’re thinking about a fishing trip of your own, these are my top five reasons the Panhandle keeps calling me back.

Variety is the spice of (fishing) life

The redfishing on the Panhandle is some of the best in the world, and the fish haunt the bays and inlets and ocean year-round. In the surf, you’ll find bluefish and Spanish mackerel. There are speckled trout, tarpon, cobia, and jack crevalle in the bays (like the Choctawhatchee, St. Joseph, and East Bay) and off the beaches. False albacore (an underrated fish in Florida) bust bait in the inlets. Grouper and red snapper hang by the reefs and wrecks a few miles away in the Gulf, and mahi-mahi, wahoo, tuna, marlin, and sailfish swim offshore. Oh yeah, and there’s also some excellent largemouth bass fishing on nearby Lake Talquin. 

You can go hard-core or take it easy

I’ve done both. I’ve spent a week on the Panhandle with a friend, fishing sunup to sundown every day. I’ve also been there on vacation with my family and fished a great half-day with the kids.

The Silver King

From May until August, tarpon migrate along the Panhandle, which happens to be one of the best places in the world to get one of these magnificent fish (and there are some very big ones that come through) to bite a fly. Especially near some of the river mouths, where the water is clouded up just enough to make the tarpon a tad less wary than they are in, say, the Keys.

The fishing guides are top notch 

You’d be hard pressed to find a better inshore (redfish, jacks, trout, false albacore, tarpon) guiding service than Shallow Water Expeditions, which is located in Santa Rosa Beach and fishes clients year-round throughout the Panhandle. (Its guides can also get you out to wrecks and reefs for grouper and snapper, if you like.) Book a guide for an entire week, or go out with the kids for a half-day (there’s even a special kid-friendly two-hour trip). If you’re looking to go offshore to target tuna, mahi-mahi, marlin, or sailfish, captain Jason Mikel, on his Destin-based boat, Finest Kind, will get you into the action. It can be spectacular.

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There is a great fishing store

Housed in a century-old building in Apalachicola’s charming downtown, Apalach Outfitters is a fantastic fly shop, stocked with gear—from Patagonia, Orvis, Sage, Van Staal, and more—and a wealth of knowledge about how and where to fish in the surrounding waters.