In a flash the eagle swoops down in front of me to snatch a silver trout from the stream’s sparkling surface. Dripping diamonds as he soars aloft, the scene is right out of Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River in Michigan.
It’s a crisp, bright mid-February morning with the scent of pines heavy in the air. In the amber depths of the stream, nervous shadows of large trout shift back and forth along sandbars on both sides of the main flow. For an instant I’m stalking freshwater brown trout, but this is Florida and those shadows are supersized seatrout.
The fish were enjoying the warm outflow of the Gulf Power Lansing Smith Generating Plant, a quarter-mile of stream that empties into St. Andrew Bay in Panhandle Florida. The scene contrasted notably from the rest of the region. Record cold and torrential rains had flushed trout and redfish out of the river systems where they customarily wintered. Locals swore the fish were not in the bays where the water temperature was in the 50s. Anglers speculated that the trout and reds went where they usually go when things get really frigid for them: into the warmer depths of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, there I was on an inland bay, looking at an 8-foot-deep stream full of trout, reds, catfish, mullet, stingrays and more.
The difference was the water emanating from the powerplant outfall, having coursed through and cooled the interior of the generator, was almost 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding bay. It was a hot tub for fish.
Schools of baitfish and juveniles concentrate near the plant’s main outflow while others seek out deep holes along the adjacent Warren Bayou. Because the fish are so vulnerable here, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission implemented a catch-and-release-only policy from November through the end of February. But if you’re itching for sport and can’t find it elsewhere, this is the place to be.
My introduction to this unusual area had come a week earlier at the invitation of Capt. Chris Parker, a Panama City Beach guide. I met Parker at the public boat ramp off the Hathaway Bridge in Panama City. With me was my fishing buddy, Doug Bogert. With Chris was our mutual friend, Capt. Bill Fowler.
From the bridge it is a 7-mile run due north up West Bay to the mouth of the power company’s outflow canal at Warren Bayou. You recognize the site by pilings near the opening of the canal leading toward the power plant. A restricted zone extends beyond these pilings. As you look up the canal, you see the distant tall stacks of the Gulf Power Company plant.
Before arriving at this point, however, we cut the motor and switched on the electric to cast the surrounding bay water. No fish bothered us in this cool water. Reading the water temperature on Chris’ skiff, we saw it gradually rise the closer we got to shore. Fishing instantly improved. Small trout eagerly grabbed our grub-tail jigs on practically every cast. Flattened hook barbs made for fast releases. The fish were concentrated in large schools along shore. A dirt road suggested that shore-based anglers could just as easily fish these waters.
Instead of heading up the canal, Chris worked us into a series of coastal grass coves with deeper holes and fishy looking points. Gold spoons and plastic shrimp fished slowly near the bottom turned up a few reds. Most of our action was with small trout, and an occasional keeper. We had a number of double and triple hookups. But it seemed the larger fish had to be fleet of fin to beat out the younger fish that pummeled our lures.
Occasionally one or the other of us hooked into something with more authority. Bill was the first. From the curve of his rod it looked like nothing less than a 99-pound bull red at least. But from the distant wave moving ahead of us up the lagoon, Bill knew that he had tangled with a stingray. As his line flew off the spool, he put a permanent stop to it and broke off at the leader.
Moments later I had the redfish of my dreams turning deep circles around our boat but by the time the critter came up it had turned into a large gafftopsail catfish that stubbornly clenched my plastic shrimp. Both Chris and Bill commented on how often anglers find sharks and rays in these warmer waters year-round. These waters indeed attract all kinds of fish, some at seemingly odd times of year. Ron Shafer from nearby Southport told me that he fished from shore at the head of the canal one winter day when he tossed out a surface plug and popped it a couple times. Something sucked it in and to Ron’s amazement out came a tail-walking tarpon about four feet long.
Ron laughed. “The fish made two swift circles around that tiny pool, caught everyone’s lines, then broke loose leaving us to sort out the mess.”
Obviously fish enjoy their warmwater spas as much as humans do.
Eventually we left the bayou and entered the canal. Within minutes we were into trout and small reds on every cast again. “Most years you can catch redfish here from 4 to 15 pounds with the average around 6 pounds,” Chris explained. “This year has been off, I think, due to the severe winter. The bayou is about 10 degrees cooler than the previous four or five years.”
We fished our way along the canal through a cold downpour right up to its source where it flows out of underwater pipes below a concrete and earthen dike. Oddly, where there were the most fish, we did the least on artificials.
“You didn’t get any hits there because you weren’t feeding them what they wanted,” said Rick Wiles some days later when I told him what we had done.
Rick works at St. Andrew State Park, and after some 20 years of fishing the bay, he knows some of its secrets. The park, south of the Hathaway Bridge at the end of Thomas Drive, is popular with anglers wanting easy access to both the bay and ocean fishing. Rick shares whatever fishing information he can with visitors who ask about it.
Rick e-mailed me photos of nice trout and reds he had caught and released while fishing the shoreward side
of this warmwater canal the same time we were boat-fishing it. He offered to show me how he did it. So a few days later I met him at Southport and we drove to the area locals call “The Steam Plant.” It’s off Highway 77 on County Road 2321 also known as 77A. Follow it past the plant where a dirt road leads to a series of canals used by the company.
In this Michigan trout stream setting I saw the eagle pick up the trout. It was the land end of the warmwater canal. Rick had fished here often enough to know where and how to do it to get good returns. On the earthen dike over huge pipes that allow warm waters to pass through on their way to the bay, we backed our pickups to the edge and dropped their tailgates to rig up. Spotting the dike were the remnants of campfires left by night fishermen. Oysters lined the underwater side of the steep embankment, creating a hazard where you didn’t want your line to go. If a fish decided to run up one of those pipes, the fight was over fast.
Rick said that artificial lures such as plastic shrimp and various sinking plugs work here, but what the fish preferred was live bait. Being the time of year when live bait was scarce at most tackle shops, anglers at best had bull minnows in their aerators. But Wiles, who had experimented with different hook styles and baits, went them one better. He had earlier trapped about 60 lively pinfish he knew were as acceptable as candy to these trout and redfish. Occasional water changes in their plastic 5-gallon pails kept the bait frisky.
From the first cast in the morning to the last a little past midday we caught trout and redfish on virtually every pinfish we offered. We fought them all over this pool, sometimes each of us into a trout. On one occasion I hooked into something big. First thing he did was head for the bay.
“Oh, oh!” murmured Rick. “Look at that bow wave!”
Luckily when I clamped down on the ray I retrieved my end tackle.
Soon other anglers arrived and took up sites along the waterway. Nine pelicans arrived long before noon to plague us with their efforts to steal our catches. They were well trained. They spread across the outfield so that anywhere you cast they generally had it covered. If you fought the fish near the surface they dive-bombed after it. Best strategy was to let the fish fight deep and work it alongside shore where you tried to land it before the birds got it. It took fast work because they didn’t mind snatching your catch out of your hand if you didn’t yell and back them off. As they retreated it was begrudgingly with much ruffling of feathers and clacking of beaks.
Shortly past midday and the end of our live bait, we were both satisfied anglers. Over lunch I asked Rick to tell me about some of the tricks he had learned about fishing the Steam Plant cooling canal. Here are the highlights of that information:
You catch more on artificials the farther down the canal you get toward the bay, especially early in the morning. Rick feels that if you use large live bait such as finger mullet or large pinfish you catch mega-size trout.
Everything else he uses is lightweight from the spinning or baitfishing rod to its 8-pound-test line, No. 1 Aberdeen wire hook and pea-size splitshot. Having tried several kinds of circle hooks he settled on the Mustad Ultra Number 1 as the best. On all hooks we depressed the barbs to a slight lump large enough to hold the bait. The pinfish were hooked upward from the lower jaw through the lips. Before the pelicans arrived we freelined the bait. One trick was to pitch the bait up in the inches-deep water on a sandbar, then drag it back to drop off over the shoulder where the big trout fanned. Bait often skittered back on top fast when they saw what was on the bottom. Most, however, were grabbed viciously.
Strikes are so sudden and hard that I often couldn’t drop the tip fast enough before the bait was ripped off. A slight delay is needed for the fish to turn the large bait in his mouth. Freelining helps here. You don’t close the bail and strike until the fish has the bait. Long-nose pliers are often needed to extract a hook. Use wet hands in handling the fish and try to slip the hook out at water’s edge to avoid further damage. Never drag a fish up onto the sand and then toss it back into the water. Caked sand on his sides doesn’t wash off easily and he will perish. If you gut hook a fish, cut the line and release it without doing catastrophic harm by trying to remove such a hook. Best is to use your hand to belly lift a fish whenever possible. Rick says it paralyses them and unhooking the catch with a wet hand enables the fish to be freed with minimal shock.
You can deplete the resource just as quickly by letting a pelican grab your catch. When they go after your struggling fish give him slack to dive. Work the fish toward shore and make a racket to scare off the aggressive birds so that you can release your catch.
Our largest trout was about three pounds. Some we saw lounging beside the sandbars would have gone six pounds and up. We caught a number of redfish up to three pounds as well and Rick has seen them caught there up to seven pounds.
The best part of all was the continuous action. When you can enjoy fishing in such bountiful waters as these, it doesn’t get much better than that.