Panhandle Fishing, Port St. Joe to Pensacola

Highway 98 threads along Florida’s spectacular northern Gulf Coast beaches. Driving between Port St. Joe and Pensacola, a roadtripping angler can stop off at numerous fishing piers, bridges and stretches of empty coastline. 

 

Escape on Highway 98

Pack up the truckster for a family fishing roadtrip across the Florida Panhandle.

When it comes to Panhandle fishing, Port St. Joe to Pensacola, U.S. Highway 98 parallels the Gulf coast through a cross-section of Florida Panhandle communities and habitats. It passes through military bases, quaint fishing villages, sprouting condo cities and towering pine forests. And it runs along some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, backed by lofty sand dunes and decorated with waving patches of sea oats.

Claude Reeves shows off a pair of seatrout taken under the George G. Tapper bridge over the Gulf County Canal in Port St. Joe.

For the roadside angler, this 150-mile stretch of highway connects a wealth of great fishing opportunities–some at the end of short side trips, and some just a few steps away from the highway.

Our virtual journey begins in the small town of Port St. Joe. Once largely dependant upon a local paper mill, this coastal village is beginning to re-invent itself as an eco-tourism economy.

One popular local fishing hole is the Low Docks, located at the end of First Street in the middle of the small downtown district. Drive past the Port St. Joe Marina and the road will end on a small spit of land. This spot was once used for loading paper mill products, but is now only used for fishing. Almost year-round, the deep, clear water next to the long seawall holds a collection of sea bass, sheepshead, mangrove snapper and flounder.

The next stop is less than a mile to the north under the George G. Tapper Bridge over the Gulf County Canal. Follow the paved road under the north side of the bridge, then turn onto a sandy road leading back under the bridge to the mouth of the canal. The canal connects St. Joe Bay to the Intracoastal Waterway five miles inland. During the colder months fish from the bay (mostly flounder, speckled trout and redfish) move into the deeper, warmer waters of the canal. During the summer the mouth of the canal is popular for seatrout, bluefish and Spanish mackerel. Livebait anglers typically fish in the deeper part of the canal, letting their bait drift slowly with the tidal current. The flats just north of the canal entrance are good for wading and casting plastic grubs or live shrimp.

Leaving Port St. Joe behind, Highway 98 breaks out of a patch of forest and slides right up next to beaches of the Emerald Coast (obviously named for the color of the water bordering the bright white sand). A line of vintage single-story homes along the road across from the beach gives the area an old Florida feel.

The Gulf County Canal connects St. Joe Bay to the Intracoastal Waterway.

There are plenty of spots along the beach side of the road to pull off, with paths or boardwalks leading across the dunes. The best fishing is during the spring, summer and early fall for seatrout, Spanish mackerel, pompano (especially in the spring), whiting and redfish.

The Mexico Beach Public Pier is in the middle of Mexico Beach at the end of 37th Street. It’s a great place to catch redfish and seatrout in the spring, summer and fall, black drum in the winter, and whiting year-round. Because of the pier’s relatively short length, and the nearshore sandbars, it doesn’t produce many Spanish mackerel or pompano.

Back on the highway, most of the land along the coast between Mexico Beach and Panama City is part of Tyndall Air Force Base, so there’s no place to stop, for anything.

Seatrout are thick in some portions of Choctawhatchee Bay. Jake Spaid landed this one from the old Highway 331 Bridge.

The next convenient spot is the out-of-commission bridge over East Bay just east of Panama City. There is walk-on access from both ends, and the bridge, which is known as a place to catch reds, trout and sheepshead, provides access to the deeper waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.

For a great side trip, turn south on Thomas Drive (State Road 3031) just west of the Hathaway Bridge on Highway 98 and follow the signs to the St. Andrews State Recreation Area. There you’ll find both a Gulf and a bay pier, and some pretty good jetty fishing in St. Andrews Pass. The bay pier juts into the Grand Lagoon and puts anglers within reach of redfish, seatrout and Spanish mackerel in the summer. The Gulf pier is well-known for its pompano and Spanish mackerel fishing in the spring and summer.

A few miles northwest, on Alt. Highway 98 (also called State Road 30), are two excellent fishing piers, the MB Miller County Pier, and the Dan Russell City Pier. Both are known for Spanish mackerel, pompano and cobia fishing in the spring and summer. The County Pier is located two miles west of Panama City Beach, and the Dan Russell City Pier is four miles farther down the beach.

Beyond Panama City, Highway 98 swings inland, while County Road 30A continues along the coast through developments like Seaside and WaterColor, which share the shoreline with a remarkable system of sand dunes and freshwater lakes. A string of state and county coastal parks have preserved some excellent examples of this unique habitat.

Okaloosa Island Pier, in Fort Walton Beach, puts shore fishermen within reach of kingfish and other migratory species in summer.

The sand dune lakes, which include Eastern Lake, Western Lake and Deer Lake, are so named because they’re tucked right behind the beach dunes. The lakes contain the usual mix of bass and bluegill, along with an occasional saltwater species blown in by the rare hurricane. The lakes lend themselves mostly to wade fishing but some have boat ramps for small outboards.

The main attraction for the coastal parks—such as Deer Lake State Park–are the incredibly beautiful beaches, which are backed by a line of tall sand dunes. The standard beach fishing approach applies (lawn chairs, cooler, sand spikes, etc.) for whiting, redfish, seatrout, bluefish and pompano. Keep in mind that getting to the beach may involve a long trek across the dunes through some very soft sand.

Grayton Beach State Recreation Area provide easier access to the beach, but consequently attracts more of the sunbathing/swimming/frisbee crowds. September and October are excellent fishing months at the parks, when you’ll find more elbow room and plenty of fish.

If you take the Highway 98 route instead of diverting to 30A, you can visit the old Highway 331 bridge and causeway. When the new bridge was built the old bridge was turned into a pair of fishing piers. This is a great place to cast for redfish and seatrout, and the nearby pilings of the new bridge provide excellent sheepshead habitat.

Five miles beyond the point where County Road 30A rejoins Highway 98, State Road 2378 splits back to the coast. It passes two more beach parks, Miramar Beach and Silver Beach Wayside Park, which offer easy access to the beach for equipment-carrying anglers.

If you stay on Highway 98, you can take a short side trip north on State Road 293 to see the Wyland Whaling Wall mural on the Legendary Marina building at the south side of the bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay.

Back on Highway 98, the next town is Destin—home to one of the state’s biggest charterboat fleets, as well as a hodge-podge of T-shirt shops, malls, bumper boats, condos, golf courses and souvenir shops. On the west side of Destin, cross over the East Pass Bridge and turn south off the road and back to the water. East Pass connects Choctawhatchee Bay with the Gulf. This is a popular spot in the summer for redfish, Spanish mackerel and flounder.

Highway 98 next enters the Gulf Islands National Seashore (Okaloosa Area) where you’ll find designated entrance points on the Gulf side of the road, but with a pretty good walk to the beach. John Beasley Wayside Park is on the bay side of the barrier island, just east of the Okaloosa Island Pier. There’s a large parking area and easy access to the bay for anyone wishing to do a little fishing in search of trout and reds.

Big redfish roam the beaches around Fort Pickens, Pensacola.

The Okaloosa Island Pier, just east of the bridge over Santa Rosa Sound to Fort Walton Beach, is worth a stop just to see the fish gathered around the pilings. In the spring, summer and fall, pier anglers scan the clear water for schools of Spanish mackerel and bluefish. They also catch pompano in the spring and kingfish in the fall.

Back on Highway 98 and headed west, the next side trip begins in the town of Navarre. Take State Road 399 back across Santa Rosa Sound and onto Santa Rosa Island. You can turn west to the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier or east to Shoreline Park. Both are new state facilities. The most impressive claim the pier can make, in addition to the standard fare of Spanish mackerel, pompano and bluefish, is some fantastic fall kingfish action.

A lot of great fishing days start right here, at the Pensacola Bay Bridge Fishing Pier.

From Navarre Pier, continue west to the entrance of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. There you’ll find a number of small, paved parking areas, some with covered pavilions, that offer easy access to the beach. Last fall from one of these spots I watched kingfish rocketing out of the water just offshore. It’s also a popular pompano fishing beach during the spring and fall runs. The next stop is the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, said to be the longest pier on the Gulf. It’s easy to find—just look for the huge Pensacola Beach water tower. As on the Okaloosa Pier, here you’ll have a shot at everything from pompano to cobia to kingfish.

At the very western end of the island is Pensacola Pass and Fort Pickens. Ask at the entrance booth for directions to the rock jetties where everyone fishes. There’s also a short fishing pier on the property.

The pass is home to some fine fishing, from bull reds to doormat flounder, depending on the season. On one brief evening trip I watched a family fishing along one of the jetties catch Spanish mackerel, flounder, croaker, snapper and even small grouper.

A return to Pensacola Beach, and then back over Santa Rosa Sound, is where you rejoin Highway 98 for the grand finale. That would be the Gulf Breeze Municipal Pier and the Pensacola Bay Fishing Bridge, which were created out of the old Pensacola Bay Bridge. This pair of angling facilities shows what a little innovation can do for family fishing. On a typical Friday or Saturday evening you’ll see folks setting up tables, chairs, camp stoves and lanterns in anticipation of a night fishing under the stars. There’s even a truck that sells snacks and bait.

From flounder to sheepshead and black drum, the bridge provides access to every gamefish that swims in Pensacola Bay. In the fall, even kingfish invade the inshore waters, turning the two piers into a hot bed of angling action, and frustrating dreams for those unprepared for one of the big fish.

The Low Docks in Port St. Joe.

Road Trip References (Google Them!)

Besides a good Florida road map, the following publications will make it easier for you to take your own Highway 98 fishing tour:

Florida Sportsman fishing charts, Numbers 022, 023 and 024 include many places along Highway 98.

The Florida Atlas and Gazetteer is a fairly detailed book of recreational maps. It’s made by DeLorme, and can be ordered from the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Individual Florida county maps can be ordered from the Florida DOT for $.30 per sheet by calling (850) 414-4050.

Boating and angling guides are available for Apalachicola and St. Joe bays from the Florida Marine Research Institute.

To order boater’s guides to St. Andrews, Choctawhatchee and Pensacola bays, contact the Northwest Florida Aquatic Preserves.

When you visit any of Florida’s state parks, be sure to ask for a free copy of the Guide to Florida State Parks. FS

First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, July, 2003.

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  • Bob Nichols

    In planning our trip, this information will be valuable for us,,,,Thank You. Bob Nichols, Winter Haven Fla…

  • N.ANTHONY

    THANK YOU!!!!! LOTS OF GREAT INFO, WE ARE HEADED DOWN THIS WEEKEND FROM MICHIGAN AND HUBBY AND KIDS ARE READY TO FISH!

  • larryrt@gmail.com

    Sorry to tell you this, but there is no “Old 331 Bridge” that can be used as fishing piers. There are numerous public boat landings along the road and bridge (Hiway 331) that crosses the bay. These are suitable for small boats. Best fishing is the flats areas on the North end/West side of the bridge and the delta areas in the East end of the bay. Watch out for shallow water and low tides!