Four great passes to one great bay.
Apalachicola Bay is uniquely rich among Florida estuaries, made fertile with the muddy flow of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers out of Georgia, which join at the Woodruff Dam to form the Apalachicola River. Because of the high nutrient load, the bay is one of the prime oyster-producers in the country, and all that energy also translates through the food chain to the gamefish. Apalachicola Bay Fishing is hard to beat.
Such productivity is generous in unexpected ways to anglers. The river and the bay are among the few waters to share a run of gulf-strain striped bass, native fish that reach weights of over 50 pounds. They’re most often caught far upriver, just below the dam where they congregate during their spring spawning runs, but some younger fish, to five pounds, also hang around the bridge and the docks in downtown Apalachicola, where they readily attack shrimp or jigs fished close to the pilings after sundown.
The true passes here, though, are on the south side of the bay. They start on the west end with Indian Pass, which cuts off St. Vincent Island from the Indian Peninsula about 10 miles west of the town of Apalachicola. It’s a narrow but deep cut, and the launching ramp here is subject to high-speed currents that can make reloading tricky. But you drop right into prime trout and redfish water; run around the corner to the north and you’re in 3-foot-deep Indian Lagoon, which is littered with oyster bars that nearly always hold a few reds and some jumbo trout. Or motor two miles east to Pickalene Bar, a rock and shell bar that juts almost a half-mile out into the bay. Fish the cuts through this bar as well as the point with shrimp, killifish or finger mullet and you’ll find the usual inshore suspects.
From Indian Key Pass, run west to the huge bar off Cape San Blas and you’re on one of Florida’s best spots for “bull” reds in fall; big schools of the giants come within casting distance of shore, and will attack just about anything, including big spoons and topwater plugs. The sure bet, though, is finger mullet. Freelined on the edges of the bar in calm weather, they’re just about sure to find a heavyweight drum of 30 pounds and up. You can also access the point from the beach—get a beach-driving permit at Port St. Joe first, though, and be aware that this beach is not hard like the beach at Daytona—it’s 4WD country, only. (You can park just off the pavement and walk to good sloughs, though.)
Wads of the reds sometimes come east into the pass, too; it’s a good spot to soak a chunk of cutbait on the bottom on outgoing tides this month. The same is true of St. Joseph Point, in the area of Channel Marker 24, where bait often attracts the schools. And both this point and all the beach between here and the cape are hot spots in October/November and again in April/May for catching pompano on 1⁄8- to 1⁄4-ounce bucktails hopped along bottom.
Another spectacular fishing spot in this area is 4-mile-long St. Vincent Bar, which doglegs slightly east then almost due south off St. Vincent Point, on the extreme east end of the island and well inside the bay. This bar is only two to three feet deep, and forms a barrier for all the water passing in and out of West Pass into the main bay. Not surprisingly, the tip of the bar, where the water falls off into 10-foot depths and the tides form big eddies, is a great spot for everything that lives in the bay, including some big tide-runner trout in fall.West Pass, which is actually the second-westernmost pass on the bay, has a small but dependable run of tarpon from June through September. Six-inch swimmer-tail jigs bounced with the tide do the job, though most are caught on live pinfish or mullet slabs fished on bottom. It’s a murky, deep pass with holes approaching 50 feet. Deepest water is at the narrowest section, just off Marker 7 on the St. Vincent Island shore. The tarpon could be anywhere here; fish where you see rollers, and if you don’t see them, try drifting through the hole with a 1- to 4-ounce breakaway jig a la the Boca Grande rig, or drift a similarly weighted live pinfish, finger mullet or crab near bottom. Big reds also sometimes show up in this pass, both in the deep water and along the long bar called East Bank, which has depths as shallow as two feet rising out of 20 feet of water on both sides. (Be careful when running out of this pass or Indian Pass; both have unmarked, migrating bars at their mouths, sometimes shallow enough to cause you to hit bottom in anything that draws more than a flats skiff.)
St. Vincent Island is a neat place to visit if you’re a hunter or wildlife watcher. The island was once a privately owned game preserve, stocked with all sorts of exotic game. Most of that is gone today, though some sambar deer remain. There are plenty of native whitetails, too, and quota permit hunts here have high success rates. The island is also home to one of the few families of red wolves left on the planet; they were restocked here by the Fish & Wildlife Service a few years back and seem to be doing fine. There are hiking trails throughout the island, if you feel like walking, and tram tours are also available. Be cautious if you go into the woods, though; those who have hunted there say the incidence of rattlers is much higher than on the mainland.
Higgins Shoal, which makes north from St. George Island in this same area, is also a good spot; try the section of 5-foot depths that’s broken off from the main bar. On calm mornings, the 2-foot depths extending out up to a quarter mile from shore here are worth poling or wading for reds.
Bob Sykes or Government Cut, about six miles south/southwest from Apalachicola, is a favorite spot for catching reds, sheepshead, blues and lots of other stuff in fall. Unlike the other passes here, it’s not a natural pass, but a dredged cut 7 to 10 feet deep and shotgun straight. Current velocities are high, and the downcurrent side is always a good bet because lots of bait comes streaming through to predators waiting just out of the flow—fish the seam where the outgoing water meets the Gulf. The jetties are good spots for sheepshead and flounder in cool weather; the ’heads grab sections of fresh shrimp, while the flounder bite best on live killifish dragged along bottom.
Just east of the cut, on the inside, is a mile-long stretch of oystery shoreline that practically shouts “redfish” to those who like to pole and look, while four miles east is Pelican Reef, a favorite diving spot for birds due to all the bait, and a favorite spot for spotted seatrout, for the same reason—depths range from three to five feet. Beyond the reef is the St. George Causeway, which rides atop the Bulkhead Shoal, a stretch of shallow water that separates Apalachicola Bay from St. George Sound.
Anytime action is slow during the cooler months, you can always go looking for the oystermen. Oysters are still dredged up the old-fashioned way with long hand-powered tongs that look something like giant salad tongs. Most of the oystermen won’t mind if you set up downcurrent from them to try a little sheepshead and redfish action; their tonging creates a chumline that often turns on an assortment of fish, but particularly reds and sheepshead, both of which love oysters.
We’d be remiss not to mention East Pass, too, though technically it’s a pass into St. George Sound rather than Apalachicola Bay. But it’s the widest pass in the area, spanning more than a mile, and gets absolutely stiff with mackerel and blues this month and again in April, with fair action throughout the summer. The outside edge is a good place to slow-troll a big live ladyfish for a smoker king, and you may see cobia prowling around the bars most anytime from April to November.
Offshore action on kings usually starts at about 40-foot depths, around three miles out; you won’t find them right against the beach as you do both farther west and farther south along the Florida coast. Spanish, on the other hand, come in close—in fact, loads of them come right into the bay when the baitfish are on the move in spring and fall, and they’ve usually got blues with them.
The town of Apalachicola and surrounding areas welcome recreational anglers, but don’t wear your sportfishing emblems. This area was a hotbed of commercial gill netting, and some folks here have not yet given up the battle. (Some say they haven’t given up the netting, either!) But the fishing is better than ever with the conservation changes, and the town is a delightful place to stay, with some interesting curio and antique shops, museums and great, moderately-priced seafood restaurants, all within a short stroll from the waterfront.
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, October, 2000.