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Catch Reds, Trout and More at Santa Rosa Sound

The protected sound on the Florida Panhandle has clear water, grass beds, easy access and great fishing.

Catch Reds, Trout and More at Santa Rosa Sound

Santa Rosa Sound, Fla.

The storm out in the Gulf is not close yet, but high onshore wind and heavy surf are making the conditions on the beach just a quarter-mile away such that no wise person would even think of fishing. The waves crash onto the sugar-white sand with a low, unpleasant thunder, and sand is whipped off the tops of dunes by the strong wind.

But where I’m fishing, conditions are quite comfortable. My small bay skiff is anchored just off the opposite side of the island from the crashing surf.

I’m fishing one of many docks in Santa Rosa Sound just east of Pensacola.

red drum
The Florida Panhandle is famous for big redfish, and there are schools that move in and out of the Gulf.

And even though I’m safe and comfortable, I’m not going unchallenged. My most recent cast put a nice, juicy live shrimp on a simple Carolina rig near one of the pilings of the old dock. And this shrimp had its troubles ended before it reached bottom. A strong pull, a broad golden side with a single black spot and some ferocious head-shakes tells me that one more of a series of fine redfish has found my shrimp and taken it for a meal.

And it’s only that narrow quarter-mile stretch of island, its dunes and sparse pine trees, that breaks the wind and keeps the surf from me. Here on Santa Rosa Sound, anglers can find shelter in almost all conditions, and anglers can also find some great fishing, too. I’ve fished the Sound for over 50 years, and I love the place just as much now as I did when I saw and fished it for the first time.

Where and What It Is

Santa Rosa Sound is a haven of protection for anglers and a jewel of sheltered water for the many species of wildlife which live in and around the Sound. Most of the wind and wave protection is created by long, narrow Santa Rosa Island, one of the most impressive barrier islands of the northern Gulf Coast.

Running for over 35 miles from Pensacola Bay to Choctawhatchee Bay at Fort Walton and Destin, the Sound is remarkable for what it has: lots of clear water, grass beds, easy access, and great fishing, but it is also remarkable for what it does not have. There are no permanent passes to the Gulf along its entire 35-mile run. There are no major rivers or streams which feed into the Sound.

What this means is that the Santa Rosa Sound almost never gets blown out from storm run-off or other water quality issues. Anglers can count on clear, fishable water in Santa Rosa Sound. It is a great place for sight fishing for redfish, black drum, and other shallow-water fish.

men fishing on dock
Fishing fresh shrimp on bottom all but guarantees bites. These anglers pull in a small black drum. A redfish, trout, sheepshead or snapper could be next.

Much of the shoreline on both sides of the Sound consists of public property, so the rampant growth which has been seen on much of Florida’s coastline has been kept under control. Eglin Air Force Base occupies much of the eastern end of the Sound, and Gulf Islands National Seashore, in particular the Naval Live Oaks area, holds much of the western end of the Sound securely. There is some residential and tourism construction at both ends of the Sound, somewhat less in the middle at Navarre Beach, but overall, much of the Sound’s shoreline is undeveloped and totally natural.

Anglers can put in boats at the westernmost end of the Sound at Gulf Breeze at Shoreline Park, a very good ramp with plenty of parking. Another good ramp and parking facility is at Navarre Beach just off the causeway and bridge which gives folks free passage to the island and the Sound. There are no launch or parking fees at Navarre Beach, and anglers who launch here can easily access any part of the entire run of the Sound. There’s a smaller but still quite usable ramp at Fort Walton Beach which gives good access to the eastern parts of the Sound.

And we can’t let any discussion of Santa Rosa Sound go by without mentioning how wonderful the protected waters are for kayak anglers. Paddle anglers can put in at unlimited locations along the entire length of the Sound, and because of the calm nature of the waters, it is a great place for folks just starting in the paddle-fishing game. A short paddle will put anglers around docks and over lush grass beds, and kayak anglers won’t have to worry about dealing with harsh or dangerous conditions. And, by the way, there are plenty of Santa Rosa Sound fish big enough to take a kayak angler on a sleigh-ride.

black drum
A cool spring morning on Santa Rosa Sound might yield hookups with black drum like this one. They spawn this time of year and run in large schools.
How to Fish the Sound

Santa Rosa Sound is very likely the best water for speckled trout I’ve ever found, and I’ve fished all along the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Everglades. When we consider the grass beds and the dock structures and the good water quality and the fairly low fishing pressure, it’s going to be hard to find a place with more specks and bigger specks.

Recommended


Captain Mike Bauman operates Emerald Ghost Charters (mikebauman@hotmail.com; 850-319-7990 www.emeraldghost.com), and he fishes the Sound on a daily basis.

“Redfish and speckled trout are our primary targets year round,” Bauman says. “In the winter months, in addition to them, we also catch sheepshead and black drum along with bull reds. Clear water sight fishing is my favorite in winter and spring. During spring we catch lots of gator trout and slot-size redfish along with Spanish mackerel and jack crevalle. Summer months we have very hot water so we look for speckled trout a little bit deeper and redfish seem to be better during the afternoon hours. Fall offers all of the species as the water is still warm, and flounder start chewing more, and typically, large schools of bull redfish show up in November.”

If you’ve never seen the clear, emerald Santa Rosa Sound water turn golden with a school of voracious 20- to 30-pound redfish numbering in the hundreds of fish, it is truly a sight to behold. And these big reds are hungry. The fall-run bull reds will eat anything that fits in their big mouths, and they pull hard.

The Santa Rosa Sound is a good place for anglers not familiar to the area to bring their boats and expect good success. Typically, it’s easy to find the fish. Captain Bauman says, “We fish boat docks quite often. As the Sound offers little other structure besides grass beds and docks, there are no oyster beds or rock jetties to really speak of. So docks are a great place to look for redfish. Typically while dock fishing, I like any wind direction other than north, and I like to set up as far off the dock as possible and freeline live baits towards the structure or cast jigs under docks on 1/16-ounce jigheads.”

sea trout
Excellent seatrout fishing is a big draw for anglers on Santa Rosa Sound, which runs between Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach.

He adds, “I like setting up by using the Power-Pole in 2 to 5 feet of clean water and making very long casts. Moving water is always best whether it’s tidal or wind driven.”

Early spring, summer and fall mornings, casting a big dog-walking topwater plug over the grass beds in the Sound can produce massive blow-ups from some very good trout. When the quiet of the morning is interrupted by a big trout explosion, the world just seems a much better place.

An angler fishing docks on a summer day should take note of which docks have lights that appear as if they might shine on the water. Many Santa Rosa Sound docks are equipped with lights, and these lighted docks are prime places to find big fish in the comfortable hours of night. When the sun goes down on the Emerald Coast, lighted docks on the Sound will draw schools of big trout and redfish which eat the shrimp and smaller stuff which gather in the light. A live shrimp or bull minnow cast to the edge of brightness in the water created by an overhead dock light will be immediately taken. These light-attracted fish are super-spooky, so be prepared to quietly move to another lighted dock when the bite drops off.

Where to Stay

There are several new private RV parks which border the Sound and offer campers good water access with nice surroundings. At the far western end of Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens National Park offers RV and tent campers some very nice surroundings with quick travel to the Sound and its fishing.

The Santa Rosa Sound region has many visitor rental units ranging from small cabins to huge, impressive beachfront houses and condos and motels. Visiting anglers and families will be able to discover numerous accommodation options.

Truth be told, this area is a wonderful place to combine family vacations and serious fishing trips. Kids love the white beaches and generally mild surf conditions, and the new marine sanctuary and park at Navarre Beach in particular offers some wonderful inshore and Sound-based snorkeling facilities.

Visitors need to keep in mind that during summer and holiday times, rental units and RV spaces fill up quickly, so reservations for visits during these times need to be made in advance.




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