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Surf From the Other Side

We struck through Destin Pass with fly rods, light casting outfits and jackets zipped up tight. Outside, we found dreamlike conditions. A light offshore wind—from the land toward the sea—and a storm-free Gulf of Mexico gave us window-pane conditions right to the sand. The sun was in the south, and from my 19-foot skiff we could easily see deep into the clear water.

Late fall, as in springtime, schools of small baitfish attract the attention of migratory fish. Up and down the beach, we could see acres and acres of surface activity, mainly bonito and Spanish mackerel, we presumed.

I rigged up an 8-weight fly rod with a small white Clouser minnow and handed it off to Tayler Brothers.

“Here. Fire this out there and strip it—fast,” I instructed.

As a bit of background, Tayler is a traveling surf pro from Sarasota, on team Rip Curl. He is a flyfishing novice, but possesses an almost suspicious ability to master any kind of motion. Same goes for the other Brothers brother, Cavin.

“Right there!” Cavin shouted to Tayler. A half-dozen bonito strafed through a reddish patch of minnows. Tayler's first cast was a bit short, but his next shot, 40 or 50 feet into a north wind, was perfect.

Before I could adjust the trolling motor for a better angle, Tayler tucked a third tight loop through the breeze, landing the fly into an emerging pack of bonitos.

“Whoa!” he hollered after three strips of the fly line. I saw his right arm flail away as the flyreel handle spun backward hard enough to break a knuckle. “This is awesome!”

Tayler was hooked up, and quickly sorting out how to apply drag to a fly reel with your palm—and how to avoid bloodying yourself in the process!

Meanwhile, Cavin picked up a light spinning rod and rifled a small jig into the fish. Instant hookup.

There we were, right off Destin beach, water clear as The Bahamas, with two bonitos smoking line toward the horizon. It had been a bib-and-jacket morning in the 40s, but things were really cooking now!

My friends and I had traveled for a change of pace and a special brand of surf fishing. The kind where you aren't limited by a cart and 14-foot rods. I enjoy the “sandy side” of surf fishing, but there's something tantalizing about patrolling the emerald shoals at the helm of a small boat. The Brothers know the drill as well, and were just as excited as I was to check the surf in a different part of the state.

The bonitos kept at it for about an hour, and we each released a couple of fat ones on the fly. As the sun rose, the schools seemed to drift toward deeper water. My curiosity gravitated shoreward.

“Guys, let's pull in right to the beach, get up on the trolling motor, and see what we can see,” I suggested.

It was the wrong time of year for cobia, but the clean green water was suggestive of the amazing spring run that Destin and other Panhandle ports see each year, usually starting in March. I figured we had a shot at spotting a big bull redfish, just along the outer bar. While the locals hunt for spring cobia by watching for the long, brown shapes near the surface, beach reds are somewhat more difficult to see. A pinkish hue might be the first sign, or just a redfish-size patch of sandy bottom moving the wrong way. Either way, when you find reds on the beach, they're there to feed. Shorebound surf casters have limited options: Soak crabs or chunks of mullet, waiting for a red to come along. That or walk and cast lures continuously. From a boat, with a trolling motor or even a slow-moving outboard engine, you can cover hundreds of yards of water searching for fish. The bow-mount electric trolling motor is especially handy because it's quiet, and it forces you to stand up front and really scrutinize the water.

Tayler and I each had 7-foot spinning rods with ¼-ounce jigheads and white plastic minnow tails. The water we'd be fishing ranged from about 12 feet right up to the shin-deep sandbar; it was that calm. Cavin, in the stern, decided he wasn't ready to relinquish control of the fly rod.

As it turned out we didn't spot any reds, but we did see clouds of whiting drifting across the sand, their little shadows giving away their location. Whiting are terrific eating, and I feel sure we could've bagged some with much-smaller jigs, tipped with bits of shrimp. Here again, I've spent many a day in surf-cast mode, reading the waves for runouts, watching the wash for whiting to show. From the bow of the boat on this marvelous day, I was astonished at how many whiting we could pick out. Some big black mullet were ganged up along the bar, too, preparing for their spawning duties offshore.

And wonder of wonders—pods of those minnows that had the attention of the bonitos had broken away from the offshore schools. At one point, what I thought was a quarter-acre of algae poured through a cut in the sandbar.

Spanish mackerel flashed through the bait; some leaped clear out of the water up and down the beach.

Tayler had a jig nipped off his line; Cavin hooked, and landed, a mackerel on the fly. We added traces of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader to our rigs, to deal with the mackerel teeth (redfish and bonito don't really need any leader).

“What the heck?” Tayler exclaimed, pointing to a pack of dark-backed fish mobbing his jig. I threw mine into the fray, and immediately hooked up.

“Bluefish!” I shouted. “Big ones!”

Sure enough, there were 2- to 4-pound bluefish holding beneath the mullet.

It was just about anything you could ask for: Mackerel, blues, bonito, all in water clear enough to single out individual targets. We even landed a few ladyfish on fly and jig, and had a 60-pound blacktip shark in our sights a few times.

A little ways offshore, Tayler swore he saw a smoker kingfish skyrocket eight feet out of the water, and I don't doubt him for a second.

I'd been in scenarios like this in the past, both along the Florida Panhandle and down the Peninsula. Off Boca Grande, on the lower Gulf Coast, we've made great days out of troll-motoring and sight-fishing the big sandbar offshore—and not just for the tarpon the area is famous for. When the mackerel and bonitos move in, it's all-out war on light gear.

Same for the Atlantic side. Between cold fronts, there's often a day or two each week that affords a window of opportunity to pull in tight along the beach and study the water for what the winter migrations bring.

Often, big jack crevalle can be seen charging just offshore, their yellow fins and sheer mass giving them away. Then other days, it's mackerel, mackerel and more mackerel. And then one day, an unexpected rise in water temp, it's tarpon.

Down in Miami, I've seen all this and much more. One day we encountered sailfish balling up ballyhoo in 10 feet of water. We were expecting to catch blue runners, maybe a keeper mackerel or two, on a series of patch reefs along Miami Beach. Suddenly the water erupted as a wave of ballyhoo skittered behind the boat. Hot on their tails, sailfish. I popped off a cast with a bucktail jig; I didn't connect, but it was wild to imagine what a diehard surf fisherman would think, relaxing behind his long rods, as a sailfish chases bait around the bar.

Find clear, calm water, and do some good old-fashioned prospecting. A couple of anglers with jigs, polarizing sunglasses and an electric motor can have a blast along a Florida beachfront, anywhere, any time of the year. FS

Weather Wise

Surf fishing from a small boat is not something to be taken lightly, especially during winter. Even on a calm day, long-period swells from distant storm systems can send unexpected waves crashing on outer sandbars.

It's vital that you consult NOAA marine weather forecasts, studying them for a few days of offshore wind, blowing away from the beach. Just as important, check NOAA data buoys for swell readings—a 2-foot swell at 14 second intervals might be barely noticeable a mile offshore, but close to the beach, it can generate large surf. Small waves, short intervals, wind blowing away from shore, calm water visible on a local beach or inlet cam—that's the time to try it. When in doubt, always do a visual check.

While in Destin, Cavin, Tayler and I stayed at the Resorts of Pelican Beach, which gave us a morning window of the ocean from our 7th-floor unit. Though a chill north winds blew hard over Choctawhatchee Bay, we could see the Gulf of Mexico was flat as an ice-skating rink.

About Destin

The Destin surf really comes alive in the springtime, as water temps nudge back toward the upper 60s. Cobia, Spanish mackerel and pompano are main players, and by summer, you might find just about anything, from bonito to billfish (seriously, at least a dozen sailfish a year are landed within a few long casts of Panhandle beaches!)

This town is fish-city, any time of year. The Okaloosa Island Pier is a shore-fishing hotspot. There are dozens of charterboats and headboats in Destin Harbor, and while many bottom fish seasons are closed in winter, and some pelagics hanging far south, there's always something to catch: tasty triggerfish, flounder, amberjacks, even midwinter wahoo and jumbo cobia on deep structure. Inshore, the tributaries of Choctawhatchee Bay—including the eponymous river, which enters from the east—hold seatrout and drum, as well as the occasional striped bass.

For complete travel details, click here.

Originally published in January 2012.

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