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April 23, 2010

Fishing Florida's Gulf Islands

The crystal waters of Florida's Gulf Islands National Seashore offer a sight-fishing paradise.

Florida's Gulf Islands National Seashore

Stretching 40 miles along Santa Rosa Island from Fort Walton Beach to Pensacola Pass, and then again along Perdido Key to the Alabama border, Florida's segment of the Gulf Islands National Seashore is a sight-fishing paradise. Protected by the National Park Service, these fertile waters are home to a variety of game fish. Bayside in Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon, lush grass flats and sand potholes hold slot-size redfish, flounder and trophy speckled trout. The areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico are even more diverse. Starting in mid-March and continuing throughout the spring, schools of bluefish, jacks, pompano, Spanish mackerel and little tunny (called bonito locally) cruise along the shallow bars and troughs just off the sandy beaches. Over-slot redfish, or bulls, are the ultimate quarry. The combination of light, sandy bottom and clear water makes ideal conditions for visual casting to individual fish. Yelverton's version of a Panhandle Super Slam consists of a redfish, pompano, jack crevalle and bonito.

What: Redfish, pompano, mackerel, flounder, trout, bonito and jack crevalle.

When: Spring, beginning in March.

Where: Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Who: Capt. Baz Yelverton

Lodging: Paradise Inn, located on the water on Pensacola Beach, is a short run from the open Gulf or minutes away from productive flats bayside. Capt. Yelverton often picks his clients up at the Paradise dock. Several restaurants and chain hotels are within walking distance, and Paradise Inn has its own bar and grill on site.

Paradise Inn
21 Via de Luna Drive
Pensacola Beach, FL 32561

Rods: 7-foot medium-action spinning rods capable of making long, accurate casts with 12-ounce jigs; 8-weight to 10-weight fly rods.

Reels: 3000-class spinning reels. While 8-weight fly outfits are plenty beefy enough to  handle most fish, bumping up to 10-weight outfits will shorten the fight on big bull reds or hard-charging little tunny.

Line: 10- to 15-pound braid and a short section of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. When Spanish mackerel and bluefish are thick, a section of 60-pound fluorocarbon leader minimizes cutoffs. Weight-forward floating or intermediate fly lines.

Lures and flies: Nylon bullet or kidney bean-shaped bucktail jigs from 14 to 12 ounce in chartreuse and yellow or red and white; casting spoons up to 12-ounce; or topwater plugs like MirrOlure Top Pups, Rapala Skitter Walks or Heddon Spooks. Tan and white Clouser Minnow flies work well for pompano, redfish and flounder. Glass or epoxy minnows are the go-to fly patterns for bonito, mackerel and blues. Flies with white rabbit strips and chartreuse wings are especially effective when targeting bull reds.