Fishing Florida's Gulf Islands

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

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"OK, get ready. Big bull coming down the bar at 10 o'clock - 60 feet. Do you have him?" Capt. Baz Yelverton asked quietly from his perch atop the poling platform. I peered into the sparkling emerald water and spotted the giant redfish cruising steadily toward us like a shiny submarine. Stevie Wonder could have seen that target in the four-foot depth. I fired a cast slightly ahead and waited on the guide's instruction."Good, now short hops with the jig. He's on it, he's on it. He ate. Good, now stick him again, and enjoy the ride," Yelverton said with a hearty laugh as the drag on the small spinning reel whirled like a sewing machine. "That's what it's all about."

Once it realized it was hooked, the big red tried desperately to run for deeper water. After several determined bursts, however, I slowed the pace and, before long, had it doing big donuts around the 18-foot flats skiff. Suddenly, a large, dark shape zipped beneath the bow.

"Baz, shark!" I yelled as I started stomping my feet on the deck. Yelverton fired up the outboard, and the unwelcome predator took off. A few moments later, we boated a tired but grateful bull redfish.

"Whew, that was close," the native guide told me as we quickly measured, photographed and released the oversize drum. It was 40 inches long, with an estimated weight of 28 pounds. "Nicely done, Dave," said Yelverton. "That's the ultimate experience of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Casting to a big bull red, watching it eat and enjoying the fight against the backdrop of bluebird skies, crystal-clear water and sugar-sand beaches. When I get clients here for the first time, they can't believe how beautiful it is. It's like the Keys or the Bahamas. But you knew that already, didn't you?"

I did indeed. While training future aircrew at the nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola more than two decades earlier, I had explored the bays and coastal waters extensively. So when Yelverton invited me to check out his specialized craft of casting lures and flies at specific fish in the shallows, I jumped at the chance.

Spring Lineup
"The blues, mackerel and pompano all start showing up in early March, once the water warms into the mid- to upper 60-degree range," he said. "Our Spanish are getting huge. We're catching some well over 7 pounds. The early scout pompano are big too, up to 4 pounds. Starting in early April, the large schools of pompano show up, and they average a pound or two. Big jacks arrive about the same time. By the 15th of April, you can count on it. Do your taxes, and then go fishing."

During the spring, when the tem-peratures are moderate, Yelverton doesn't get on the water until midmorning. That delay allows the sun to get well overhead to maximize visibility. He starts his hunt in clean water versus the rare murky or stained conditions. Panhandle tidal movement is minimal, often two feet or less even on lunar tides. Pompano prefer incoming tides, Yelverton says. As the water flows over the bars, the fish wait, facing into the waves. The wave action along the surf line dislodges sand fleas, and the tiny mole crabs tumble over the drop to the waiting fish. That's why jigs or flies that hop or bounce along the bottom trigger strikes.

In Sight
Although the majority of Yelverton's clients use fly gear, he also caters to light-tackle spin anglers. His favorite lures include gold Sidewinder spoons modified with a single J hook or Spro Magic Bus bucktail jigs in chartreuse and yellow.

"You really need to be able to cast a fly 50 feet to be in the game," he explained. "And for every 10 feet you can add to your cast, you double your odds of success. You should start fly-fishing only when you're ready to add frustration to your life," he added with a laugh.

I stuck with spin tackle during the two days spent with my amicable host and had an absolute blast fishing exclusively by sight. In addition to the 40-inch bull, I also released a 36-incher, added a couple more slot reds and tallied spunky pompano up to 3 pounds. Shots at wary 30-pound jacks failed to produce strikes. If we wanted, we could have spent hours chasing roving packs of bluefish. The ravenous pelagics eagerly attacked any jig or plug thrown in their path. All my fish were individually spotted before the cast.

"That's what is so cool about the Seashore in the springtime," Yelverton told me as we cruised back to the ramp. "We get good numbers of big bull reds, some true monster jacks and tons of pompano. The little tunny is one of the best light-tackle fish that swims. Plus you get style points for catching them all on single hooks with the barbs mashed down. If that's not enough, you're fishing in a stunningly beautiful spot - and because it's a national seashore, it'll be like this forever. It truly is a treasure." He'll get no argument from me.

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
850-261-9035
www.gulfbreezeguideservice.com

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
800-301-5925
www.paradiseinn-pb.com

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.

Species Availability Lures Flies
Bluefish September-November Walk-the-dog plugs in red-and-white, soft jerk baits and small bucktail jigs Poppers and Clouser Minnows in various colors
Spanish mackerel March-October Spoons, Gotcha lures and small bucktail jigs Sparsely dressed streamers and Clouser Minnows in various colors
Pompano March-October Small bucktail (or synthetic) jigs in orange, pink or yellow Clouser Minnows and small crustacean patterns
Jack crevalle April-July Large chugger-type poppers Large popper flies and long baitfish streamers
Redfish October-June Gold spoons and bucktail jigs Bunny strip patterns and Clouser Minnows
Trout March-October Soft-plastic jerk baits and soft- plastic shrimp imitations Gurglers, sliders and small baitfish streamers
Flounder September-November Small brightly colored bucktail jigs and soft- plastic shrimp imitations Chartruese and white Clouser Minnows
Bonito December-February Chrome spoons and bucktail jigs worked fast Glass minnow streamers and Clouser Minnows