From Pensacola to Perdido Key, our pristine beaches and protected waterways offer ways to catch a new addiction — whether it’s in, on, or under the water.
From sunset sailing charters to paddling adventures and snorkeling trips, there are countless ways to connect to our coast.
ON THE WATER
I try to catch a charter fishing trip at least once a season.
Charter boats take anglers on a short trip from the Pensacola Pass to rich fishing grounds in the Gulf. Red snapper is the biggest draw — the heart of fishing here on the Gulf Coast. But there are so many other fish that are just as tasty — depending on the fishing seasons.
Red snapper’s smaller cousins, such as the vermilion and mutton snapper, are popular catches. Gag grouper also stalks the same reefs along with scamp, tasty triggerfish and hard-hitting amberjack — you must try those hefty filets on the grill, blackened.
You can try 4-hour, 6-hour or even 8-hour trips out in the Gulf. The party boats are the most economical, but reserved charters will take you fishing away from the crowds. Either way, our fishing captains know their fishing spots and will put you on some fish — a tasty souvenir.
For those who prefer to stay inland, charters are available for bay and bayou fishing as well — where local favorites such as speckled trout, redfish, Spanish mackerel, flounder and sheepshead are bountiful. There are even a few spots in the bays where the occasional red snapper or grouper can be found.
Annual cobia migrations every March and April bring the powerful game fish within a short boat ride from the beach — and even from the Pensacola Gulf Pier.
Serious anglers can head to the deep for blue-water fishing some 35 miles and more offshore. Powerful wahoo, tuna, sailfish, dolphin and marlin provide the ultimate quest.
IN THE WATER
I got hooked on standup paddleboarding a few years ago when I rented a board from a hotel beach vendor. It was one of those flat, gorgeous days we often get here.
Pushing offshore with a few strokes of the paddle, beach sounds faded. All you hear is the swish of the paddle and sea birds. You can see the coast from a different perspective. You can see into the water. Then comes the connection. For me, it was a squadron of cow-nose rays — harmless cousins of the eagle and mantas — they skimmed under the board as if to check me out. I was hooked.
Our area is graced with countless natural-protected waterways. It’s a paddleboarding sanctuary. You can take your SUP into the sound or the bay, or even use it as a workout platform.
If you’re a first-timer, I strongly recommend getting some SUP lessons. There are many outfitters in the Pensacola Bay Area that offer lessons and just about every place that rents boards will offer pointers. It’s easy to get up and get coasting, but some pointers will help you master the art of turning and refining that paddle stroke.
Protected waterways are a must for the beginners — and always watch the wind. A pointer: if it’s windy, go AGAINST the wind on the way out. It makes it easier to cruise back in.
My favorite spots are Little Sabine Bay on Pensacola Beach when the Gulf isn’t flat. Big Lagoon State Park on Perdido Key is another gorgeous spot to paddle.
There are plenty of options for SUP rentals. Most of them are perched along the shore where you can “sign and paddle.” Some deliver to your condo or beach house or will let you haul away to your own spots.
Surfers Find Their Spots:
Let’s face it, folks. Our Gulf acts more like a lake than an ocean. Yet, there are some days when the Gulf surges with energy. Usually, it’s a passing cool front that will cause those perfect conditions that surfers crave — when offshore winds force the waves to stand up and peel away slowly. Surfers will suddenly catch “office colds” and head to their favorite break for a remedy. The Pensacola Gulf Pier — one of the longest in the Gulf of Mexico — is a surfer magnet when this happens.
UNDER THE WATER
Snorkeling has never been easier since the public artificial reefs were installed in the waters off Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key.
Three snorkeling reefs have been created a short paddle or healthy swim from these shores. On Pensacola Beach, the Park East snorkel reef is a combo place to take a paddleboard or kayak with your snorkel gear and dive. It’s located 1.4 miles east of Portofino Island Resort on the Gulf side — about 500 feet offshore. The Pensacola Bay Snorkel Reef offers diving fun in the protected waters near the Fort Pickens gate.
The Perdido Key Reef on Johnson Beach was built in 2014. It’s a 24-module ecosystem resting at a depth of about 10 to 16 feet — starting at 300 feet offshore. You can often spot sea turtles resting in the sand under and around the reef modules.
The reef is located off Public Beach Access #1 on Sandy Key Drive, off Johnson’s Beach Rd. There are two range markers that are placed at the end of the walkway to the beach from the parking area on shore to help divers and snorkelers line up with the reef.
Never snorkel alone. Many of the local dive shops offer outings to maximize the experience.
The waters off Northwest Florida are famed for being a haven for scuba divers.
And 10 years ago, our diving got worldwide attention when the USS Oriskany, an 872-foot aircraft carrier, made her last voyage to the sea floor as an artificial reef about 25 miles offshore. Local divers call it “The Great Carrier Reef.”
The Oriskany, dubbed ‘The Mighty O’ when she served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, is the mother ship for diving in the area. Yet there are dozens of artificial reefs — from the Russian freighter to the tugboats —all within a short boat ride from Pensacola Pass.
Check with our local dive shops for trip details and info.
Have a recommendation or a fun watersports story? Leave us a comment below!