Leaning against the railing of a charter boat, I can breathe in my coffee and take in the sights of Pensacola Bay. Off the port side, blue herons stalk the shore, framed by Civil War fortifications at Fort Pickens. Off starboard, it’s the telltale red and white tower of Pensacola Naval Air Station, standing proud.
We chug past the jetties and hit the open Gulf. The captain puts the hammer down. We’re goin’ fishin’.
Pensacola is famous for our red snapper fishing, but our Gulf, bays and bayous hold a treasure trove of hard-fighting finned delicacies.
Let’s take a glimpse at our year-round fishing.
Spring: Cobia, and wahoooooo!
Late March through April you can see the flotilla of tower-topped boats patrolling the near-shore waters —- stalking migrating cobia. The massive gamefish migrate in spring from the Florida peninsula to spawn in the northern Gulf. They grow to 80-plus pounds, and the minimum keeper size is 33 inches. Anglers, dizzyingly perched on swaying fishing towers, sight-cast for them with a live eel or shiny lure when they spot the cobia’s brawny brown body skimming just below the surface. Ask our local charter captains about cobia trips. The Outcast Classic fishing tournament runs through April 30.
The offshore athletes like king mackerel and dolphin (the fish, not Flipper) start getting active in May. Wahoo is the Ferrari of the Gulf. Gunmetal gray with tiger stripes and streamlined like a torpedo, the wahoo can reach speeds of 60 mph as they snatch fish in full flight. Anglers can scream “wahooooooo!’ as these athletes strike a trolled ballyhoo or lure and peel off yards of line.
While red snapper is open from June to August for permitted charter boats, there is a plethora of tasty snapper cousins, grouper and other reef fish that make these trips enjoyable. Vermillion, aka Mingo snapper, black snapper and lane snapper are smaller but just as tasty as red snapper (I can hear Bubba Gump peeling off the different tasty snapper species). Captains will also get you onto some hunky gag and scamp grouper, or one of the tastiest fish in the Gulf, the oddly shaped triggerfish (my favorite).
Surf and pier anglers can find the best-tasting fish in the Gulf in spring and early summer: pompano. The dinner-plate shaped jack (a relative of the amberjack) prowls sandy bottoms for sand-fleas, fiddler crabs and other crustaceans. Fishing from piers and jetties, you can also bounce shiny jigs along the bottom.
Summer of Snapper … and Mighty Marlin
Red snapper is the fleeting butter season for our charter fleets. The 2019 red snapper season for federally-permitted charter boats in Gulf waters is open June 1-Aug. 1. Conservation measures are seeing these beautiful, tasty reef fish rebound, which is why you’ll see our charter crews carefully measure your catch and count the limits for every bag.
Call ahead early to get on a charter during the red snapper season. The charters fill up quickly! It’s worth the wait.
But there’s more than snapper in those reefs, with plenty of vermilion, lane and triggerfish — and some deep-lying gag, scamp and the occasional red grouper.
Then there’s the treat: Delicious blackened or grilled, the amberjack — or AJ — is a musclebound reef brawler. The first bite tells all - the AJ absolutely crushes your bait, doubles over the heavy rod and turns back to the reef. Keeping it from reaching the reef is the toughest part, so these fights are often won — or lost — in the first few seconds.
For those who want a real offshore adventure, the deep canyons of the offshore Gulf beckon for the sport-fishing fleets. Blue marlin, sailfish, dolphin, wahoo and tuna prowl the deep ocean near the drilling rigs, grasslines and features along the continental shelf. If you don’t take an overnight trip into the deep Gulf, you can see what they battle during the major offshore tournaments such as the Pensacola International around the Fourth of July weekend.
Fall into Flounder, Redfish and Blackfin … and More!
Fall is my favorite time to fish Pensacola. The water is still warm and the occasional passing fronts take the warm soupiness out of the air.
Flounder creep closer to the beach in fall — creeping along the bottom in inches of water. You can fish for them at night with live minnows — or wade along the shore with a flashlight and a gig!
Blackfin tuna are the underloved cousins of mighty yellowfin. Weighing up to 45 pounds but usually much smaller, blackfin are the yellowfin’s mini-me, packing a hard-fighting punch and just as much deliciousness. During the fall, schools of blackfin edge closer to the coast, within range of shorter charters. You’ll know when you see them feeding. Often they will bust the surface as the plow through wads of baitfish — looking like flying footballs.
Winter, the Song Remains the Same
Late fall and winter sees the running of the bull reds. You can find redfish schools marauding the Pensacola Pass and nearshore in the Gulf and the bayous. Massive bull reds will give you a run for your money, but they are often too large to keep. The keeper size is from 18 inches to no more than 27 inches total length, with a limit of one fish per person per day; 8-fish vessel limit. The pass fills with them, and watching them attack and smash through schools of baitfish is breathtaking. The fight is fun — but remember — you can only keep one of the tasty “slot-size” reds.
Speckled Trout migrate into the rivers and bayous in winter months. Try fishing the lighted docks and inshore piers at night — such as the Intracoastal canal in Perdido or up the Perdido Bay and Escambia River.
Flounder season peaks during the cold months, with live minnows and shrimp the preferred quarry.
Another jetty favorite is the sheepshead. It has a face only a mom-fish could love, with a yellow set of Austin Power molars used to crush shellfish. This “sheep’s” mouth makes them famed bait-stealers, as they often gently gnaw the bait off your hook. Use fiddler crabs or live shrimp to lure them. The taste is amazing — an easy guess when their diet is shrimp and crabs.
Want to fish year-round? Call our fishing pros, the charter captains from Pensacola to Perdido Key!