South Walton, if you believe the brochures, is all about the beach.
But to get here, they cross one of the most interesting and spectacular bodies of water anywhere in the great state of Florida – Choctawhatchee Bay.
The bay is an estuary, a semi-enclosed body of water where fresh and saltwater mix. The freshwater is from the Choctawhatchee River while the salt water comes from the Gulf of Mexico.
Connecting the East Pass in Destin to St Andrew’s Bay in Panama City, this 130 square mile bay is 27 miles long and 6 miles wide at its broadest. It is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico and the entrance to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
WOW!! 😮 Did you guys know all this stuff??
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Posted by 30A on Thursday, 29 April 2021
It is also one of the most exciting fishing territories anywhere in the state.
For decades, local fisherfolk have kept this knowledge to themselves but now, as 30A becomes one of the most written and spoken about areas in the entire U.S.A – the secret is out.
“Despite its huge size, it is a remarkably shallow body of water” said world-class fisherwoman and 30A local, JoAnn Ribaudo.
“At its deepest point, where it is dredged for boats to navigate, it is little more than 50 feet,” said JoAnn. “However all around its perimeter, it is shallow – in parts you can walk a mile from the shoreline and still only be waist deep, perfect for fishing with fly or lure.”
Twice a day, the saltwater rushes in and out of the bay through East Pass. The incoming water brings baitfish and crabs and with them, schools of fish in pursuit.
Opening on to the Gulf of Mexico, it is a breeding and feeding ground for numerous species of fish including Sheepshead, Spanish Mackerel, Jack, Flounder, and Ladyfish – nicknamed ‘the poor man’s tarpon’ because of its love of a fight.
Further into the bay, the shallows and flats make for fantastic fishing grounds too – especially for the highly-prized Redfish and Speckled Trout.
The still, shallow waters are perfect conditions for abundant grass beds, and around the mouths of the numerous rivers and streams which empty into the bay, nutrition-rich muddy waters are a perfect habitat for many fish.
While locals recognize the attraction of fishing the Gulf of Mexico – the chance to hunt big game fish and restaurant favorites like Grouper, Mahi-Mahi, and Red Snapper – fishing the bay requires a different set of skills.
Rather than chasing what is jokingly known as ‘Filet’ fish with long lines, trawling or dropping your line to the bottom of the Gulf and hoping – success in the bay requires a lot more involvement.
This is sight fishing. Where being aware of your surroundings is critical.
Successful fisherfolk look for slight changes in conditions, the weather and cloud cover, the activity of birds overhead and the feeding cycles of fish. They select their bait wisely, choose their location carefully, and master the art of casting.
And there are others with a keen interest in fishing these waters too.
The bay is home to a huge pod of Dolphin – numbering perhaps as many as 300 – who feed off the plentiful mullet who also live in the bay. And, what attracts Dolphin attracts other predators too – bull sharks have been known to dine on fish caught on the hook.
For those who want to try their hand at fishing the bay, there are many guides and rental charters dotted along its shores – from Sandestin or Cessna Landing to Niceville and Mid-Bay Marina.
Guides will work with you to select the right equipment, the best bait and will share a few – but not all – of their secret fishing spots. They will educate you on what is in season, the size and bag limits in place to protect and conserve the species and advise on technique and tackle.
The tranquility of the shallows and flats, coves, and bayous can also make for the perfect family experience.
With numerous boat launch sites and landings, these are ideal waters to fish from a kayak or canoe, from a small boat or even a paddleboard. You can float serenely on the calm waters across the reedbeds and grassy marshes looking for the tell-tale signs of where the fish are.
All in all, the bay makes for an excellent way to introduce the whole family to the delights of fishing and is also a wonderful way to enjoy a pleasant day playing on the water.