Friday, June 01, 2012

Florida's Emerald Coast-Destin 2012

Our "family" vacation took shape when a house became available in Sandestin, Florida, east of Pensacola.

It didn't take long for me to research the area and discover a variety of fly fishing opportunities. Our house was located on one of the 6 golf courses, and adjacent to numerous ponds stocked with large mouth bass and panfish.

On our first evening, I broke out the fly rod and a Jungle Frog Slider, and headed for a likely pond, right out our back door! It didn't take long to bring my first 5 lb. LMB to hand, and another 4 lb. fish shortly after that. What a great start to our trip!

With bike trails everywhere, we rented bikes and made a run everyday, exploring this beautiful area. It was just a short ride to the ocean-side area to check out the beach. It is no wonder this area is called the "Emerald Coast".

I had made arrangements with a local guide, Tom Campbell, to fish redfish and tarpon, and early the second day we were motoring to the grassy flats.
Tom explained that conditions were very tough in the spring. Very clear water, and spooky fish make the local redfish a great challenge, and with only a few shots, only 1, 6 lb. fish was coaxed to the fly that morning.

Once again, the Neutralizer was effective on these spooky reds......!

.....and even

.....fooled this nice speckled trout, hiding in the weeds!

In addition, Tom informed me that he had just sold his Hells Bay flats skiff, and we would be using a backup boat the remainder of the trip. However, what appeared to be bad news ended up providing a number of opportunities, totally unexpected.

The "new" boat required some work, and Tom was quick to help me locate another guide to help fill in the open dates. However,Tom was able to get the backup boat ready and he wanted to try some night fishing, under the dock lights. We met up one evening and headed out to a couple of underwater lights, that had been producing good numbers of trout and redfish. I fished a number of shrimp patterns that worked very well for these scrappy trout, however, it was a small, all-tan gurgler, that was responsible for the largest trout, over 20"! This new night fishing experience was a lot of fun.

Since Tom was not confident with his backup boat, he connected me to another guide who had some days available. He had a bay boat, and was anxious to could get me out on the ocean side for some blue water action.

I met guide Kyle Pitts for a 1/2 day run to check out a couple of wrecks, and after netting some live bait, we were on our way.

The GPS tracked us right over the first sunken wreck, and it didn't take long for Kyle to get the small amberjack to the surface, whipped into a frenzy, and eager to eat my fly. It was not exactly the type of "sight fishing" I prefer, but it was a lot of fun anyway.

Even though these fish were only 8-10 lbs., the 8 wt. was just not enough stick to subdue these powerful fish, and I quickly switched to my 10 wt.

Here is a short video that shows the small amberjack attacking our bait.....

....and finally my fly!

Here is a sequence of pictures showing the amberjack attacking my fly:

If you look close, you will see many other fish trying to get that fly!
These fish were a lot of fun, and after 6 or 8 fish, Kyle suggested we make the run to the second wreck, and see if we couldn't chum up some bigger fish.

This proved to be a good move. Within a few minutes I could see "color" in the clear water, below the boat, as the big amberjack headed for the surface to eat the live bait.

When the first amberjack exploded on the bait, it was like a hand grenade going off, and when the fish finally surrounded the boat, I was impressed with the size of these big amberjack. Most were 3-5 ft. long, and I immediately was concerned that my "big" 12 wt. might not be enough stick to control these "reef donkeys", as they are referred to. Kyle instructed me that the wreck was about 60 ft. deep, and that I had to apply enough pressure to keep the fish from getting back to the wreck, and cutting me off. Right!

It didn't take but a couple of casts and a big amberjack ate my 4/0 Seal Sardina fly, and bolted down to the wreck! With my back against the center console, I cranked the drag down on the big Nautilus reel, and held on. Fortunately, everything (including me!) held together and we were able stop, and drag this fish away from the wreck. 20 minutes later we released this beautiful 35 lb. amberjack!

Seal Sardina

With the big fish still nearby, Kyle went to work throwing the live bait, and getting them back around the boat. On the first cast another big fish banged the fly, but came free.....however, the fly was immediately eaten by another amberjack, and we were off and running again. Unfortunately, this fish could not be revived and we were forced to bring it home for dinner. Since my wife, Eloise, had here two sisters and 2 nieces coming to visit, I felt better about keeping this fish. Indeed, this fish provided 2 dinners and a breakfast for the entire family.

This amberjack was a bit smaller, around 30 lbs.

Our next day, was a full day chasing tarpon. It was awesome. With crystal clear water, and good light, we were able to spot tarpon migrating along the beach. However, after a number of refusals we were forced to lighten the leader, from a 60 lb. bite leader, to 40 lb. The response was very positive. The next tarpon charged the fly eagerly, however, the fish somehow missed the fly. Near the end of the day, as the action slowed, I had another great shot at a pair of huge tarpon, and sure enough, the second fish closed on the fly and we were solid to our first Panama City tarpon. 2 jumps later the fish broke off the fly, and given the light leader, we were still elated that we could get one in the air, and bring success to our day, and the perfect end to a great trip!

Many thanks to Tom Campbell and Kyle Pitt, for working hard to get me into a variety of fish, and new experiences, making this trip a total success!