Georgia-Florida Fishing Report Panama City Beach, FL Fishing Tips, Techniques, and Regulations
This photo was taken in the 1990's while staying at Pinnacle Port Condos on the far west end of Panama City Beach, FL. Little Brother Terry, Dad (Dewey Richardson) and I were fishing out of Destin, FL which is about 35 miles further west from PCB when this fish hit a free-lined live bait while anchored up and doing some bottom fishing late in the day. I was almost asleep when the drag started screaming for mercy and we had to detach the anchor and chase him down before I got spooled. My biggest King Mackerel to date.
This is the page that could absolutely help you the most as we get into some of the nuts and bolts of catching fish at Panama City Beach, FL. These fishing tips come from several years of experience in fishing the area around PCB and have worked for us on many occasions. I'm shooting you straight when I say that these fishing tips and techniques work!
Trolling Tips and Techniques:
I'll start with King Mackerel and Spanish Mackerel fishing tips. There's nothing more exciting while trolling than the sound made by a screaming drag on a bent pole. It wakes everyone up, especially on those days when the bite might be a little slow. Both of these species will put a fire in your belly when they hit.
King Mackerel are migratory/pelagic fish of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. It is important to both the commercial and recreational fishing industries.
Scientific Name: Scomberomorus cavalla
Lateral line seen here dips sharply at the second dorsal fin.
Commonly caught in the 30-40 pound range.
Young Kings have spots like Spanish so be careful not to keep an illegal king thinking it is a Spanish Mackerel.
Regulations allow for 2 per person per day. 24 inch minimum measured from head to middle of fork
Atlantic Spanish mackerel
The Atlantic Spanish mackerel, Scomberomorus maculatus, is a migratory species of mackerel that swims to the Northern Gulf of Mexico in spring, returns to south Florida in the Eastern Gulf, and to Mexico in the Western Gulf in the fall.
Adults have gold spots on both sides and lateral line does not dip sharply.
Commonly caught in the 3-4 pound range.
Regulations allow for 15 per person per day. 12 inch minimum measured from head to middle of fork.
Both species are highly aggressive predators that will hit a number of different offerings. The most common types of presentations include, but are not limted to: A. Large, deep diving plugs like the Mann's Stretch 25, 30, and 40 that are trolled.
B. Cigar Minnows trolled with a "skirt" or duster, trolling weight and long leader.
I have always had great success with the Stretch Plugs until this past summer when over the span of 2+ weeks we did not catch a single King on a plug. We did catch a couple of other species including one nice Greater Amberjack that almost broke one of the guy's arms. In the past I have used these plugs exclusively and had no problems catching a limit in half a day of trolling.
By the way, right now the limit is 2 per person per day (24" minimum fork length) in the Gulf of Mexico at Panama City Beach. Being the hard-headed soul I've been known to be, I continued to troll these plugs for the first week and a half. It took seeing others catching fish on the Cigar Minnows before I was willing to change tactics.
Here's the setup we use for the big plugs. Attach the main line of your reel to a barrel swivel. Stainless swivels are best, but they are very expensive. It needs to be, at the very least, a 30 pound swivel. Then attach some heavy mono, or preferably, steel leader to your swivel leading to the plug. Tying steel is pretty tricky, but the plastic bag it comes in has a diagram for tying a haywire twist. I would always use 50-80 pound fluoro/mono leader and 80 pound steel leader at a minimum. Some captains will actually tie a snap swivel on the end of the leader to make it quicker and easier to change out plugs looking for the right color.
These are deep diving plugs so you really don't need any additional weight, but some folks like to. It can increase the depth you are trolling at. My go to colors are pink, red head and white body, and anything with blue.
When doing any type of trolling (plugs, spoons, or cigar minnows) I always take a mental note of what color they are hitting, speed we are trolling at, location in relation to the shore or to the wreck/reef we are trolling, and depth. Most of our trolling is done within sight of the shore and Kings can be caught right off the beach in June, July, and August when I have done most of my fishing.
The setup for the trolled rods is pretty simple. When trolling 4 rods, I will set the 2 rods closest to the middle of the boat (inside) back a shorter distance than the outside 2 rods. This makes for less likelihood that the rods and plugs will get tangled while making your turns. You don't want this to happen as it could take a while to untangle the mess. Here's a standard 4 rod "spread".
When we are getting a number of strikes, we sometimes go to only trolling 3 rigs with 2 on the inside and one trolled up top in the middle of the T-top a long ways behind the boat.
I have rod holders in my boat that swivel, but I don't have outriggers. I'll use these by swiveling them to the outside and allowing for a little more spread of the 4 rods. This allows you to cover more water by getting your trolling spread a little further outside the boat.
Around the Big Bend area of Florida further east these big plugs are also used to troll for gag grouper. I've never personally trolled for gags or seen this done, but the reports say that it is deadly.
Note: These plugs catch Spanish Mackerel as well. In the summer of 2013, my good friend John Ellenberg and I were trolling just west of the Panama City Beach, FL pass and absolutely slew some ax handle sized Spanish as well as some nice kings.
Method B involves using a trolling setup/rig with a cigar minnow. These baits can be trolled using frozen or live cigars and there are couple of different ways I've seen fishermen use these.
One is called slow trolling. This is basically a bump and drift driving technique where the boat captain will bump the motor in gear for a few seconds and then put it back in neutral. Live cigar minnows are used with this method and no weight is necessary. This method can be used around reefs and wrecks before bottom fishing to "check out" the area before anchoring up.
The other method is the one that I have used exclusively when trolling cigar minnows. Earlier on this page I alluded to the fact that until last summer I have had no problems catching a limit of Kings on the big, deep-diving plugs. Not the case this past summer, so I went to the cigar minnows. The first day we worked these setups we had 20 "knockdowns" before noon and probably could have caught 3 limits easily.
Here's the way it works:
These photos give you a pretty good idea of what this setup looks like when trolling a frozen or live cigar minnow.
Again, start with your main line leading to your reel. Tie on a trolling weight that has two eyes (one on each end). Next, put your skirt/duster on the steel/heavy mono or fluorocarbon leader and tie this to your trolling weight. The skirts I use already have 3 hooks pre-rigged on them for trolling the cigar minnows. Depending on what depth you want to reach, the weights can vary in size. We used anything between a few ounces to 32 ounces to try different depths and see where the bite was best. We had strikes at all depths.
Trolling cigar minnows is more of a hassle than trolling big plugs as the baits have to be watched closely. They will sometimes spin instead of trolling straight. These baits will get "washed out" and have to be replaced, so keeping fresh baits on your lines is imperative.
If using frozen cigar minnows, I always put the baits on the deck fairly early in the morning to allow for thawing. They will not troll well if still frozen. Attach the first hook of the threesome to the lips of the minnow and the other 2 are buried underneath and into the bait. It will also help if you will bend each cigar minnow to make it very pliable so that the tail will swish back and forth like a live bait.
When trolling live cigar minnows, everything is pretty much the same.
Note 2: When trolling we always have casting gear already setup. These are usually spinning rigs with Gotcha Plugs tied on with heavy fluorocarbon (40 pound minimum) or steel leader. If we see birds diving or fish chasing bait, we will troll in that direction until we get close enough to cast into the fray.
These lures are heavy and cast a long way and that is important. You don't want to get too close and spook the fish. The Gotcha lures are deadly on schooling fish like blue fish and Spanish Mackerel in particular.
Bottom Fishing Tips and Techniques
This photo was taken on a bottom fishing trip that produced some great fishing and nice table fare. Here's my close friend and fishing ally, Buster Peters, with a bent pole hooked up on a bottom dwelling species.
It doesn't get much better than a steady action bottom fishing trip. This type of fishing actually offers you the best of both worlds as you can catch bottom dwelling species as well as surface cruising fish. By using both live bait, cut bait, and articials on the bottom and free-lined live baits on the surface, the types of fish you might encounter vary from grouper, snapper, and black sea bass to flounder, triggerfish, and redfish. Other species you might hook up with while bottom fishing include sharks, grunts, greater/lesser amberjacks, and many other hungry critters.
Some photos of bottom fishing trips we have made. Top : Stuart, FL Reef Donkey on. Second photo: PCB red snapper. Third photo: Gulf Shores, AL red snapper. Bottom: Triggerfish out of Matanzas Inlet, FL
The free-lined live baits might entice cobia, sharks, King mackerel, Spanish mackerel, dolphin fish (mahi-mahi), sailfish, amberjacks, wahoo, and other species. Bottom fishing is a great way to introduce kids to saltwater fishing as the action is usually fast and furious with little wait for bites on each drop to the bottom. This is my favorite type of saltwater fishing as you never know what you might hang into and pull up from the ocean floor.
Bottom fishing can be a lot of fun, but believe me when I tell you that it is not an easy task to get anchored up in the right spot. Make sure you take along with you some young, stout guys for pulling the anchor up on each move. It can be frustrating trying to deal with wind and current and I am certainly no master of this technique.
Let's start from scratch. So, you've got your "numbers" (latitude/longitude) in the GPS. Once you have arrived at your first destination, it's a good idea to take along some type of marker/buoy to mark the reef or wreck you plan to fish over. I still cannot anchor up in the right spot without first marking the reef. Seasoned captains do it all the time and it really astounds me how they do it. Actually some captains never even use an anchor and simply hold you over the reef by putting the engine into reverse, forward, and neutral to hold the spot.
Gauging the wind/waves, I will usually go upwind/upwave about 200-300 feet of the structure and drop the anchor. Putting the engine into reverse I then back down to the reef hoping my wind/wave calculations are correct and that the anchor holds us in the right spot. If I'm off the mark, I will look at my compass and get a bearing of where we are holding. Then, I'll go from the marker on that bearing the desired distance based on the depth, drop anchor, and back it down again. Most of the time it takes me 2-5 times of doing this to get us over the reef and it can be back-breaking work for the guys pulling the anchor back up each time.
The rule of thumb is to put out 2 or 3 times the amount of anchor rope for the depth you are fishing. For example: If you are fishing in 50 feet of water, you will need to put out at least 100, but probably closer to 150 feet of anchor rope. If you don't the anchor is too straight down and will never catch and hold the bottom.
I can tell you from experience that if you can't see the structure on your sonar, you might as well go ahead and try again. It's time well spent.
Next you have to procure some live bait. I wrote a blog about catching live bait that you can see here
In as few words as possible, you can purchase live bait from one of the bait boats just inside the Lower Grand Lagoon at Panama City Beach, FL. For $20 you can get enough live bait to last you a while, but you will need some backup. I also have a pinfish bait trap I use as well as a cast net for catching additional live baits.
However, one of the best methods is the use of a Sabiki rig and/or a Sabiki pole to catch live bait when you arrive at the numbers you have selected. The link above will take you to a great You Tube video of a guide using the Sabiki rig method. Some folks actually make their own baitfish rigs, but I've found that your can purchase the offbrands as cheaply as you can make your own.
Your backup bait should also consist of frozen bait that you either purchase or freeze yourself from leftovers from previous fishing trips. Frozen cigar minnows, frozen squid, and other frozen baits will sometimes produce fish species you are not taking on the live and cut bait you are using. We have also used artifical baits like Gulp shrimp and other scented baits to catch fish while bottom fishing.
Now that we have our spot and the bait is procured, it's time to fish! I like to use a single hook bottom fishing rig, but others use what I call a chicken rig with multiple hooks tied to the line.
The rigs are pretty simple to make up. Depending on the depth you are fishing and the current, put a suitable size egg sinker (2-10 oz.) on the main line that goes to your pole of choice. Then you need to put on a bead that will keep your weight from bouncing on the knot to your leader to keep it from fraying the know. Next, you need to tie on a barrel swivel to the main line. From there you will tie on your leader (fluorocarbon or monofilament) and tie the appropriate size hook onto the end of the leader. We have used size 2/0 up to 10/0 hooks depending on the size fish we are targeting. You may end up having to change your hook size to fit the size fish you are catching, not catching, or getting broke off and hung up.
The following chart should give you some idea of the size of these hooks. These are not circle hooks!! You should be using circle hooks. The second photo shows the difference between these.
A couple of notes:
A. Most people don't use enough leader. It needs to be 3-10 feet long to allow live baits freedom to move.
B. Hook size and weight size are important. Sometimes that means starting over with a smaller or larger weight or hook. I know it's a hassle, but it will pay dividends for the day.
The next thing you might want to consider is chumming. We usually have a chum bag that we tie off on the back end of the boat. The chum you purchase or make up yourself consists of dead fish, fish oil, cat food, and other stuff. You can also put some weight on the chum bag to get it down to the bottom. Chumming can also be done using live bait and just tossing them into the water occasionally. Most shark fishermen will chum to get a slick going to entice the larger sharks to come into the bite zone around the boat.
Next, hold on tight and get ready for the fantastic action that can come from bottom fishing at Panama City Beach, FL!! A word of advice for those of you who have never bottom fished. Set a tight drag and get them out of the reef as quickly as possible or you will end up snagged or cut off on the structure. The rods and reels used for bottom fishing need to be stout, stiff rods with plenty of backbone and the reels need to have 30-50 pound test line on them.