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Bountiful Bay

It’s ironic but sometimes it takes something bad to happen to open our eyes to a different path…In the spring of 2010 the disastrous Gulf oil spill shut down more and more water every day. We Panhandle fisherman needed to find alternate ways to use our boats that summer. Living in Destin we are extremely fortunate to have the vast Choctawhatchee bay in our back yard, and as my wife and I are discovering a bay can be a great time! Stretching from New Orleans to Apalachicola, the intracoastal water way and its associated bays can be explored in anything from a day trip in a 14 foot John Boat to a week long venture on a 70 foot Viking.

Ever since the ‘summer of the spill’ Maggie and I along with our two dogs have been exploring what we had previously ignored up until the oil forced us to open our eyes to inshore venturing. The bay offers some great trout, drum, cat and flounder fishing, along with the best eating oysters and crab to be found anywhere on the planet! We love to hunt and gather and our freezer might be light on the Mahi filets, but we are filled to the gills with the alternatives!

The endless anchorages in some really remote locations with surprisingly few if any company makes getting away easy and cheap (you don’t burn much fuel on the hook!). Our boat is equipped with a crane and skiff and this opens up even more options in the pursuit of game and shellfish. We have located some great grass beds that hold good numbers of speckled trout and red drum and we usually hit these spots with the fly rods or soft plastics early in the morning before it gets to hot. After that finds us retiring to the AC and live-baiting from the back deck.

The dogs demand at least three daily, hour-long ventures ashore and these romps are also when we will check the pots and collect oysters when in season (look for structure, rocks, old pilings, etc.). When you go ashore, keep your eyes peeled for wild berries; we have picked heaps of wild blackberries for great desserts. Our lab has recently taken to chasing mullet and it is getting harder and harder to get her out of the water. It is an absolute riot watching her charge though the shallows chasing jumpers!

Live baiting with pinfish at anchor in less than 10 feet of water has rewarded us in some remarkably diverse species that we had no clue even existed in the bay. From prehistoric armor-platted Florida gar to hammerhead sharks, we never know what will pounce on a pinfish next! In one day alone last week we caught spinner sharks, gafftop sail cats, hardhead cats, skates, gar, and even a couple our target species (trout and drum). That’s seven different species off the back deck, kicking back with a nice glass of wine; doesn’t that sound like fun? Maggie and I are amazed that there are not more people out there doing the same thing. So many bigger boats in the area have stayed tied in their slips all summer. Most of the people we see in the bays are in flatboats and skiffs.

The best set up we have come up with for laid-back deck fishing is a medium-weight spinning outfit loaded with 20 pound test mono. A four-foot 25lb test leader, with a size 2 circle hook, a wine cork tied to the swivel keeps the pinfish from finding a hiding hole in the grass. We usually fish three outfits with 2-4 inch pinfish drifting about, the afternoons and evenings seem to always be the best, but we have had some of our better hot bites in the heat of the day!

There are also some big guys roaming the bays, last week we hooked something huge, on the first blistering run I could see the brass on the spool! Maggie got the skiff around to the back deck just in time as I jumped in and took off after the fish. Trying to crank back line while chasing down the fish was a chore, but after about ten minutes I caught up to it. The fish wanted no part of the skiff and me getting close and blasted off in another direction.

After about a half hour I was at least two miles from our boat, this fish was now towing me out of the bayou and into the bay.

The wisdom of this whole thing started to dawn on me that hey I’m in an inflatable, by myself being towed by a fish that was still not showing any signs of slowing down! I believe it had plans to take me out though the pass or maybe to Pensacola! I reluctantly parted the fish off, bummed that I never laid eyes on it just to see what it was. Maggie was pleased to see that common sense prevailed, (that doesn’t happen very often). We deliberated about what it could have been; Tarpon? nope never jumped, Jack, Drum? nope to big, Shark? Yikees!!

I’d suggest taking at least a couple of minnow traps along to keep the live bait tank full with pinfish. We have no problems catching heaps in knee-deep water along the grass lines. Shrimp heads will draw them in quick, set the traps, check them every 20 minutes or so and you have all could possibly need in an hour or less. A cast net will work also, and this method will add some finger mullet to the bait tank. Fresh baits work the best for the crab traps, the blue crab don’t seem to be to picky about what kind of bait, but they insist on it being fresh.

Stone crab season doesn’t open up again to Oct.14, so this fall there will be another great flavor for the feast. In 2010 over the 4th of July weekend we took a weeklong journey to Port Saint Joe, the intercostal water way was very quiet for such a busy time of year. I would say we saw about a dozen boats in the channel the entire trip. The bay of Port Saint Joe was very busy though, it was good to see so many people out using their boats, again mostly small day vessels. While there were oil booms and workers about, it was nothing like Destin or Pensacola Pass; it was nice to get away from that for while.

Scallop season was open and a lot of people were snorkeling or wading looking for these yummy shellfish. We didn’t do so well on the scallops but really had some great mussels. The trout fishing was very good on the grass beds in less than 5 feet of water resulting in lots of people chasing trout all over the bay. When we returned back to one of our favorite spots in Choctawhatchee Bay, once again we had the anchorage all to ourselves for the last two days of our trip.

Even with the offshore oil on everyone’s mind our Panhandle bays can offer us a way to still enjoy being on the water and open our eyes to a vast variety of hunting and gathering. Long after the oil is gone we will still be enjoying our bay boating, now that it’s been discovered!

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Capt. Mark S. “Corky” Decker is an IGFA-certified captain, freelance writer and a proven world-class billfish guide. He grew up commercial fishing on the East Coast, prior to quitting college and relocating to Alaska to cash in on the booming fisheries of the 1980s. After almost 20 years of incredible success, it all suddenly came crashing down with a looming federal lawsuit for illegal fishing practices that changed a whole way of life — not just for him but for commercial fishermen in general.

 At age 40 Corky ran away to the South Pacific to start over, fishing for marlin and writing about the sport. Today, Corky's home port is Destin, Florida, where he lives with his New Zealand-born wife, Maggie. Corky recently completed his first novel To See A Green Flash and is currently working on a sequel to his personal memoir A Hardway to Make an Easy Living. In the Spring of 2012 Corky came full circle yet again and purchased a Maine harpoon boat to pursue the fish of his youth — giant bluefin tuna. He fishes out of Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, during the summer — where his passion for fishing began. To find out more about Corky and order one of his books, visit corkydecker.com.