On day four we rented a car and left Orlando in the dust as we headed for the Gulf Coast. We were traveling based on the advice of a good friend of ours and long-time guest at Bristol Bay Lodge who grew up in the Panama City area. This last August, our discussion at the dinner table one evening quickly turned into a planning session as I discussed my interest in the culture down south and desire to experience Redfish on the fly.
It took about four hours of driving for us to see the coast for the first time. I gotta admit, the drive was about as boring as it gets. Out West, most long drives are made interesting with mountains and views that stir the question: "What lies beyond that ridge?" This drive was flat as a pancake with a wall of trees on either side of the road. Needless to say, we were relieved when the highway finally broke out into the open next to the Gulf.
For another 120 miles, the road wound in and out of bays and over rivers and creeks. Small towns were scattered here and there, typically consisting of nothing more than a few houses, a seafood market, oyster bar, and a convenience store. We were finally feeling isolated, and it felt great.
|The Gibson Inn, virtually unchanged since 1907|
We pulled into Apalachicola late in the afternoon and checked into our hotel. Back in the 1800s, Apalachicola was one of the largest cotton-exporting ports in the world, rivaling New Orleans for the amount of cotton and other goods exported to Europe. Walking past the shops and restaurants of this quaint little town, one can't help but notice- things really haven't changed much in the last 150 years.
Apalachicola is world-famous for its oysters, so naturally I had to find a spot to see what all the fuss is about. We settled on a place about a block away from our hotel called "Hole in the Wall Seafood and Raw Bar". I'd never had a raw oyster and didn't plan on trying it at any point in the near future. Upon opening the door were greeted by a couple guys shucking oysters and invited to have a seat at the bar. We ordered a drink and they asked us what we would like for food. Upon requesting baked oysters, the two made eye contact and each gave me a look I'll never forget. I felt about an inch tall, and then admitted I'd never had a raw oyster.
Our conversation quickly turned to fishing and more specifically- Redfish. Neither of the two had ever done any fly fishing but grew up targeting Reds on light spin tackle. They gave me a couple pointers on where I should fish the next morning but I got the vibe that they were being pretty tight-lipped. We shook hands with the two and headed out to another bar nearby, where we enjoyed dinner, drinks, and live jazz- what a place.
We awoke early the next morning, packed the car and headed down the road in the dark. We pulled the car over next to a shallow bay right at sun-up and my heart started racing as I watched fish moving through the shallows. I was literally shaking as I struggled to rig my 8 weight fast enough. Janessa was next to me with the camera and we took off towards the bay. The bay felt like bath-water as I waded out up to my knees. There were small baitfish darting all over the place and I started casting excitedly. There were larger fish jumping around as well, I thought surely they were Reds feeding. I waded all around casting, stripping, changing flies, and so on for nearly two hours without so much as a grab of any kind. I knew we had to get back on the road, so we headed back to the car. I fought the disappointment of not hooking up on a fish by focusing on my wife's excitement from the hermit crabs she chased all over the place.
|Sunrise on the Gulf Coast|
Later that afternoon we arrived in Panama City and caught up with our friends from the lodge. I was ecstatic after hearing that Bill had set us up for a day on the water with a guide he fishes with at least once a week. The next morning we shook hands with our guide on the dock at 7 AM. Matt Smith grew up chasing the full gamut of saltwater species across the area. A very calm, cool, and collected individual, he began sharing his vast knowledge of the fishery as we idled away from the dock.
|Overcast but still paradise...|
|The Man at work...|
|Making the move and chasing the sun...|
Janessa and I switched places again and the afternoon continued. The light grew a bit tougher but we were still seeing some fish. I got several more shots and had two fish eat but I was a bit trigger-happy and missed both opportunities! Matt told us to look up the flat at the dolphins that had entered the shallows. We watched a school of six dolphins chase mullet up and down the flat, then they turned and came directly at the boat. Janessa's goal for the trip was to see dolphins up close, and the view she got was priceless as they swam within 10 feet of the bow. After the excitement was over, the three of us agreed on our happiness with the way the day had turned out. The sunlight faded behind the clouds but it didn't matter, we were content with calling it a wonderful day and headed back to the dock.
|Chasing crabs is good entertainment!|
I am putting together a hosted trip down there for next year but I'd like to make it happen this winter if we can get some folks on board. In comparison to some of the other areas now famous for redfishing, the Forgotten Coast is nearly void of any angling pressure. It offers complete solitude and the opportunity to sight-cast to these fish in what is normally gin-clear water. We had about the toughest conditions imaginable with poor lighting and less than 3' of visibility and still got lots of shots at nice fish.
We have to give a big shout-out and thank-you to Matt Smith of Panama City Inshore www.panamacityinshore.com. Looking forward to fishing with you again, hopefully this winter!
|My first Red...|