Thousands of people come to the Emerald Coast each year. Some for the sandy beaches, others for insanely good fishing in Destin. Many families head to the Gulf of Mexico to get Snapper, but local experts stay in the brackish waters and discover the richest that Choctawhatchee Bay fishing provides. This is the heartland of the Destin bay fishing scene.
It is on these flats and grassy marshes that the real fun takes place. Light tackle action, big and feisty fish, and all of this at a reasonable price – what more could you wish for? It’s the perfect fishing trip that many anglers make an annual event. Read on to learn all you need for your next adventure!
Why is Destin/Choctwahatchee Bay fishing popular?
What some people refer to as “Destin Bay” is actually Choctawhatchee Bay. This body of water lies just north of Destin and stretches over a surface of 130 square miles. It’s connected to the Santa Rosa Sound to the west and the Choctawhatchee River to the east. It’s a complex network of bayous, rivers, flats, marshes, oyster beds, brackish waters, coves, sandy patches, and reefs. The area is the epicenter of some of the most amazing fishing in the whole of Florida.
But it’s not just this diversity of water and landscape that makes the bay so special. The Choctawhatchee Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico and is connected to it through the East Pass – also known as “Destin Pass”. Here, the tides push the water – along with bait fish and crabs – from the Gulf into the Bay and vice versa. This water movement is what gives the bay the edge over other popular destinations on the Emerald Coast. And it’s why Destin has been crowned the “Luckiest Sportfishing Village in the World”.
The abundance of baitfish attracts gamefish – the fish you’re after. When the tide goes out of the bay, it pulls all the fish food towards the mouth of the pass. The big fish swarm and the feeding frenzy begins. Once the tides start going towards the bay, bigger fish will follow their food upstream and head into the Choctawhatchee.
What fish can you catch in Choctawhatchee bay?
Redfish, Speckled Trout, Black Drum, Sheepshead, and Flounder are the main fish species you can catch in Choctawhatchee Bay. They all promise to put up a good light tackle fight for both novice and experienced anglers.
Bay fishing is a great option for families on vacation who want to spend the morning or afternoon on the water, have fun, and get a tasty dinner. But if you’re a pro and want some time alone with the rod and line, these fisheries won’t let you down either. Rent a kayak and fish the east of Choctawhatchee Bay where you can get big “Bull” Redfish and schools of Speckled Trout.
Reds are Destin’s signature inshore catch. They’re big and strong and will put you to the test for sure. As well as being a first-rate gamefish, they’re actually quite a feast, with their flaky flesh making the top of any restaurant’s menu.
You can find a fair number of Reds in the easternmost corner of the Bay, near the mouth of the Choctawhatchee River. They’ll be swimming near shallow flats. They are not just feisty, but beautiful, too. Their red scales turn almost golden under the sunlight. Have your camera at the ready for some nice fishing photos.
As you move towards the middle of the bay, near the Mid-Bay Bridge, you’ll have a chance to find some Bull Reds. They feast off the bottom of the bay, so you should use a light sinker to keep your lure near the floor. In the morning, you can use topwater lures like spoons or rattles around the flats. The noise will attract Reds in no time.
Speckled Trout are just as popular among anglers as Redfish, but are more easily caught. You can find these fellas all around the Bay, from the east stretches near the marshes of the Choctawhatchee River, down to Hogtown Bayou, and west towards Destin.
Trout stay in shallow waters and swim in schools. If you manage to catch one of these toothy fish, you’ll soon find others nearby. They start showing up in January and stay here for most of the year.
In spring, when they start breeding, you can also come across a number of Gator Trout. These are Trout heavier than 6 pounds, or longer than 28 inches, depending on who you ask. A rule of thumb for Gator Trout is the color of the inside of their mouth – if it’s like mustard, well, you’ve caught a really big fish. Well done!
How to Catch Reds and Trout in Destin
Redfish and Speckled Trout are generally not fussy eaters, so you’ll have a decent chance whether you choose fishing with live or artificial bait. Bear in mind, you’ll find a lot of bait fish in the bay, so if artificials aren’t working, you can easily switch to live bait. What are the pros and cons of both?
Croakers swarm the marshes, streams, and other grassy parts of the bay, while you’ll find literally thousands of mullet around the flats in the eastern part of the Bay and around the Mid-Bay Bridge. You can also find some crabs and shrimp throughout the bay, which work like a charm.
If you’re using circle hooks, let the rod double over once you feel the bite then start reeling, pulling the line up slowly. The key is to let the fish move and gradually come in. This is especially important with Trout, as they have sensitive mouths. If you jerk the line aggressively, you could tear their mouth up and lose the fish.
Reds and Trout respond well to spoons and plugs. Early in the morning, use topwater lures around the flats and you should have plenty of success. Use lures that have a nice, loud rattle to them, as the sound will make Reds and Trout strike it like crazy.
The flats and grassy banks around the bay have a lot of potholes that hold really big fish. Use spoons and retrieve them fast to cover a huge surface. But make sure you don’t give the fish a lot of time to inspect your lure – move it fast to disturb the water surface and fire up the fisheries. If this doesn’t produce results, you can switch to some other lures or some cut mullet.
Choctawhatchee Bay Fishing Spots
Whether heading out of Destin or Santa Rosa Beach, you’ll find plenty of productive fishing spots. You can fish several different terrains in a single day and catch a variety of fish. If you time it right, you may even land an inshore Grand Slam – Redfish, Speckled Trout, and Flounder – in one outing!
You can fish from the jetties, rent a kayak and explore the marshes, or book a charter. Explore the flats, bridge pylons, try landing a fish on the fly, or simply try fishing from piers or the shore. Whichever you choose, here are the spots you should try out first:
- East Pass Jetties. East Pass is the first stop for any angler who sets out from Destin. As the water salinity changes here with the tides, you’ll have excellent chances of landing big fish. Redfish and Sheepshead are the most common catches, but anglers have caught the odd Spanish Mackerel as well, along with Trout, Flounder, and Sharks.
- Mid-Bay Bridge. This is one of the best-known fisheries in Destin, which attracts schools of fish and scores of boating anglers. The bridge pylons attract numerous Redfish and Speckled Trout which stay here most of the year. The bridge is a 10-minute ride away from the East Pass and offers excellent light tackle action.
- Hogtown Bayou. When you head east from the Mid-Bay Bridge, you’ll come across a network of grassy patches and flats with shallow water and a lot of fish. This is the Hogtown Bayou. This area fishes well for Speckled Trout and Reds throughout the year. The Hogtown Bayou is close to Santa Rosa Beach and anglers find it a great spot to wet their line. Kayak fishing is also quite popular, so if you want a good workout, come here and you won’t regret it.
- Choctawhatchee River. This is one of the best fisheries for Reds and Specks. It’s popular among local anglers, but you’ll also see travelers coming here to test their skills. You can catch Bull Reds and trophy Trout on any given day. The fish will stay close to the river mouth, but you should also check around rock piles. Just beware, as Alligators have been spotted here!
Choctawhatchee Bay Fishing Seasons
This fishery stays solid year-round. You can get a decent catch 365 days a year. But that doesn’t mean fishing is always the same whenever you come. In this section, we’ll let you know where the fish hide each season.
- Winter. Once the cold January front sets in, the fish move from open waters towards streams, creeks, and inlets where they can find shelter and warmer waters. Redfish and Trout head east, towards the flats near the Choctawhatchee River. Look for spots with structure and grass, where the fish can hide, and you can get your fill of fish.
- Spring. Come spring, you’ll start to notice a lot of Trout and Reds in the water. Once Trout start breeding, they’ll show up all over the bay. You’ll even be able to get some Gator Trout around the bridges and bayous. Reds will also be really hungry, so it shouldn’t take long before your cast ends with a big catch.
- Summer. As the summer heat takes over, most people head out to the Gulf of Mexico to catch Red Snapper and other sport fish. Let them go. The bay is still on fire! Redfish, Trout, and Black Drum swarm the flats, reefs, potholes, grassy patches, and bridges. If you want light tackle action at its best, head towards the east of the bay. But the Pass also boasts plenty of action!
- Fall: Even as the days start becoming colder, you’ll have a good chance of reeling in Reds, Specks. Drums, and Flounder. They won’t make their run towards cover, yet, and the Reds, especially are fattened up after feeding throughout the summer. On a productive day, you can be sure that you’ll go back home with a big, tasty dinner.
Choctawhatchee Bay Fishing Regulations
If you’re going on a charter with a saltwater guide, you won’t need to get a fishing license. Head out on your own, or cast a line from shore, however, and you’ll have to purchase a Florida saltwater permit. To find out more information, check out our detailed guide here.
However you cast a line, you’ll want to be aware of the legal size and bag limits. While most of the fish you can find in the Choctawhatchee Bay are free to catch year-round, you’ll have to abide by the rules. Check out the FWC website to get up-to-date with all the latest info. Of course, every local guide will know all the ins and outs!
Choctawhatchee Bay: Why Destin Is So Lucky
So there you have it. The Choctawhatchee Bay is the jewel in the Emerald Isle’s fishing crown. You’re almost always guaranteed a prized or delicious treat whenever you visit, with something on offer for first-timers and avid anglers alike! Start your trip in Destin and discover the Luckiest Sportfishing Village in the World. Just remember, it all starts on this rich bay.
Have you fished the Choctawhatchee Bay before? What did you catch and where? What are some of your favorite fishing spots here? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Stefan is a writer at FishingBooker, who especially loves fly fishing.