If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Destin come October, there’s probably one thing and one thing only on your mind. It’s time for the Destin Fishing Rodeo! Each fall, this vibrant community fully transforms itself into the go-to place for fishing aficionados nationwide.
It doesn’t matter if you love stalking the flats for Reds, targeting Cobia around reefs, or fighting Billfish offshore, because the Destin Fishing Rodeo has something for every type of angler. And you don’t need to be an expert to win a prize, either. The are plenty of divisions to choose from, so there’s something suitable for rookie anglers and experienced fishers alike.
The rodeo is a month-long affair packed with competitions, special events, and local activities, which means knowing where to start can be overwhelming. Below, we’ve covered everything a beginner needs to know. This includes when the rodeo takes place, the types of fish you can target, and, of course, the prizes on offer. Let’s dive in…
When is the Destin Fishing Rodeo?
The Destin Fishing Rodeo runs from October 1 to October 31 each year, so here’s plenty of time to explore it. It’s free and open to the public, so you can visit for one day, or stay for the entire run. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the key dates and events.
- October 1: The tournament begins! Get up early and compete for the First Fish of the Rodeo prize. You can weigh in your fish every day from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the official weigh-in spot behind AJ’s on the Destin Harbor Boardwalk.
- October 2: Make sure you keep your Saturdays free, as each Saturday in October you’ll be able to compete with other anglers for the biggest Shark of the day! Come chase Mako, Hammerhead, Thresher, Tiger, and Bull Shark.
- October 3: The Destin 5K Rodeo Run. If you’re not too keen on running, don’t worry, because you can walk the distance! The running route takes you through the historic lanes of Destin. There will be free refreshments and beer for participants, as well as a big party at AJ’s right after the award ceremony. The entrance fee costs $25 and registration opens at 7:00 a.m. at Clement Taylor Park. All proceeds go to local charities.
- October 16: Bruce Cheves Day. Bruce has been the rodeo weighmaster for years. His fishing tales are legendary among Destin folk – and all of Florida! Get your kids and come hear Bruce tell you a story to remember.
- October 18 – Rootin Tootin Rodeo Roundup. Kids aged 12 and under are welcome on the Okaloosa Island Pier for some fun pier fishing. Your little ones will get their own rods and gear to target local species such as Redfish, Flounder, Sheepshead, Black Drum, Snook, and more.
- October 31: Rodeo Halloween Party. Put on your scariest costume and join fellow anglers, judges, and captains at the largest Halloween party in Destin. It’s an excellent way to celebrate the end of the rodeo!
- November 1: Award ceremony at AJ’s. This is the time for anglers to get together, grab a drink, and talk to their fellow fishing enthusiasts. It’s the perfect ending to all the fishing action that takes place each October.
What can I target during the Destin Fishing Rodeo?
The Destin Fishing Rodeo boasts a whole host of categories, known as “divisions,” that cover a variety of species, techniques, fishing grounds, and skill levels. You can find the exhaustive list here. Additionally, we’ve highlighted some of our favorites below.
It’s possible to slightly overlook the fun of inshore fishing when the option to target tough-fighting Billfish is on the table. Take our word for it, though: inshore fishing in Destin is seriously exciting, especially if you’re new to the sport or want to get your kids involved. Experience calm waters, grassy flats, and tasty fish, all without venturing far from shore.
You can catch Redfish, Speckled Trout, Flounder, Spanish Mackerel, and Sheepshead. Their peak season is in full swing by the time the rodeo comes around, so fighting them is plenty of fun.
The Destin Fishing Rodeo isn’t all about competition, you know. If you’re just as excited about spending a day on the water as potentially hooking a trophy fish, then this is the perfect category for you. The Oddball Division was introduced to the rodeo in 2017 as a way to recognize all the other (potentially weird and wonderful) sea critters that anglers pull up while targeting their chosen fish!
This means that you can weigh in any legal fish that’s not in the rodeo books, and you might even get a prize for it. Anything from Trumpet Fish and African Pompano to Cubera Snapper are fair game, so long as you catch these fish legally.
If you want a taste of speed and strength, this division is for you! You’ll head at least 10 miles offshore, often further, to battle big predators. This is where you’ll find tough big game fish such as Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, and Mahi Mahi. Be ready to fight with Barracuda, Bonito, and Tripletail, too.
All of these fish are feisty and fight hard, which means you’ll need solid fishing skills to wear them out. This makes for an exciting time out on the water, but bear in mind that the ocean may be choppy. This can be a problem for new or less experienced anglers, so make sure to take the necessary precautions and bring along some good seasickness medication!
Deep Drop Division
Read to give your arms an intense workout? Opt for the Deep Drop Division! You’ll head to waters measuring at least 300 feet in depth to try and pull up a variety of bottom dwellers. You can catch Barrelfish, Tilefish, and a variety of Groupers including Snowy, Warsaw, and Yellowedge species.
These fishing trips can involve quite a bit of waiting around, but the pounds of flakey meat on offer if you hook something sure makes up for it. The fish live deep down on the seafloor, so there are no acrobatic displays when they bite, but don’t let this fool you into thinking they’re easy opponents. They tend to be large and in charge, so you’ll need to put in a lot of effort to bring them up.
For you serious anglers out there, the time has come to put all your experience and hard work to the test. Blue Marlin, White Marlin, Swordfish, and Sailfish are lurking in the deep waters, just waiting to put on a display. These fish are loved by anglers because, when hooked, they’ll taunt you with a display of acrobatics, speed, and strength. It can also take hours for them to submit, which makes for an exciting (if not exhausting) battle.
Billfish are subject to strict regulations throughout Florida and, because of this, we strongly encourage you to take part in the rodeo’s Catch and Release Division, where you can take a photo with your catch and then release it. Releasing your catch means you’ll help preserve these fish for generations of anglers to come.
What prizes can I win at the Destin Fishing Rodeo?
In the past, the Destin Fishing Rodeo’s prizes have run the gamut from your own lot in this fishing village to a 12-pack of beer, a windshield wiper, and a brand-new kitchen boasting a refrigerator, stove, and even kitchen sink! Now, it’s possible to win anything from Shimano-branded rods and reels to hefty cash prizes.
The rodeo’s awards are funded by a variety of sources, including local businesses, entry fees to the tournament, and merchandise sales. This means that the cash prizes can vary year by year, but the total value is usually estimated at $100,000. To give you an idea, some of the previous prizes that individual competing anglers have won include merchandise certificates, one-year pier passes, trophies, or hundreds (sometimes even thousands!) of dollars in cash.
Top Destin Fishing Rodeo Locations
The fishing in Destin is on fire in October, no matter where you go, but you’ll want to pick your location depending on what you want to catch. Here are some of our favorite spots:
- East Pass Jetties: Perfect for first time anglers who want to catch Redfish or Sheepshead. These jetties stand between the Gulf of Mexico and the Destin Bay. The constant movement of water in and out of the bay stirs up bait fish, attracting schools of game fish.
- Mid-Bay Bridge: Just a couple of minutes from East Pass, you’ll find a premier Redfish hotbed. If you want a shot at winning the rodeo’s Inshore Division, we suggest you come here! You’ll find Speckled Trout, Black Drum, Sheepshead, and some Flounder, too.
- Culvert, Conch, Barnacle, and other artificial reefs: There are hundreds of artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico where you’ll find strong numbers of King Mackerel, Amberjack, Mahi Mahi, Snapper, and Grouper. These fish hide around structure like sunken boats, tanks, ledges, and rocks.
- The Edge: The edge of the continental shelf lies just 20 miles off Destin’s coast. Here, the seafloor drops between 180–300 feet, which means the fishing reaches a whole new level. These waters are home to big pelagics and bottom dwellers alike, including King Mackerel, Mahi Mahi, Cobia, Grouper, Amberjack, Tilefish, and Blackfin Tuna. An odd Sailfish might show up every now and then, too!
- 100 Fathom Curve: About 40 miles from dry land, you’ll come across Destin’s real deep sea fishery. These waters are 600 feet deep and are teeming with Wahoo, Amberjack, Mahi, and Sailfish. If you’re looking to bag a potential Offshore Division winner, this is the place to come.
- DeSoto Canyon: If you’re eyeing the Billfish Division prize, head to DeSoto Canyon. This fishery is home to Blue and White Marlin, Sailfish, Tuna, Wahoo, and Swordfish. Located 60 miles from Destin’s shore, these waters produce one helluva big game bite. It’s well worth the trip!
How can I take part in the rodeo?
Registering for the Destin Fishing Rodeo is a pretty simple process. If you’re new to the tournament or angling in general, chances are you’ll want to hop aboard a local fishing charter. You’ll find plenty of captains offering tournament-specific trips when the rodeo takes place. Fishing with a for-hire charter is the easiest way to participate. You aren’t required to individually register or pay any fees, as these are covered in the cost of the trip.
There’s also the option to register your own private boat, kayak, or paddleboard. If you’d rather fish without a vessel, you can sign up to fish from the shoreline, surf, bridges, piers, or jetties. Finally, there are special tournaments such as the King Mackerel and Wahoo Jackpots that you can register for individually.
You can register online or print and send off a registration form here.
Anything else I need to know?
The rodeo’s weigh-ins are just as exciting as the actual fishing you’ll be doing! This is when you’ll find out if eligible for a prize. Weighmaster Bruce Cheves will measure your fish while telling you some of his famous fishing stories. Bruce has been an essential part of the rodeo for years. If there’s a person in Destin who has seen fish of all shapes and sizes, it’s him.
Weigh-ins take place from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. each day in Destin Harbor, behind AJ’s. Here’s what you need to know:
- You can only weigh two fish of each species per day.
- You and the boat captain need to be present together at the weigh-in and sign the official entry form. You’ll also be asked to verify that you caught the fish in line with the rodeo’s rules.
- Before you weigh your fish, you need to state the division you’re competing in.
- You can only compete in the division that the boat you’re fishing from is registered in. For example, if your charter boat is registered for the Billfish Division and you happen to catch an Amberjack, it won’t count.
Do I need a fishing license?
If you’re fishing alongside a local charter captain on a licensed boat, you won’t need to purchase a fishing license. If you’re fishing alone, check out our complete guide to getting a Florida fishing license.
Destin Fishing Rodeo: Come Try Your Luck!
The Destin Fishing Rodeo is a big reason why this city has a reputation for being so lucky. Not only are there excellent prizes to be won, but casting a line here feels like you’ve hit the jackpot in itself! Whether you’re just discovering the magic of competitive angling or already have shelves lined with trophies, the Destin Fishing Rodeo has something to offer. Come discover it for yourself!
Have you ever taken part in the Destin Fishing Rodeo? Have you won any prizes? Let us know in the comments below. We love hearing from you!
Katie is a Philosophy graduate from the UK, and now she spends her time asking (and answering!) the important questions, such as: What, exactly, are the best ways to bait a hook for Redfish? She first cast a line in Florida as a teenager, and it took her a while to circle back to angling as a hobby, but now she’s hooked. Her personal fishing highlight? Reeling in a rare Golden Trevally while cruising the deep waters off the United Arab Emirates!