Every Day's a Rodeo: An Interview with Destin's Captain Mike Whitley
May 14, 2019 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

It’s October, and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Destin, Florida right about now, you know that means one thing only: it’s Destin Fishing Rodeo time.

A group of anglers posing with lots of Snapper and a King Mackerel they caught at the Destin Fishing Rodeo

Each autumn, the vibrant community of Destin fully transforms itself into a go-to source for fishing aficionados nationwide, with the now-infamous Destin Fishing Rodeo attracting more than 35,000 anglers a year.

It’s the event local charter captains live and fish for, so calling them busy at this time would clearly be an understatement. And coming from a city with the largest charter fleet in the whole of the Sunshine State, that says a lot.

Lucky for us, we visited Destin back in September, earning ourselves the pleasure of sitting down with Mike Whitley, Captain of Pescador III, for almost 2 full hours – the same amount of time I assume he now spends sleeping per week.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Captain Whitley having too much of a problem with that. Upon retiring from service after 11 years and a tour in Iraq, Mike wasted no time turning one of his childhood passions into a full-time occupation.

And even though he doesn’t get to do that much fishing himself anymore, he says that being a conduit for hundreds of first-time catches, family fishing excursions and lifetime memories now brings him just as much joy.

How long have you been in the fishing charter business?

I’ve had the boat for 9 years now, and have been running fishing trips for 6. I started fishing as a kid, right here in the Gulf, and have been hooked on it ever since.

Your boat, Pescador III, is such a beautiful vessel. What’s its capacity?

My boat can take up to 16 people. Now, naturally, not all of them may be able to fish at the same time all the time, but I always tell my customers “if you come on here, this is a fishing boat”. Everybody has to fish before we go back.

And yes, I’ve had people that didn’t want to fish. I had two ladies in particular last year, on two different trips, that didn’t even want to come. Their kids kind of strong-armed them into it. And then, once they started fishing, you couldn’t stop them. They just loved it so much they never put the rod down.

What type of fishing trips do you typically run?

We mainly do bottom fishing: going after Snappers and Groupers is most common, but we will also run Mackerel, Tuna, and Wahoo trips if the time is right. Bottom fishing is what most people look for in these waters, though.

Because of the fish count?

That’s part of the reason. But also, if you’re coming along with kids, or it’s a large group and they don’t really know what kind of fishing they want to do, most of the time I’ll recommend bottom fishing – unless the Mackerel’s biting really well. Trolling for Mackerel can be a bit boring for some people, especially if the fish just isn’t biting. You put, say, 4 lines in the water, and you wait.

Bottom fishing, on the other hand – even if they’re not all keepers, more people get to fish with a rod in their hand at the same time, and actually catch that fish. It may be baitfish, it may be some type of Snapper, Grouper, Triggerfish. Maybe its something you have to throw back, but at least they’re all catching fish and having fun. Bottom fish also seems to taste better to people, though we do have a lot of Mackerel lovers too.

Destin is also a great destination for trying various types of specialty fishing trips. For example, Cobia fishing is pretty popular in the area?

Cobia are a great fish to catch. They look like Sharks, and have really good meat. They’re big fish too, in excess of 100 lb. Those are what we do sight fishing for. Many towers that you see on the local charters – those tuna towers – lots of people here use it for Cobia sight fishing instead!

The theory behind Cobia fishing is that, in the spring, they will migrate through here, heading up to Mississippi where they’ll spawn. While here, they’ll stay right along the shore – most of the time – in shallow water. And they’re really fun to catch – mainly on Eel, which is like candy for them. So you’ll see guides running real slow around the beach, just looking. You wait until you see the fish swimming on the surface, and then you cast. People will even charge extra for that, as it’s specialty fishing. For locals, it’s one of the favorite fish to catch.

How does Destin stack up against other Florida hotspots? We’re about to head down to Key West for an offshore trip. Any tips?

Good thing about fishing down there is it really doesn’t take long before you get to prime waters, because the Gulf stream comes so close there. You can ride out for a few minutes and you’re already in prime waters. Same thing here – our waters get deeper so much quicker compared to other places in Florida. In some spots – like Panama City – water increases a foot in depth for every mile you go. Here, I can be in 200+ft of water about 20 miles out.

A smiling angler in shorts and sunglasses holding up a large Red Snapper caught on a fishing trip in Destin

We’ve had many people that book fishing trips via FishingBooker ask what happens if it rains. What’s the MO here?

Yes, we get asked that all the time too. I always tell people, you know, if it’s not rough, we’ll fish in the rain. Why not? The fish don’t care – they’re already wet! For the most part, unless there’s a serious pressure change, they don’t even know the difference. And if there’s a big pressure change with a big storm coming, sometimes the fish will even bite better before and during the storm. Of course, if there are heavy winds and rough weather, we just won’t go out. Safety comes first.

Speaking of outside effects on fishing, what are your thoughts on the impact of moon phases on fishing? Any truth there?

For most of our fish, we don’t see a huge impact of it. Sometimes you’ll see a bit of a pull, but nothing substantial. What we see more commonly in terms of the moon’s impact is usually limited to surface fish: your Mackerels, your Wahoos or Mahis. Around the full moon, as it lights up the water at night, they can see the bait more clearly, so they’ll eat more during the night. So when you go fishing in the morning, it is often harder to catch them as a result, because they’re already full! They’ve been eating all night, so they’ll probably start eating again later in the day. That’s the biggest change that we see. There might be some effect on the bottom fish as well, but I think that’s got more to do with the gravitational pull, simply causing the fish to bite funny.

Inquiries about captains’ catch policies are very frequent as well. Your thoughts on catch and release?

We do a lot of C&R. It does depend on the species, though. I don’t mind catch and release at all. If you’re not gonna eat it, if you don’t want to take the food home, then I feel it’s better to just release the fish. Kill what you want to eat, sure. For example, I’ve come back this one time, years ago, with almost 300 pounds of fish. We go to clean it all up, and the folks only wanted about a bag of fish. Which is fine, but I wish those things are communicated earlier, before I kill all this fish.

And there are certain fish that we have to release: your Red Snappers, Triggerfish, Groupers, Amberjacks, Marlin etc. And it’s part of the sport of fishing really, to just go out there and have fun. I’ve had people tell me “We don’t want keep any fish. We just want to come out and have a good time.”

A boy and a girl on a charter fishing boat holding up the Red Snapper they caught

Do the C&R regulations seem to be changing often?

Regulations are constantly changing in regards to which fish we can keep and which we can’t. Many fish that people want, for example, we now can’t keep, so we’re stuck in this eternal battle with the authorities on that issue.

Goliath Grouper have been on the C&R list for a long time now. Ever caught one?

There’s not really a lot of those around here anymore. A few, but not a lot. And yes, they’re also protected. I don’t know if you’ve seen that video recently, of a Goliath eating that Shark in one bite – and that was a 4-foot Shark! Could’ve easily been a person.

Seen it – that was incredible! What’s the biggest fish you ever caught yourself?

Other than Sharks, the biggest one was probably Yellowfin Tuna, about 85 lb. Not bad for a good, edible fish. I’ve also had Hammerheads, some as long as 10-12 feet.

Any of your favorite fishing trip stories you don’t mind sharing?

Sure, a couple of them didn’t even involve catching fish. We did a Tuna trip to the rigs a few years back, and on our way over we saw 3 humpback whales, which in itself is pretty wild for me, as I’ve never seen them before. And then the second whale swam almost right up to our boat, before diving under. Good thing I brought my camera! And then that turned out to be a remarkable fishing trip as well. We got to the rigs, and in about 3 hours, we’ve had 13 Yellowfin Tuna, and about 22 Blackfins. Probably had about 400-500 lb of fish caught in that 3-hour window. We even cut the trip short after that.

Another great story happened years ago, when these Amberjack regulations were a bit different. The Jacks were 28 inches to keep, now they’re 30. We had a short Amberjack that we caught and released one day – about 26-27 inches long. We threw it back in the water, and as we watched him swim off, a dolphin came up and grabbed him.

That’s not the best part though – another dolphin came up beside him, and so the first one slings it over – tosses this 27″ Amberjack to the other dolphin. He catches it, and then they just start playing pitch and catch with this fish, they keep tossing him back and forth. And this was well before things started going viral! You just never know what you’re going to come across in these waters.

That is amazing! How often do you get to go fishing yourself nowadays?

Yeah, we don’t get to actually fish as much anymore. In fact, very seldom do I myself get to fish these days. I am taking other people fishing, that’s my main job. I get my excitement from watching these kids, or ladies or guys catch fish for the first time, or their biggest fish ever. That’s my new way of getting pleasure from fishing, and it feels great.

One last question: You also offer military discounts?

That’s right. I was in the army for 11 years, on active duty. I served in Iraq and was in National Guard before that as well. Anybody former or active military – they all get a discount with me. If at some point you’ve served your country, and you’ve put your life on the line – I know what these guys have been through, so giving them a discount and taking them fishing with me – that’s the least I can do.

To find out more about Captain Whitley or to book a trip with Pescador III, check out his profile. Interested in the Destin Fishing Rodeo? head over to our dedicated tournament page. Got any questions for Captain Mike? Let us know in the comments below!

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