If you’re an angler looking for some fun, productive time on the water, then fall is definitely the time of year to be in Panama City Beach. As the water temperature cools, predator fish begin to gorge on the massive schools of baitfish preparing to migrate to warmer waters — the so-called “mullet run” — and that triggers some exciting fishing action. Whether you prefer to cast a line inshore, around the inlets or along the beaches, there will be plenty of fish to catch.
Flounder are one of the most anticipated migrations of the fall as they make their way out into the Gulf of Mexico. The exact timing of this movement varies from year to year depending on conditions, but it generally takes place sometime between late September and early November.
As the flounder transition from the bay to the Gulf, they must travel through the various inlets, and these choke points are where you’ll find the highest concentrations of fish. If you happen to catch the run at its peak, then be prepared to catch upwards of 100 fish. (Recreational anglers can’t harvest that many fish, but they are just as much fun to catch and release as they are to catch and throw in the cooler.) By paying attention to what’s happening, you can follow the flow of fish until they reach the Gulf and begin to congregate around natural and artificial reefs.
The elusive tarpon also swims our waters during the fall season. Instead of cruising down the beach as they do in the spring, silver kings move into the bays during fall and begin feeding on large schools of red minnows. You can often see them rolling the surface in depths around 30 feet, especially around thick bait pods. It’s rare to catch them near the surface, so I opt for heavy jig heads with soft plastic bodies fished near the bottom. The vast majority of strikes will occur when you slowly raise the lure off the bottom and then allow it to flutter back down. Tarpon almost never strike when bait is twitched or displays any type of erratic action. Lots of big Spanish mackerel also will stay close to the bait balls, so it’s a good idea to always have a small spoon with a light piece of leader wire at the ready. These fish usually jump out of the water when feeding on the surface, so locating them is fairly easy. I don’t usually go around looking for them, but if I run across a school of feeding fish, I usually stop and make a few casts. Bigger fish are often hanging out below, waiting for leftovers from the feeding frenzy to sink down toward them. Big bull redfish, cobia, kingfish and other species are likely to be lurking near spots where other fish are feeding in open water.
In the shallows, speckled trout will begin to transition from shallow grass and sand flats toward the deeper bayous and creeks where they will spend most of the winter. This is a great time to target trout because they tend to be out and moving during the early fall and concentrated in small areas in late fall. The end of the fall season is the best time to target the bigger fish since the first few cold fronts will push them deep into the bayous. Small suspending twitch baits consistently outperform most other lures when it comes to landing the big trout.
Panama City Beach has a dependable year-round redfish bite, but fall is fantastic after the fish school up in big numbers and start chasing bait balls around the bay. I usually rely on birds and other surface-feeding fish to locate them and then use my bottom machine to pinpoint their exact location. Once the fish are found, you can use medium to heavy jigs that get down to them quickly. These are generally big, over-slot fish that you can’t keep but they’re a blast to catch.
Fall is also when you begin to see big bull redfish cruising down shallow flats in search of mullet, crabs, shrimp or pretty much anything else they can fit into their mouth. Remember — big redfish cannot be harvested, so minimize their time out of the water and make sure you release them in a safe and healthy manner.
Good luck and good fishing!